How a Designer Mindset of “Yes, and….” Changes Everything!


“I would like honeybees on campus.”  Sam shares with her principal at Mt Abraham Union Middle/High School, a small school in central Vermont.  Immediately images of bees, the school superintendent saying no, liability forms, and even chaos fill her head, but Gaynell the principal chose to silence all of the “yeah, buts” that were swirling around her head.  She knew that Sam would only propose ideas that were good for students.

“Tell me what I need to know to say yes,” replied Gaynell.  That simple affirmative response coming from a designer mindset of “Yes, and…” is key to innovation in schools.  The Design Thinking process is one way to get there.

How easy would it have been for Gaynell to shut down Sam’s ideas?  No one would fault her, having bees on campus is a new idea and unconventional to say the least.  And yet by responding with a “Yes, and…” she invited Sam to share more. Sam, a biology teacher who was teaching a kitchen chemistry class, wanted to create authentic learning experiences.  By incorporating bees into her curriculum, she saw an opportunity to teach students a skill that they could use later in life. She also saw opportunities to connect their learning to environmental causes.  Bees are a dying resource. Teaching students about them would be good for the environment and good for the community. Sam did her research, she found a beekeeper, they walked the campus and found a suitable spot for honeybees.  

With all of the research and plans in place, Gaynell approached her Superintendent and shared their plans.  Initially, the idea of honeybees wasn’t received well, but Gaynell pressed on taking full responsibility for any parent concerns.  They agreed if there were any health issues they would consider other options, and developed a contingency back-up plan should they need to find a new home for the bees. Gaynell wrote an article for the school newsletter, “We are Bringing Honey Bees to Campus” which assured parents and students of their safety and provided access to resources.

The honey bees came to school. Students were engaged at every step of the process.  Students built the racks, and learned how to use the smoker. There was a lot of interest in the bees.  How can I learn more? Do I have to take Kitchen Chemistry to work with the bees? Can we have a club?  Success. None of this learning would have taken place, without a “yes, and” mindset.

What is your first response when you encounter a wild and crazy idea? Where do you sit on the Yes o’Meter?  If a “yes, and….” response doesn’t feel natural to you, don’t worry you aren’t alone. Design thinking is messy and nonlinear, which can make it challenging for educators to embrace the process.  Being open to new ideas can feel counterintuitive in a world that is often driven by mandates, but it is a mindset that can be developed. You could take a cue from Gaynell, borrowing her response, “Tell me what I need to know to say yes,” or try these three ideas to help build your “Yes, and” mindset.

Use Nurturing Language - New ideas are fragile and need to be treated as such.  Unintentionally, we use language that kills ideas both with our teachers and our students. Phrases like “A good idea but…,” “They’d never let us do that,” or “We tried that already.”  Try replacing those idea killing phrases with nurturing phrases like “That sounds interesting, tell me more,” “How can we make it work?” or “Let’s try it.” This isn’t to say that every idea you are presented will work out, but try to nurture ideas a little longer until they have had time to grow and are a little less fragile.  It is far easier to kill an idea than to get an idea to a workable solution.

Turn a “Yeah but,...” into a “Yes, and…”  As you learn to be more open and less judgemental of ideas, challenge yourself to identify roadblocks or any “yeah, buts…” that will come up and see if you can remove them.  If there was a crazy idea I wanted my students or staff to entertain, I would try to brainstorm all of the “yeah,buts..” that I knew had a possibility of showing up. Then I would see If I could think of a way to solve them before they derailed the development of a new idea.   

Let Go and Take Small Risks  We’ve all heard the advice that we need to get out of our comfort zone, yet very few of us ever really do it.  Why? It’s easier not too and we equate getting out of our comfort zone with doing something big or scary, when really very small actions are required.  At least once a week try taking a new route home, eat at a different restaurant, have a conversation with someone you don’t normally spend time talking to, take a different fitness class or watch news from a different channel. Trying new things forces your brain to think that stimulates creativity and will rub off into other areas of your life.  As a result, you might just start to see everything in a new light.

