Creativity in Classrooms: a Lesson from 3M, Google, and Atlassian

The WEF reports that complex problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity are the top three skills that employers seek as they face a future whose contours are unclear.

Interestingly, these are not skills that can be structured in the form of a list of topics and taught in classrooms in conventional ways. After all, each of these are traits of the mind — ways of seeing and interpreting the world, identifying problems, mining insights, analysing and synthesising, breaking established patterns, and constructing new possibilities. They also cannot be corralled as “subjects” with a fixed term within which one could gain expertise. How do we then approach these in our classrooms?

Practices from some innovative companies point to a possible way.

  • 3M, the American conglomerate, “encourages employees to set aside a portion of their work time to proactively cultivate and pursue innovative ideas that excite them.”

  • Lazlo Bock, former Senior Vice-President of People Operations at Google, writes in “Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead” of Google’s “20 percent time” — an idea that gives employees time to explore and pursue projects that interest them. By its very intent, it is not a structured policy but a powerful signal about what is valued.

  • Attlassian, the Australian software company, has multiple initiatives that support employees to work on projects of interest and, possibilly innovate.

These companies understand that thinking and creativity begin with autonomy. They understand that, while structure is essential for discipline, it is rewarding to give people space to experiment, fail, and challenge received wisdom. Apart from products, and service improvements that have yielded huge business benefits for these corporations, one of the results has been a consistent invigoration of creativity.

There is a lesson here for our classrooms.

We could dedicate twenty percent of the time for each Course (or subject) for Learners to pursue projects of interest within that field of study. This can be done in High Schools and Colleges. The explicitly stated intent would be to encourage Learners to cultivate independent thinking, thinking that is critical and analytical, which nourishes their creativity instead of stifling it.

Rosamund and Benjamin Zander write in “The Art of Possibility”“Michelangelo is often quoted as having said that inside every block of stone or marble dwells a beautiful statue; one need only remove the excess material to reveal the work of art within.” The “twenty percent time” must be supervised by teachers who see that their “job [as teachers] is to remove the extraneous debris that stands between” Learners and their “expression in the world.” Such teachers could help Learners by questioning, with gentle nudges to explore directions, by removing impediments that Learners feel overwhelmed by, by welcoming mistakes, by providing timely information, and by awakening self-belief.

Our current models of education, as Ken Robinson explains in “The Element” put “relentless pressure….on students to conform.” This kills creativity and discourages independent thinking. While it is unlikely that the transformations needed in education will be achieved by a single action, the "twenty percent” idea, introduced as a component in the existing curricula may help. Its track record certainly is impressive.

Lessons for classrooms from Scrum

It is clear that education the world over is in a state of crisis. Jack Ma summed it up aptly at the World Economic Forum meet recently — “If we do not change the way we teach, thirty years later we will be in trouble….”

As individuals, most of us might not be able to re-form education in large-scale. However, there are steps we can take in our classrooms — small steps that make huge differences..

The Scrum approach to software development has, like its Agile kin, some distinguishing features that offer lessons we can learn for use in our classrooms.

1) Scrum Teams execute projects in terms of Sprints. A Sprint is a fixed period of time (usually between one to four weeks) at the end of which, the Team delivers outcomes of value to the customer. A project is executed with a number of Sprints with the customer seeing outcomes at the end of each sprint rather than as a single marathon where the customer sees outcomes (of value) later in the lifecycle and infrequently.

Can we create Lesson Plans such that Learners see the Term (or Semester) as a series of Learning Sprints? Can we group Learners into small Teams (say 3 to 4 in a Team)? Can the Learners be encouraged to create an artifact that demonstrates their learnings for each Learning Sprint (building up on all the earlier Sprints)? Artifacts could be research findings, presentations, prototypes, papers, code, models — anything tangible that is appropriate for the knowledge-area and which, demonstrates the Learners’ achievement of the Learning Outcomes for the period.

By taking this step —

  • we encourage Learners to see themselves as active, creative, participants in the venture — rather than as passive sponges who absorb and release.

