Friday, June 29, 2012

Structuring Creativity: Managing the Mash

There are more half written novels in the world than there are novels.
Scott Belsky

Belsky makes a great point about the 99% Thomas Edison quipped about a century ago.  Creation is hard work, very hard work.  I have a feeling that is why education paradigms are so slow to change.  The current factory based model of education is just so much easier to implement.  Unfortunately the ease of implementation is disenfranchising a large population of students.

I used to struggle with managing projects in the classroom.  In fact you could take the above quote, replace novel with research project, and you would have a true description of the finished products in my room.

Being able to work with creative problem solving teams in Destination Imagination and Future Problem Solving helped me breakdown the project management process so that I could help the teams I coach not only develop creative solutions but also implement those solutions at a high level.


Coming up with a cool idea has got to be one of the greatest highs; that moment when you see the solution so clearly in your head that it feels like you have glimpsed the eternal.  
From Scott Belsky:  How to Avoid the Idea Generation Trap

I have seen this in my students when they come up with a really cool plan or idea for a project they want to start:  making a short video, writing a story, making a cool graphic for some research, starting a research project, creating a new prop or costume, designing an intricate device to complete a job.

Their eyes widen, smiles stretch across their faces, they are out of their seats moving around.  This idea is going to be the greatest thing ever seen in the existence of humanity.  They fail to realize they have only finished 1% of their work.  

The Doldrums

What happens next is the 99%; the work.  The joy of inspiration gives way to the enormity of what they have imagined.  It is the realization that this new idea is going to be a lot of work.  They enter the doldrums of project management; where good ideas go to die.

From Scott Belsky:  How to Avoid the Idea Generation Trap
Belsky calls this stage the project plateau.  I have seen many hours wasted by inactivity during this time because it is a lot easier to do nothing than to work on what seems to be a never ending project.  

Break It Down:  Tangible and Beautiful

So how do we minimize the amount of time our students spend trapped in the project plateau?  The answer is to think big, act small.  

The increments of a project are about time.  Students need to look at their project and decide how much time to spend on an idea.  Then break those time increments into milestones and then finally break those milestones into tasks.

You will want to make these tasks tangible and beautiful.  Something that your students will not mind looking at on a day to day basis.  My board was not exactly beautiful but it did allow for my team to set milestones and then breakdown the milestones into specific tasks.  They posted the tasks on a chart so they could see what needed to be done next.
Project Board for Destination Imagination Team preparing solution for Regional Competition.  Green stickies are tasks for completion of scenery; orange stickie are tasks for completion of an intricate mosaic to be included on the scenery.  Each column represents dates for completion.

I know your students have never over-estimated how much time a task is going to take, but mine often do.  The bonus of using stickies is that incomplete tasks can easily be pushed to another date.  The project deadline for this solution was February 23rd.

Short Circuiting the Reward Systems

In education we do a good job of hardwiring our students to strive for the highest grade on a test or in a class.  This all gets stripped away when students begin working on long term problem solving or projects that will not see the light of day for a few weeks or months.  The feedback they have been trained to receive is gone.  They ring the bell but there are no treats.

One way to short circuit this reward system is to develop mini-celebrations.  My students loved to remove finished stickies.  When a task was completed the sticky would come off the board with great fanfare and celebration.  If an individual or team finished the task they would take the sticky down, crumple it in a hyperactive show of satisfaction and then the team would create a cheer for those who finished. The cheers were cheesy and silly but they helped to fill the need for recognition.   

Build Your Teams Immunity System

During the brainstorming portion of idea generation we often ask students to delay evaluating ideas.   A team needs a variety of divergent ideas on the table before they begin the convergent process of evaluating.

This can be a hard time for any "Debbie Downers" or "Sad Sallys" in the group. Those members of the group who see the proverbial glass broken on the floor.  We need to empower these folks during the creation phase because they can keep the team on track when the tedious work of production wants to give way to the temporary high of new idea generation.  These naysayers can focus the team on the task at hand and discourage new brainstorming that will lead away from reaching the next milestone.

Seeking Competition

One of the things I love about creative problem solving competitions is the competition.  I know, I know its all about the process but when students know they are competing against others it takes their drive and desire to do well to another level.

They realize that if they do not do their best then another group is going to take the prize, move on to the next level of competition.  A gentle reminder that there are other groups out there, working just as hard, can spur a team on when the excitement of completing a task is lacking.


It is very important that the team shares their ideas as often as possible.  As a teacher, coach and team manager one of my most important jobs is to get the students to explain their solution to me as many times as possible.  I am not trying to interfere or change their ideas, what I am doing is holding them accountable.  If they can verbalize their ideas, it helps them to remember and understand what they are working on and I can ask clarifying questions.

What Does It Mean?

Scott Belsky says that the creative process is having an idea and surviving the project plateau.  One percent of the creative process is truly natural.  The other ninety-nine percent is an acquired discipline that requires organization, community and leadership.  This is where teachers need to spend most of their time, helping students overcome the project plateau:  thinking about organization, leveraging the community, and leading teams to push projects forward.

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