Developing a “Yes, and…” mindset unlocks possibilities and allows ideas to flourish and grow.  Over time, I’ve learned good ideas often hide in the crazy ones, never to be discovered when “yeah, buts…” run rampant.  

Embracing Questioning (Even If At Times It Means Offending)

Last school year ended on a low note for me.  Professionally it was an incredible year—I co-authored my first book, worked as an educational consultant and supported numerous leaders who are pushing the boundaries of learning for students.  So many exciting developments! Yet personally, my educational volunteering experiences left me feeling ineffective and deflated at best.

As a big proponent of public education, I volunteer countless hours to support our local elementary school.  Having two boys who attend the school, I love nothing more than spending my free time helping to support and improve the learning experiences for them and all their classmates.  This volunteering takes all forms—chaperoning field trips, selling spirit wear, organizing school celebrations, helping with in class reading groups and fundraising to help bridge the gap in California school financing.  Last year we had a particularly successful fundraising year, enough to hire yet another teacher reducing an upper grade level from 30+ students per class to 20 students per class. The community wholeheartedly supported the decision, but our school personnel didn’t.  It became complicated, teachers didn’t think it was fair to reduce the class size of one upper grade level without the other and had seniority concerns around hiring another teacher. Ultimately, our funds were not able to be used to reduce class sizes. I questioned the decision and advocated for what I believe to in the best interest of students. After all, teacher needs are lobbied collectively through their unions, but where’s the collective voice on behalf of our students’ needs?

It quickly became clear that teachers were uncomfortable with my public questioning.  Comments were made indirectly to me about how “disagreements should be kept in the family” and how inappropriate it was for me to discuss or second guess the decision.  In one meeting someone even referenced a “twitter scandal”.... little did I know at the time that I was the scandal.


Thankfully it was the start of summer, and I took a much needed break from the volunteer role. Working in education can be intense and no matter our role, we all benefit from time for self-reflection and distance.  I reflected, read, played and enjoyed the fleeting moments of summer. I also questioned and checked in with others. Had I pushed too hard for change? Was I not trying to do what was best for students? Would my own children be negatively impacted at the school because I was vocal and outspoken?  Is this why people give up?

Looking back with some perspective and some distance, I can chuckle a little about the events. I’m mean I’m hardly a twitter scandal, but it has also made me take a hard look at how we impact change in schools.  Change is never easy, but trying to push for change as a parent volunteer is a downright humbling experience. This whole experience has left me wondering… “When did asking questions become a bad thing?” and “Is our current culture of playing nice hindering us from making the changes our schools so desperately need?”

In my summer reading, I was very thankful to come across a blog, Willing to Be Affirmed  (July 24, 2018) by one of my favorite education change makers, Will Richardson.  This blog caused me to pause and reflect even more about the work of change in schools. I appreciate Will’s willingness to disturb people in education.  The post reaffirmed my desire to disturb people, to get them thinking even if it means at times offending. I especially appreciated, Will’s reference to Margaret Wheatley’s work. (Excerpt below, full access here.)

“Sometimes we hesitate to listen for differences because we don’t want to change. We’re comfortable with our lives, and if we listened to anyone who raised questions, we’d have to get engaged in changing things. If we don’t listen, things can stay as they are and we won’t have to expend any energy. But most of us do see things in our life or in the world that we would like to be different. If that’s true, we have to listen more, not less. And we have to be willing to move into the very uncomfortable place of uncertainty.” - Margaret Wheatley

This year I am embracing the notion of questioning and moving into a place of ambiguity wholeheartedly!  I am choosing to embrace a stance of being more curious than certain, which will mean asking a lot of questions.  Questions that might challenge thinking or the status quo. I don’t intend for my questions to offend you and recognize full well they might. And so as I embrace a willingness to question (and possibly offend) will you embrace a willingness to listen? If you feel shocked at my position or my questions, I wonder instead of judging me could you too question what you to believe to be true? I am confident it will take all of us stepping outside of the “culture of nice” to question, even if it means we unintentionally offend someone to improve learning for all students.  

Would you attend your class if the choice was yours?