  • we encourage Learners to see Learning as a project that aims to yield tangible outcomes of value for themselves and others — rather than as a journey of exams where the grades, mistakenly, are seen as outcomes.

  • we encourage Learners to nurture their interests and invoke passion. The value of this is something that great thinkers have recognised across history. In one of the essays that form the “Moralia” (written around 100 A. D), Plutarch makes this timeless point that “the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth.”

2) One of the rituals that Scrum Teams adhere to is the “Daily Scrum”. This is a meeting that all Team members participate in. The Scrum Master, a member of the Scrum Team whose job, among other things, is to remove impediments that the Team faces, anchors this meeting. During the meeting, each Team member answers the following questions —

— What did you do yesterday?

— What do you plan to do today?

— Are there any impediments you are facing?

The primary objective of this daily meeting is not to get a status update on the project. Rather, it is to make commitments, communicate a desire to honour them, and highlight obstacles.

Can we have Learners do a Weekly meeting of this kind with their Teams? Each Learner will answer the following —

— What did you learn this week?

— What do you plan to learn next week?

— Is there anything that is hampering your learning?

By instilling this ritual —

  • we encourage Learners to reflect on what they have really learnt

  • we identify challenges that Learners are facing as early as possible and, this gives us more time to help with remedial action

  • we create opportunities for Learners to help each other. If a Learner in the Team is, for example, having difficulties in a Topic and communicates this, others in the Team who have grasped the Topic could help. Peer-learning, as research from the Harvard Professor Eric Mazur demonstrates, is a powerful mode of learning — and, often, more effective than the conventional instructor-led style.

3) Individuals in Scrum Teams enjoy a great deal of autonomy. There are no roles or designations that communicate hierarchy, seniority, or power. Indeed, the ways of working demand that each member of the Team is not “assigned” tasks but voluntarily picks up work from a list. Such an environment makes for communication that is uninhibited and free of fear. There is no “Boss” — just a Team of people united in pursuit with each member achieving a state of being where individual interests and interdependence fuse.

In classrooms, we would do well to create environments where the “Teacher” makes active efforts to shed the halo. The Teacher, then, is seen by the Learner not as a “exalted, powerful, controlling being on a high pedestal” but as a fellow-Learner (someone who has been probably been learning longer than the student).

By doing this —

  • we create classrooms where Learners are less likely to have trepidation in asking questions, expressing ignorance, and making mistakes. These three factors, fear in asking questions, expressing ignorance, and making mistakes, boil down to a fear of failure and this, as the Kelley brothers observe in “Creative Confidence”, is “the single biggest obstacle people face to creative success.”

  • we create classrooms the foster the “growth mindset” which is, the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck tells us (in “Mindset”), “the belief that everyone can change and grow thorough application and experience”. This mindset expresses itself as “the passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially)” when things are not going well. This mindset is what separates the truly great from others.

In training programs and workshops i have conducted over the the past few years, i have experimented with these ideas. Learners tell me that this has created memorable learning experiences for them — they certainly have for me.

If you have experimented with ways to nourish Learners, i would be happy to learn from you.

Peter Drucker's prescience -- "managing" others and ourselves

In a 1992 HBR essay, Peter Drucker observed that we are in an age of profound transformation where “knowledge is the primary resource for individuals and for the economy overall.” Conventional factors of wealth and production (Land, Labour and Capital), will not vanish but “become secondary.” Ever the humble scholar, Peter was conscious that it would be impossible to accurately predict what kind of a society will emerge from this period of transformation but he was confident that the changes we would do well to make were already evident.

The two primary changes Peter saw are about the ways we “manage” others and ourselves.

“Managing” others

In “Management Challenges for the 21st Century”, published just before the dawn of this century, Peter points out that “"employees" have to be managed as "partners"--and it is the definition of a partnership that all partners are equal.“  In my work consulting, training, and coaching, i find this is probably the biggest and hardest challenge that individuals and organisations are wrestling with. Even in Information Technology Teams that proclaim to anchor themselves to the Agile way in projects, i find that our habits of management have yet to change. It is indeed interesting to see Scrum Teams where “tasks are allocated” and Project “Managers” operate with a “command-and-control” approach that is far removed from the “partnership” spirit that is at the heart of the Agile thinking — a thinking that Peter subscribed to with his view that workers (seen as partners) “cannot be ordered” .

