|Santa Fe Leadership Center
Monthly NewsletterApril 2012
"Every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer. We have worked hard, but we've hit the wall. We have no idea what to do next." Jonah Lehrer, Imagine
Everyone gets stuck now and again. We've all been there - in a seemingly hopeless situation without a solution in sight. But cheer up, it could mean you are on the verge of a creative breakthrough! This month the SFLC Newsletter proposes that Creativity, Curiosity, and Collaboration are the surefire antidotes for seemingly unsolvable dilemmas and complex challenges. These "twenty-first century skills" are not just for our students to develop, but for all of us in leadership positions to hone. And while these skills can help us solve problems big and small, they also enable us to work, teach, lead, and live more effectively, fully, and joyfully.
Fostering a culture of creativity, curiosity and collaboration in a school is a tall order. For the majority of schools today, saddled with expectations of standardized test scores and high school/college admissions - not to mention general parental anxiety - holding up these three skills as not just valuable but essential is a challenge unto itself.
There are, however, specific actions you can take to move your community closer to creativity, curiosity and collaboration, and we offer three articles - one on each of the topics. You'll notice, however, the articles contain many overlapping ideas and references. This redundancy is intentional because these three skills converge and compliment one another; they rarely stand alone. Guest writer Jonathan Martin, Head of School at St. Gregory College Preparatory School in Tucson, AZ, provides a stimulating piece on the current discussion and debate around creativity, groupthink, social networking and connectedness. (Take note of the beautiful accompanying photographs that can be attributed to the St. Gregory's photography students of Shannon Smith). Gary Gruber proposes an ongoing conversation about curiosity in his article, and I hope you will partake in the dialogue and let us know what you are curious about. Finally, I piggyback on Jonathan's article and explore collaboration in greater detail and in light of the latest Jonah Lehrer book, Imagine.
And if you are a school leader excited to foster innovation in your school community and want to engage in more conversations with like-minded colleagues around creativity, collaboration, curiosity - not to mention improv, pizza-making, hybrid thinking, design thinking, risk taking and serious play - join us this summer at Hillbrook School in Los Gatos, CA for Innovative Leadership.
In the meantime, create, collaborate and be curious all month long!
Join us on Facebook
And Linked In
And. . .
The 2012 Leadership
Leadership Unplugged: The Inner Work of School Leaders, April 22-25, 2012, Santa Fe, NM
July 15-19, 2012Hillbrook School, Los Gatos, CA,
Registration coming soon for:
October: The Art and Experience of Leadership, American School in London, October 7-10, 2012.
The Art and Experience of Leadership, Santa Fe, November 11-14.
Visit the Santa Fe Leadership Center Website for more information or contact Carla Silver with any questions.
Consultant and Author
Head Emeritus, Georgetown Day School, Executive Director, Washington Ballet
Head of School, Beauvoir
Former Executive Director of NAES
Head of School, Menlo School
President, United World College-USA
Consultant, Philip Sedgwick Deely and Associates &
Interim Head, The Roeper School
Senior Development Consultant
IT Director, Catlin Gabel School
Director, American School of Warsaw
Head of School, American School of London
Partner, Lake Flato Architects
Head of School, Hillbrook School
Council for Spiritual and Ethical Education (CSEE)
Jonathan Martin is the Head of School at St. Gregory College Preparatory School in Tucson, AZ. He is a also a prolific blogger. Read more by Jonathan at http://21k12blog.net/. All of the photographs in this article come from the work of Shannon Smith's photography students at St. Gregory's.
Uh,oh, I thought at first, and then "oh-no: Jonah Lehrer isn't joining the dark side, is he?" The title of the New Yorker piece previewing his forthcoming book Imagine read "Groupthink: the brainstorming myth." Would he be yet another horseman of the Creativity and Innovation backlash, arguing to their readers (many of whom, after all, found their writing online, via Social media, or shared with them via some collegial network) that "groupthink" is the enemy and that original thinking and breakthrough creativity is being lost in the crowd and drowned by the information flood inundating us.
William Deresiewicz makes the strongest claim of those I declare to be on the "dark-side" of the creativity force in his much circulated essay for the American Scholar, "Solitude and Leadership": "Here's the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now - older people as well as younger people - you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people's thoughts."