It’s 9:00 am on a Wednesday morning and I as I stroll into the spin class at my local gym I see almost every bike is taken.  The few bikes that aren’t taken have a towel thrown over them indicating they have been saved for a friend. I manage to grab the last available bike towards the back of the room and make a mental note to get here earlier in the future.  While adjusting my bike and clipping in, I hear the chatter around the room.

“Have you been to this class?  The teacher is incredible!”  

“You won’t believe how good of a class this is.”

“I can’t believe how hard she pushes us. I rode at my hardest level ever last class.”

Had it really been that long since I’d been to this spin class?  I try to be consistent, but work and life sometimes get in the way and let’s face it, getting to a class at 9 am on a Wednesday isn’t the easiest thing to fit into a work schedule. Come to think of it, the last time I was at this class it was EMPTY.  There were probably only four or five riders in the room other than the teacher including myself and that was at the start of class, invariably a few of the riders let early. What gives? How is today so different? It’s the same gym, the same clientele, the same inconvenient time on a Wednesday morning......and the class is full!

Once class began, the difference was clear.  The differentiator was the teacher! This teacher was incredible.  She inspired, she pushed, she got off her bike and checked in on our progress. She brought her all to class - creating unique playlists, sharing “fit tips” after class while people stretched and getting to know us as individuals. She inspired each of us to accomplish more than we physically thought we were capable of and encouraged us along the way.  People weren’t attending this class because it conveniently fit into their schedule, they were attending this class because of the experience the teacher created. It really is that simple.

My boys headed back to school last week, and I hope more than anything else this year they have the experience of having that teacher—the one who is the differentiator. The teacher who creates an experience and pushes them to be their very best!  I know being a teacher isn’t easy. Demands are increasing, while school budgets are shrinking and yet despite unfortunate circumstances there are teachers out there who are the differentiators!  Thank you! Are you one of those teachers? Are you one of those leaders? Would students or teachers choose to show up for your expertise or leadership if they didn’t have too?

How Might We Remain More Curious, Than Certain?

I remember all too well the days pre-kids when my husband and I would be eating at a restaurant and see families at nearby tables.  We couldn’t help but notice the kids entertaining themselves on devices and the easy “kid-food” being delivered to table, you know the mac and cheese, pizza or chicken nuggets.  We were SO certain we would never use those strategies when we became parents. We of course would be engaging our kids in meaningful conversation, and our children would eat healthy, organic food from a variety of cultures at an early age.  Fast forward many years, at dinner with two young boys and ooooh have we changed. We do try to engage our children and feed them healthy, but now can also appreciate the magic of a little screen time and the ease of “kid food” at time — certainty erased!

We have to be willing to let go of our certainty and expect ourselves to be
confused for a time
— Margaret Wheatley

As a recovering perfectionist, I liked being certain about things in life and having the “right answer.”  In some regards it made things easier and this was reinforced for many years of my life in school where the right answer was definitely more valuable than a question.

Over time I’ve realized that in most situations there can be alot of “rights” and I have become a lot less certain over what the “right” answer or approach could be. Now, instead of searching for the perfect way to solve a problem, I explore options, lots of options.    

If like me, you are a recovering perfectionist or just like having the “right answer” here are few ways you can work to remain more curious than certain.

  • Suspend Judgement - Resist making snap judgements about ideas or situations.  Our certainty has the danger of shutting down ideas. I’ve learned that the best ideas often hide in the crazy ideas, so if I shut down an idea too quickly (even if it sounds crazy) I lose out.  To avoid this, suspend your judgement and try adopting phrases that are more generative in nature. (“What if..?” “How might we make that work?”  “You may be right.”)

  • Check Yourself - The more experience we have in education, the more certain we may became about some of our beliefs.  Try questioning yourself. In any given situation, I like asking myself a few questions to challenge my own thinking.  (“What might I be wrong about?”  “What might happen if I didn’t solve it this way?” How is my experience getting in the way?”)

  • Ask More Questions - Simply, spend more time asking questions. Try asking open-ended questions, questions that start with what, how or why.  And even better try asking questions that you don’t know the answer to! You’d be amazed at how this changes the types of questions you ask.

