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When To Think Inside the Box

By Jeffrey Shields posted 20 days ago

  

CEO Notebook |

School business leaders can take a page out of improv actors’ rule book to generate creative solutions.

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Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO

Welcome back! As we begin 2022, it’s clear we will need to continue to lean on each other to navigate what continues to be a turbulent school year. This means continuing to work and collaborate across our community to identify the best path forward for our faculty, staff and students.

For this reason, a recent article from Inc. caught my eye. It discusses the importance of setting limits so that teams can develop the best solutions to their challenges. The opening premise of any problem-solving or brainstorming session is generally to “think outside the box.” But in some cases, this may not be the best route to the best idea.

The lessons author Suzanne Lucas shares come from an improvisation class taken by her colleague, a pharmaceutical executive. Lucas was skeptical that the class would provide any benefit; she is an HR professional, and, in her words, people in her line of work “don’t believe in being funny.” I would wager most independent school business operations staff are not routinely relied upon to be funny, although I personally know many who are. Instead, your colleagues count on you to solve problems, often in short order. Knowing this, I was just as surprised as the author that some of improv’s foundational tools are transferrable to a business or independent school setting, and to creative problem solving. 

“Yes and” forces the conversation to accept the initial fact but move forward with the next pressing need. For example, yes, most of our parents desire in-person instruction despite the recent COVID surge, and how do we provide this safely and effectively?

The first rule of improv is to begin with “yes and,” which means to accept what you hear and build on it, Lucas explains. It is an expression I have heard independent school leaders use. Within a school, the “yes and” rule applies to circumstances that have already occurred and must be accepted for the team to move forward. There are so many circumstances that we would like to change but must accept: the current scarcity of COVID-19 tests; the time and resources required to pivot from a face-to-face class to virtual teaching; the financial investment required to retrofit classrooms for better ventilation. These are just a few examples. 

“Yes and” forces the conversation to accept the initial fact but move forward with the next pressing need. For example, yes, most of our parents desire in-person instruction despite the recent COVID surge, and how do we provide this safely and effectively? Yes, our faculty needs to be prepared to teach both in-person and virtually, and how can we support them with extra time to prepare? Yes, our winter athletic teams want to continue practicing and competing, and how can we support them without additional risk?

Another improv concept that intrigues me is that telling a group, “There are no limits” may well limit strategic thinking. In conversations with other independent school leaders, this is often referred to as “blue sky” thinking, but very often the enormity of the premise is a brainstorm killer. According to Lucas, setting some limits allows for greater engagement. Take for example, the question: “What is your favorite movie of all time?” That could be difficult to determine on the spur of the moment. A more specific question like, “What is your favorite action movie?” frames the conversation more tightly and can spark better thinking.

Within schools, I often hear the word “innovative” bandied about. But asking your team to think innovatively about everything can stymie ideas. Instead you might ask, “What is the most innovative aspect of our STEM program?” and then discuss how that might carry over into other academic disciplines. Or you might ask, “What is the best investment we have made in our after school program?” Then you might think about how other similar investments may lead to stronger outcomes in other areas of the school.

Connecting the dots, supporting your school’s story, completing the phrase, is critical in our schools, and it’s what you do every day. It’s clear that almost every innovative idea within our schools involves people and financial resources.

The final rule of thumb that hit home for me, and I’m sure it will for you too as members of the NBOA community, is that “serving others helps you.” In this improv scenario, actors build a story one word at a time. Actors tend to want to provide the most interesting words, for example “gorilla,” “rapidly,” or “Jupiter,” but effective story telling also requires less interesting words like “and,” “the” and “it” to complete sentences. Connecting the dots, supporting your school’s story, completing the phrase, is critical in our schools, and it’s what you do every day. It’s clear that almost every innovative idea within our schools involves people and financial resources. Our membership plays a key role in both areas, and it’s a good reminder of the vital role you play.

So, as we embark on a new calendar year, and you and your team are trying to tackle a big idea, a vexing challenge, or an innovative solution, try launching the discussion with “in the box” thinking. Perhaps these structured limitations will help your school breakthrough the noise and find a potent solution more efficiently. And if you give it a try, I would love to hear the results. 

Happy New Year!

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Follow NBOA President and CEO Jeff Shields @shieldsNBOA.

From Net Assets NOW, January 4, 2022. Read past issues of CEO Notebook.

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