More recently, Susan Cain, whose recent book Quiet and TED-talk on Introverts are all the rage, laid it out on the front page of the Times' Sunday Review: "Artists work best alone .... I'm going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone... Not on a committee. Not on a team."
Fortunately within about a dozen paragraphs of Lehrer's New Yorker its true thesis emerges: "Human creativity has increasingly become a group process. Many of us can work much better creatively when teamed up," he wrote, noting that the trend was particularly apparent in science labs. The essay's title is a misleading misdirection: despite a few flaws in traditionally constructed brainstorming, creativity is best advanced when we effectively connect and collaborate.
Disregard the dark side, because the evidence is increasingly and abundantly clear: creativity may spurt into consciousness when the churning currents of our brain-stream are in a momentary calm spot, perhaps when the topography temporarily flattens and waters slow or find respite from the rush behind a rock or tree, but the significance of that spurt will be richest when our momentarily still waters have come from many tributaries rushing into one another with great tumbling, frothing, and intermingling.
We live in a golden age of thinking about thinking, and in particular, thinking about creative thinking, and we should all be grateful for this wave of new understanding, because there is nothing - nothing - more critical for our global future and for the future success of our students and ourselves, than that we enhance creative powers.
Reflecting upon my reading, four elements emerge as most valuable to the project of helping ourselves, our colleagues, and our students become more creative.
Our own consciousnesses come first: unless we genuinely seek to understand better and be open to learning - from experience, from others, from failure - we will always find our creativity sharply restrained. Carol Dweck's book, Mindset, sets the stage for a creative life better than any other I know. The fixed mindset is an insidious plague; it sneaks up the back of our spine and calcifies if we don't actively exercise its opposite: the growth mindset - the simple but profound notion that whatever it is we are attending to, there is more we can learn.
Dan Pink in Drive calls this phenomenon Mastering, but it is entirely the same concept as Dweck's Mindset (and Pink draws explicitly upon Dweck in the chapter). Whatever our quest might be, our progress will be greatest if we deepen our self-image of ourselves as ever on the journey, always striving and never arriving.
Shannon Smith, our brilliant photography teacher at St. Gregory whose students rack up creativity awards annually, recognizes this when reflecting upon what elicits creativity among her protégées: "The best part of teaching is seeing the excitement on a student's face when they complete an image that THEY know they worked hard on, put their heart into, and realize the beauty they have just created."
My own period of greatest creativity-- exponentially greater than any before it-- emerged immediately following my reading of Dweck's Mindset. Any educator seeking to stimulate greater creativity could do no better than to start with a study group centered on this book and these ideas.
Draw upon the power of the Network: Connect and Collaborate:The most creative times and places have always been at the crossroads, in the interstices, and along the network. Steven Johnson's astoundingly entertaining and illuminating book, Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation, explains how as cities grow geometrically, creativity in those cities grows exponentially, because of the rising density of connectivity among residents, much as our brainpower expands as our synaptic linkages multiply . Now, as Johnson explains, it is no longer essential to live in a big or busy city because social media is providing the kind of exchange of ideas virtually that until recently was only possible physically.
Famous creative ad-man George Lois, perhaps the model for Mad Man Don Draper, makes these suggestions for creative inspiration: Go to a Museum; Listen, Listen, Listen; and Pay Att
ention to the Zeitgeist: "When it comes to pulling concepts out of thin air, "It's about understanding what the hell's going on around you," says Lois, who spends an hour each morning poring through the New York Times.
Today the opportunities for tapping into the zeitgeist have never been greater. John Seely Brown, the genius guru of Xerox PARC, captures and conveys this truth in a book everyone involved in education should read, A New Culture of Learning. As he writes, "In a community, people learn in order to belong, but in a collective, people belong in order to learn... Thanks to digital media, the range of available collectives is almost limitless. They constitute an ocean of learning." These collectives constitute also an ocean of creativity.
The high water mark of Lehrer's New Yorker essay centers on the significance of networked connectivity for successful Broadway musicals.
The best Broadway shows were produced by networks with an intermediate level of social intimacy. A show produced by a team [working] within this range was three times more likely to be a commercial success than a musical produced by a team with a score below 1.4 or above 3.2. It was also three times more likely to be lauded by the critics.
In other words, it was essential to find the right balance among the musical composers: close enough connectivity that the collaboration is comfortable, without being so close that the collaborators are starved for new and fresh ideas.