As I’ve worked to stay more curious, I find I am less certain about most things in education and it is okay.  Playing in the space of uncertainty allows for creativity and possibility. What are you no longer certain about?  I’d love to hear.  #DT4EduLeaders

Using Design Thinking to Inform Strategic Planning

What one public school district learned from 2,535 sticky notes, over 300 participants, days of observation & 60+ interviews.

What would happen if educational leaders started thinking like designers?  This is the question we investigate in our work and in our recent book, “Design Thinking for School Leaders.” Thinking like a designer means being more aware of the world around you, taking the time to empathize with your users, creating new solutions for the future and taking action to implement those solutions.  Design thinking is a mindset that can transform the way you approach your work as a leader and have a positive impact on an entire organization. Here is the story of how we embraced design thinking at the district level when I was working as Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction for the Los Altos School District. We decided to dig deeper and closely examine the state of teaching and learning in the district – through the eyes of our users. And so we set out to understand and observe.

As a public k-8 school district we had many different users: students, teachers, parents and community. During this need finding phase, we wanted to make sure we were simultaneously gathering broad data as well as doing a deeper dive with our users and created structures to enable both.  We created opportunities for all parents, teachers, administrators and students to have a voice in the process. We also created a small design team to conduct deeper ethnographic research in our district. Every aspect of this process was geared to help us better identify opportunities for continuous improvement.

Need Finding with a Design Team

We formed a five-person team to take a design-driven approach to understanding the needs of the district.  In keeping with a “design thinking” mindset, the team’s work focused on identifying unmet human needs, which when addressed, would drive instructional improvement as a district.

With that in mind, the team set out with a beginner’s mindset to observe, question and most importantly listen.  After several days in the field and interviews with students, teacher and parents the design team uncovered two unmet human needs.  Both of these needs statements focus on meeting teacher needs as a means to improve student learning. As a district, we recognize how valuable our teachers are and also know that if we want to impact the experience of 4,500 students it begins with our teachers.

Experiential Need:  Teachers need to observe other teachers…

  • In order to make theoretical practices more concrete
  • To expand their senses of what is possible
  • Because seeing students respond positively builds confidence to implement new pedagogies

Relational Need:  Teachers need to connect with colleagues…

  • Because teaching is inherently isolating
  • In order to build a network that provides timely support
  • Because thinking things through with colleagues generates professional confidence

Need Finding: Broad Gathering of Input

For the broad gathering of input, we held eleven input gathering sessions with over three hundred participants.  We used the following prompts to generate both conversation and ideas.

  • Why does learning need to be revolutionized for all students?
  • What excites you about revolutionizing learning for all students?
  • What scares you about revolutionizing learning for all students?
  • What changes do you think need to be made to revolutionize learning for all students?
  • What are your learning hopes for your students?
  • What if schools were places where students could….
    Then we would need teachers who…

Then we would need parents who…

Then we would need leaders who…

  • An LASD graduate will be able to….

Every single response to these prompts was collected and is represented in the data visualizations.  What was interesting to note is the similarities in responses from parents, teachers and administrators.  Essentially, we all want very similar things for our students and our children. All of the data visualizations can be viewed here, but the one that excited us the most is embedded below. The image is word clouds representing all responses, but the size of the phrase/word indicates the frequency of this response.

Screen Shot 2018-07-22 at 7.04.58 AM.png

Portrait of an LASD Graduate

Developing the portrait of an LASD Graduate was a great first step, that allowed us to have deeper conversations. How do we develop this student?  What are we currently doing that contributes to this? What do we need to stop doing? What do we need to do differently to achieve this for students?

Now What? Ideation & Prototype

We have now completed the need finding phase of this process, although I am not sure this will ever truly end.  The experience has changed how our team approaches problems, often reframing them or trying to more clearly understand them from the students’ point of view.  

What we have learned about our own organization during this process was powerful.  While this process took much longer than a more traditional strategic planning process, the investment of time yielded more exciting opportunities for students.  What would you learn about your organization if you challenged yourself to think like a designer?