Summarising research and insights from the trenches of some of the most innovative organizations in “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, Daniel Pink identified “autonomy” as the most important of three factors that are key to motivation. Autonomy is not, as Daniel explains,, “the rugged, go-it-alone, rely-on-nobody individualism of the American cowboy. It means acting with choice — which means we can be both autonomous and happily interdependent with others.” The prophetic Peter foresaw that the emerging era is one where people will seek greater autonomy and prefer “to be led, not managed.” This calls for a significant shift in the approach to management — something we are struggling with.

One of the consequences of not fundamentally changing our approach to working with people is increased workplace disengagement. Gallup’s 2017 State of the Global Workplace report presents the eye-popping conclusion that 85% of employees are disengaged. This new global norm translates to, among other things, direct productivity losses and fragile loyalty. The Forbes-Silk Road 2018 Report articulates employee engagement’s central role for firms to succeed in “the Age of Digital Disruption”. About two-thirds of CFOs surveyed indicating that their firms are having a hard time retaining the employees they want. “Eight out of 10 high-turnover firms say that more than a quarter of their company’s labor costs go to unwanted turnover, with three out of 10 saying that employee churn eats up more than half of total labor costs.” This excludes the cost of productivity losses and losses owing to impact on customer-experience. Organisations with low employee-turnover report fair pay, environments that empower, and training opportunities on the job as factors that help retain and engage their people. While remuneration is a factor, creating “environments that empower” (an idea right out of Peter Drucker’s mind) is key. It is imperative that we change the way we “manage” others.

“Managing” ourselves

Peter was alive to the fact that, more often than not, organizations are slow to change because when faced with turbulent change, individuals “act with yesterday’s logic.” In 2005, as the Knowledge Revolution was sweeping around the world, he called on each of us to embrace a new personal ethos — “to learn to manage ourselves….learn to develop ourselves….to place ourselves where we can make the greatest contribution.” In other words, each of us would do well to actively create conditions for our growth by continuously learning, and seeking fulfilling ponds that give us room to put our capabilities to meaningful use. The wise Peter’s powerful advice is that each of us must “think and behave like a chief executive officer” of our lives. Daniel Pink’s remark is a hat tip to Peter — “This era doesn't call for better management. It calls for a renaissance of self-direction.” Each of us is not a pawn but a player with potential to actively change ourselves and, consequently, the fate of the game.

A significant part of this new ethos is acting on the reality that Peter discerned a long time ago. Any organization, to be genuinely successful, “has to be an organization of equals, of colleagues and associates” without “any inherent superiority or inferiority” and a culture of relationships that is the opposite of “boss and subordinate.”

This idea of taking sole responsibility for our careers (indeed, our lives) while genuinely working for the good of the collective is Peter Drucker’s message for our times. The state of the world today provides ample evidence that we would do well to act on this wisdom.

The message from Davos 2019

While some may agree with Nicholas Taleb that Davos “is….the International Association of Name Droppers”, it is indisputable that we heard a clarion call from the young this year at the WEF.

The six millennial co-Chairs tried to steer the world’s leaders to place well-being at the heart of things rather than politic. This is timely — or, perhaps, we have not been listening to these voices for a long time. The IMF tells us that income inequality has grown over the past 30 years in 53 percent of countries with, worryingly, “the advanced economies” experiencing “a sizeable increase". The WEF’s Global Risks Report 2019 wastes no time in asking right at the start of the document — “Is the world sleepwalking into a crisis?” and warns that while “risks are intensifying,” “the collective will to tackle them appears to be lacking. Instead, divisions are hardening”. 

The young co-Chairs, in arresting talks, communicated to the world that our troubles are owing less to lack of solutions and more to the reality that we lack the intent and will to take healthy actions.