Here at St. Gregory we are determined to use the best tool available for our students to plug into the networks they need to strengthen their connectivity and stimulate their creativity. As Ms. Smith explains about her teaching, "We look at artists each day in class, be it photographers, writers, graffiti artists, poets, sculptors, etc.. With the help of social media, we are more in touch with the art world than ever before, and I've witnessed this inspiration set forth ideas in my students that they successfully translate into their photographic work."
Third on our list: Action and Iteration, Effort and Perseverance, and Practical Steps. It is not always a matter of 10,000 hours, but creativity requires risk-taking and the confidence and willingness to put it out there, and then, after getting feedback, put it out there again. How often do we ask ourselves, our colleagues, and our students to take the risk of sharing, of publishing, of putting work on display for critique, and then ask them to do it again the next day, and the next day after that? One of our greatest mistakes in the popularization of the concept of creativity is that it is a single burst of imagination, rather than recognizing and remembering it is a practice, a discipline, and a perseverance.
There is a practical dimension to this as well. Sure, there are occasions of creative inspiration finding extremely easy pathways from conception to demonstration, but so often, creativity demands the pragmatism of execution-- and our schools rarely provide enough opportunities or training in the practical arts. Colleges are awakening to this limitation-- or at least a few are, according to the Chronicle Review, in another must-read article, "Tools for Living." The article's thesis might be best found in this quote from a U.Mass Professor, Robert Forrant, "To somehow think that you can dream something up without really understanding what it takes to make it flies in the face of reality."
The implications for our schools are enormous. To enhance our learning spaces as creative environments, we must do more to empower our students to do more.
Finally, respite and repose are also essential for creativity toflourish. Our breakthoughs often arise in the in-between moments, in the down-time or the out-of-mind and out-of-body experiences. Too often in our schools, we're too hectic keeping up with our schedules and too determined to accomplish too much in an hour, a day, or a week-and our creativity necessarily suffers. What to do? Block scheduling is a must, as are more breaks between class and even inside of class-time. Natural environments matter too: combating what Richard Louv describes as Nature Deficit Disorder is not only important in order to reduce depression and obesity: it is essential if we are to revive and uplift the creative spirit. Schedule for yourself and your students a daily walk - and as healthy as it is to be social, ensure some of the time the walk is solitary or in quiet. Those thinkers on the dark side: they are partially correct. We do need unplugging, solitude, quiet, but only when it comes in between stimulating rounds of growth, networking, collaboration, and action.
Destination Innovation - Summer 2012
Design Thinking, Hybrid Thinking and Thinking Outside of the Pizza Box
July 15-19, Hillbrook School, Los Gatos, CA
Join the Santa Fe Leadership Center and Hillbrook School for an exploration of innovation in school leadership. This highly interactive seminar is designed for school leaders who want to delve deeper into the concept of innovation, who want to increase their capacity to bring innovative practices to their schools, and who want to foster a culture of innovation and creativity in their communities.
As a school leader, are you prepared to meet the changing needs of your school and your students? What does it mean to be innovative? What conditions must exist to foster a culture of innovation your school community?
Guest speakers include:
Chuck Hammers, Pizza My Heart
Richard Kassissieh, Catlin Gabel School
Patricia Ryan Madson, Stanford University
Don Orth, Hillbrook School
Tesha Poe, Hillbrook School
ENROLLMENT LIMITED TO 40 SCHOOL LEADERS.
by Gary Gruber, SFLC Director
I accepted the invitation to write something about curiosity and in so doing I wondered about what it is that makes us curious. When we see or hear something about which we want to know more, what is it that propels us to explore in more depth and detail toward a greater level of understanding? There are those who spend their entire lives researching one particular subject or topic, perhaps most frequently in the field of science, perhaps because science is a systematic way of knowing.
When one of my sons was very young he would spend hours watching ants outdoors, had the classic indoor ant farm, watched all kinds of insects and while he did not become an entomologist, he did major in biology and environmental science, became a teacher and one of his current avocations is collecting a particular species of moths. Why? What drove his curiosity all these years to want to know more, to explore and discover what it all means in the larger ecosystem? Perhaps it's seeing the connections, how one thing is related to another and that to yet another and so on. And then one day, we realize that we are all species of life are connected on this same fragile planet. And what are we to make of that? It's a curious thing, this inter-connectedness.
