Those two little words are quite possibly my favorite two words when combined because together they have so much power. To me, the utterance of these two words opens up a world of possibilities and signifies that the person using them doesn’t have all of the answers. They are open to exploring ideas. One person asking, “What if..?” is intriguing, a collective group of thought leaders within an organization asking, “What if...?” is powerful.
Last week during the ASCD Webinar on the Intersection of Design Thinking and Leadership, we talked about facilitating a “What if?” conversation with your team. Gauging by the webinar chat and follow-up emails, there is a lot of interest in facilitating this type of conversation but also lots of questions. Let me share both my experience facilitating a “What if” conversation and some practical how-to advice.
One of the first intentional “What if..?” conversations I facilitated while I was working as the Assistant Superintendent in the Los Altos School District. We invited a group of twenty administrators, teachers, parents and board members to spend ninety minutes focused on brainstorming ideas that could improve learning for all students. We structured this conversation to fall in line with our “Educational Blueprint,” part of our strategic planning process, where we celebrate accomplishments towards our five years goals and set short-term objectives. So while the process of strategically planning for the future wasn’t a new concept in this district, the format of this meeting was different than what our group was accustomed to.
The outcomes from our ninety minutes together were truly exciting. In less than two hours, we brainstormed over 300 ideas that we believed would improve student learning for all students in the district and then focused in on 50 of those ideas warranted further investigation and exploration. A range of ideas were generated that surprisingly fell into natural groupings around concepts such as student-centered learning, skills/content, grades/assessments, class size/groupings of students, community partnerships, instructional day, facilities and instructional approaches. I recognize that idea generation is only the first step, but it is truly an important one in developing the vision for the future of student learning.
Looking back, I am proud to share that our team realized much of what our group dreamt up - a flexible professional learning space for teachers, support for teachers in rethinking instruction, instructional coaches and increased professional learning opportunities. Would any of this have happened if we weren’t actively engaging in “What if...?” conversations?
When was the last time you had a “What if..?” conversation? Maybe it is time to structure one for your team, your classroom, or even your family. If you are ready to jump into a “What if...?” conversation, I encourage you to spend some time on the front end planning the facilitation of the conversation. An effective hour-long brainstorming conversation easily takes a few hours of pre-work to ensure you will get the very best of your team. Here is a list of suggestions, largely taken from the work of Tina Seeling, author of inGenius (which has a fabulous chapter on how to host brainstorming meetings):
Ensure every participant understands their role. While the perspective of every participant is valued, it was important for us to clarify their role and set accurate expectations. Those in the brainstorming session would not necessarily be the ones making the decisions.
Get the group warmed up prior to brainstorming. We used a combine & connect activity called “Two Buckets” One bucket had a list of name brands, the other bucket had a list of product categories. Participants selected cards and paired up. Their challenge? Create a new product with the information they were given and design a slogan using six words or less. This is a quick activity that requires all participants to loosen up and begin exploring new ideas. One of our teams developed a “Harley Davidson Car Seat” with the slogan “Ride Safe in Style.”
Establish & review brainstorming rules. Here are a few to get you started.
reiterate that THERE ARE NO BAD IDEAS
do not evaluate ideas as they come but include everything
encourage wild and crazy ideas
defer judgment and push beyond obvious solutions
build on the ideas of others with a simple, "Yes, and..."
- Encourage flare! Prepare questions that can be used to spur new ideas. The questions are essential because the way you ask the question will frame all of the solutions. Below are a few sample questions we used:
- What if we could create a school guided by the best instructional, innovative, & creative practices available? What would that look like?
- If money was no object, what instructional practices would we want to see implemented across the grades/school sites?
- If we had the opportunity to visit a school in the year 2118, what would it look like?
- If we wanted to prepare a student to be the individual that cures cancer/solves world hunger/eliminates global warming, what skills would he/she need to learn and what would their educational program look like, K-8?
- What kind of educational program would students create, if given the chance? How could we build in student choice throughout the instructional day?
- Be prepared for when people feel stuck! Sadly we aren't accustomed to being allowed to dream big in education. It is natural for people to feel stuck after 30 minutes, encourage them to push through. Switch up the groups if needed. Throw out some wild prompts. Encourage people to throw out their worst idea. Usually, the first hundred ideas we come up with aren't very interesting, and yet we stop generating way before we stumble on anything interesting.
- Spend time narrowing the focus to provide closure. After brainstorming in small groups, we asked every participant to place a red circle next to idea with the biggest impact; a blue circle next to the “Pie in the Sky” idea, a yellow circle next to quickly implemented ideas or the low hanging fruit; & a green circle next to ideas that are the most cost-effective. This allowed every participant to have a say in highlighting their favorite idea.
I encourage you to take the opportunity to engage in thoughtful brainstorming with colleagues, family, friends, and students. The possibilities are endless. “What if...?” I'd love to hear what your team dreams up.