Mohammed Hassan Mohamud, the displaced Somalian, wondered with sadness that “we talk about how we can be ethical with robots” and “want to solve death” but have not figured out how to ease human suffering. Juan David Aristizabal from Colombia pleaded with the world to recognise that we have “a learning crisis” — that “70 million young people are unemployed in the whole world” because they “are not learning what they need to learn.” Julia Luscombe, from the USA, pointed out that “what we are seeing now” is “the deterioration and dissolution of the institutions and ideals” that are needed to address the challenges humanity faces. Noura Berrouba from Sweden askedhow is it that we’ve created a system where it so easy to make the wrong decisions and so difficult to make the right ones” — and went on to boldly tell world leaders “step up….or step aside.”

What is inspiring about these young people is that not one of them is an armchair commentator. Each of them is engaged in active initiatives to change the world around them. By their actions, for more than by their eloquence, they tell us that however hopeless things seem, each of us can make a difference. These young people have clearly comprehended Stephen Batchelor’s message to humanity in “The Faith to Doubt”

“We are responsible not merely for ourselves but for all that lives….”

Are we listening and acting?

On rising incivility

The Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year 2018, selected “to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year”, is Toxic.

 It seems to me that the word “incivility” is a close competitor. A quick scan of Social Media conversations will provide ample evidence to back my view. Indeed, dialogues on every conceivable topic, this past year, seem to have descended to brawls of crude verbal abuse. It is hard to dispute the Georgetown Academic, Christine Porath’s, observation, in “Mastering Civility”, that “by all accounts incivility has….gotten worse”.

This does not bode well.

As work-outcomes become more and more results of collaboration, incivility has an economic cost. A joint research initiated by Thunderbird Professor Christine Pearson and Christine Porath to determine early indicators of workplace homicide turned up the revealing fact that stress resulting from incivility costs US companies about USD 300 billion a year — yes, you read that figure right — USD 300 billion! In their book chronicling this research, “The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It”, they hope that readers draw one vital learning for themselves and for their organizations — “There are costs for bad behaviour.”

There is, of course, the cost paid by people. The Stanford Professor, Robert Sutton, based on studies of incivility and rudeness, makes the point that they “undermine a victim’s mental and physical health for days or weeks” with abusers wrecking “their target’s physical and mental health.”

Incivility is not really the preserve of “others”. The British Psychological Society’s essay of conclusions drawing from various research studies points to negative traits that each of us are likely to have. Most of us could be churlish.. Add to this the findings of research on trolling that indicates that most of us succumb to “herding behaviour” — in other words, social and psychological environmental factors are such that each of us is inclined to misbehave. The bare fact of the matter is that each of us has the potential to be nasty. Each of us is also likely to mirror what goes on around us — the nastier things get, the nastier we are likely to be.

As the untrammelled freedom offered by the Net amplifies the spread of incivility, it is important for each of us to be on guard. Each of us could, under provocation, stoop and spread the contagion. However, it is also a fact that our brain is plastic. There is ample evidence that we are capable of “rising above” some of our base tendencies. Indeed, one of the central messages of Stanford Neuroscience Professor Robert Sapolsky’s book, “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst", is that human beings can change — society can change. If we seek a world that is pleasant to live in, we would do well to not “pay it forward” when it comes to incivility.

At its core, civility is more than good manners or behavioural etiquette. It is about communicating and behaving in ways that demonstrate empathy, and respect for others. As the world gets more complicated — weaved together owing to various factors such as Technology and Globalization but torn apart owing to Inequities and Culture — we would do well to acknowledge that people see with multiple lenses and, therefore, world-views will collide. The ability to include others in the journey as companions (rather than see them as nuisances) is a vital trait for each of us to cultivate. Christine Porath sums it memorably in “Mastering Civility”.

“In the end it’s relationships that truly matter, and civility is the foundation of relationships….Whatever your age or circumstance, you can master civility. So what are you doing today to connect with others? What kind of legacy are you leaving? Are you lifting people up or holding them down?

In each moment we get to choose who we want to be.

Who do you want to be?”