Those who know me well, know that I watch the sun rise most mornings and while it sparks some curiosity about the solar system, and other galaxies, I usually just end up in a state of awesome appreciation for the creation of yet another day. I watch with fascination the sun's apparent seasonal movement along the horizon from solstice to equinox and back again, as predictable and reliable as anything I know. It's comforting and quieting to be able to participate in something so constant and feel like I am even a part of this most amazing creation. I am sufficiently curious to see how I can celebrate each season with joyful activities in order to absorb more of nature's offerings.
I've always been curious about whether animals have thoughts and while I am convinced they do, I have not been sufficiently curious to explore the subject in depth. I just watch them expressing themselves in various ways and I am not sure about how really smart they are; however, it seems they can figure out a lot of things on their own without much or any human intervention. I am an inveterate watcher of both wild and domestic animals. So, I concluded they must go through some process of trial and error or sizing up a situation and figuring out how to overcome some obstacle if it's in their way of getting what they want. Paul Corey wrote a book some years ago, still in print, called Do Cats Think? The book was mostly about the many cats he had and some of the stories are funny but if cats do think, then why not other animals too? My donkeys think mostly about eating it seems. And there are the behavior codes of survival passed from one generation to another in many species.
As for encouraging curiosity in children, it's easy to put them in many different places and situations and give them numerous opportunities to explore the world around them whether in nature, through travel, in reading, and most of all, by asking them questions and encouraging them to ask questions of their own. Here are some examples of questions from children. Why is the sky blue? Why do people have to die? Where do they go when they die? Why are people mean? Why do parents have to get divorced? Who invented time and how do we know it's right? Why do I have to go to school? Why is math boring? Why is ocean water salty? Why is water wet? Why is our flag red, white and blue? How does the moon follow us at night when we travel? Why are there dimples on a golf ball? What is a light year and how long is it? What is infinity? What is the smallest animal in the world? Where does blood come from? A parent or teacher can respond by saying let's find out together and see what we can learn and thus the conversation begins. Explore and discover and encourage curiosity.
Have you ever been curious about human behavior and what motivates us? What are you curious about? What would you like to know more about, not only in terms of the human condition but in the world around you? Here's an invitation for you. Write down six things that you are curious about, things that make you wonder why they are this way or that way. Then, take the top two or three and send them to me and I will collect as many as are sent and report back to you briefly next month on the results. I am curious as to what you might be curious about! Thanks!
Carla Silver, Executive Director
Here is something I am curious about: Collaboration. What force draws certain people together to collaborate? Why is it sometimes so hard and other times so easy to work with other people? What conditions need to exist for successful collaboration? Does physical space really make a difference in collaborative efforts? Is there an ideal number of collaborators on any given project? Is it human nature to work collaboratively?
Look no further than Jonah Lehrer's new book Imagine to answer all of these and many other questions about this ever more important 21st Century skill. Collaboration is not only a key ingredient to creativity (as Jonathan Martin writes in his article above), it is really the most effective way to solve complex problems. Most humans are wired to collaborate and it is how the best inventions and innovations are produced - whether that is an Oscar winning film (Finding Nemo), a hit Broadway show (West Side Story), or a memorable corporate slogan ("Just Do It"). Lehrer writes, "When the right mixture of people come together and when they collaborate in the right way, what happens can often feel like magic. But it's not magic. There is a reason why some groups are more than the sum of their parts."
So what is the perfect formula for collaboration? Can't we just stick a group of people in a room with a project and let them have at it? Can't we just give a group of students a challenge and expect them to work well together? Can't we just assemble the administrative team to recreate a new schedule for the school? Unfortunately, successful collaboration is not that simple, otherwise we would all be much more productive in groups than we are. The truth is, while working together is, at some level, human nature, Lehrer suggests the best collaborative efforts occur when certain conditions exists.
The Right Group:
There are certain groups that are more likely to produce a successful collaborative effort. It isn't so much about the innate talent or intelligence of the individuals in that group (although I am sure that does play a part), but rather the relationships of the individuals on a creative team. Lehrer describes the research of Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern University who studied successful collaborative efforts and, in particular, of Broadway Shows. He discovered that the level of social intimacy (how well group members knew each other and how often that they had worked together) made an enormous difference in the ultimate success of the show. Curiously, it was neither the team of artists who were all familiar with one another nor was it the team who had never worked together that created the best show. Instead, it was a team with a very intermediate level of social intimacy - a real mix of relationships including established collaborations as well as "newbies" - that produced the best work. "'People have a tendency to want to work only with their friends,' says Uzzi. 'It feels so much more comfortable. But that's exactly the wrong thing to do. If you really want to make something great, you're going to need to seek out some new people too."
When we create our space to do our work, we often think about the four walls in which we will spend most of our time thinking and creating. We select the right paint color for our walls, arrange our furniture according to the rules of Feng Shui , and ensure all computers and desk chairs are ergonomically correct. But according to research, if we want to solve problems or create something new, we should be spending less time among those four walls and more time wandering the halls and mingling in the faculty lounge. If you read the Steve Jobs biography, you already know the story of Pixar and the fact that the whole company was designed to ensure employees interacted with as many other individuals as possible throughout the day. Similarly, I recently toured Jump Associates in San Mateo, CA (Jump will be presenting a session at our summer seminar Innovative Leadership). One of the first things that you notice at Jump is that you enter the reception area at the intersection of a center staircase and the kitchen. At first blush, it may seem like a peculiar architectural choice, as it feels a little like a bright orange equivalent of Grand Central Station, but this design is very intentional. In fact, the staircase and the kitchen at the center are meant to encourage as many random meetings as possible. "Colorful, vibrant kitchen and cafe spaces make sharing ideas and information as easy as grabbing a mid-afternoon snack." The staircase itself is a symbol for the idea that "big ideas grow from impromptu conversations." You can take a virtual tour of Jump and see for yourself.
This idea of forcing employees into informal and spontaneous conversation is not just a design fad, but rather based on research around high performing employees. Lehrer points to the work of MIT professor Tom Allen who studied corporate engineers and discovered that "the highest-performing employees - those with the most useful new ideas - were the ones who consistently engaged in the most interactions." Lehrer concludes: "This suggests that the most important place in every office is not the boardroom, or the lab, or the library. It's the coffee machine."
An Element of Surprise
So why are these chance conversations so important in the first place? And why can't we just work with our best friends? Because in order to solve problems and arrive at new ideas, we must draw from other sources, experience the unfamiliar and enjoy the element of surprise. Did you know that ad executive Dan Weiden came up with the famous Nike Slogan "Just Do It" after a random conversation about Norman Mailer and his book on the murderer Gary Gilmore? This story alone is worth the purchase of Lehrer's book, so I won't spoil it for you here. The point is, some our best ideas and the most creative solutions to complex problems come from the unexpected, unfamiliar surprise. And successful collaborative efforts require that mixture. Pixar continually churns out successful movies, "This is because Pixar has internalized one of the most important lessons of group creativity, which is that the most innovative teams are a mixture of the familiar and the unexpected," writes Lehrer. Not only is the whole studio designed to encourage surprising interactions, but managers spend hours thinking about where people are sitting and finding the best ways to encourage chance encounters.
Candid Discussion of Mistakes
Lastly, the most successful collaboration happens when there is candid feedback and constructive criticism. Despite the conventional wisdom that we are more likely to bring forward ideas when we feel safe and free of judgement, the best ideas come when we are part of a culture of debate and criticism. Lehrer writes, "The only way to maximize group creativity - to make the whole more than the sum of its parts - is to encourage a candid discussion of mistakes . . . When you believe that your flaws will be quickly corrected by the group, you're less worried about perfecting your contribution. . . We can only get it right when we talk about what we got wrong."
As we work to foster collaboration in our schools with students and faculty, keep these essential ingredients in mind. How can you as the school leader help to create environments that support collaboration? Perhaps even just placing a new coffee machine in the center of campus would be small start.
Santa Fe Leadership Center is a nonprofit organization supporting school leaders to reach their highest potential. Through seminars, retreats, and personal coaching, the SFLC provides school leaders with time and space for introspection, reflection, and ongoing learning and equips them with skills and competencies for twenty-first century school leadership. The SFLC also provides services to schools seeking to enhance their programs, facilities, organizational culture, and the leadership capacity of faculty, staff and administration.
Please visit the Santa Fe Leadership Center to learn more about our programs and our other leadership services and opportunities.