Innovating from Diversity

March 29, 2019

Every year the annual National Association of Independent School Conference draws amazing keynote speakers and holds fabulous workshops which inevitably lead to me walking away both with new ideas and perspectives, but also inspiration for our work at St. Anne’s. This year, Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Effect, was among the keynote speakers and his remarks on innovation, prompted me to immediately go out and devour his accompanying text.

In reading his book and listening to his talk, it was encouraging to see several of his essential ideas for fueling innovation be represented in components of the design thinking curriculum we do in innovations to nurture creativity. For example, he noted the effectiveness of using selective constraints around design to actually spark new ideas. I’ve seen this first hand when our sixth graders design circuit games in science with some parameters on materials or while they were creating architecture projects in innovation. Having to design an underwater hotel or ice cream store in a densely populated city requires you consider specific needs of users you wish to engage. Another key point was the importance of the proliferation of a huge volume of ideas in the brainstorming process. Resisting the urge to jump on the first idea and instead produce more ideas can ultimately help you arrive at an even more innovative creation!  

6th graders designing circuit games in science

However, what has most stuck with me from the talk and book has been the specific insights and examples he shared highlighting a direct link between diversity and innovation, two areas that have been passions of mine for many years now. In his talk, Johansson shared memorable anecdotes such as how surgeons were able to improve patient care by reviewing organizational practices of race car pit crews. He relayed the journey of Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s who was born in Ethiopia, adopted and raised by a family in Sweden,  and trained in France, before opening a Michelin star restaurant in NYC with flavor influences drawn from around the world . His willingness to combine flavor combinations in unique ways has led to him pushing the food industry forward. Perhaps my favorite story shared was how architect Mick Pearce in Harare, Zimbabwe found solutions to design the Eastgate Building, a climate-controlled building, by looking at the way termites built housing for themselves in the same climates. It involved using an intricate system of gradients and vents to keep the temperature constant around 30 degrees celsius while the outside temperature fluctuates between 0 to 40 degrees.  What was clear from each of the three cases, innovation and creative solutions occurred at the intersection of seemingly disparate worlds.

As I consider my experiences working with students and teams at various schools I’ve worked at, I’ve seen first hand how a central barrier to creativity is the tendency to fixate on one solution. That tendency is the product of associations our brains develop from the sum total of our experiences and the voices and perspectives that surround us every day. The more homogenous those experiences and voices are, the stronger the associations that get built between ideas. The stronger the association between ideas, the more likely we ignore other alternatives in designing solutions or thinking of possibilities. Yes, strong associations in the mind can be helpful, making for a simpler, more efficient approach for our brains to manage lots of information. However, too often they are inhibitors to innovation.

So how do we mitigate these associative barriers that naturally exist for us all?  Below are a few measures that I’ve been a part of and which are shared by Johansson.

A)Diversity in group composition:  At St. Anne’s I’ve been part of different critical friends groups, taskforces, committees and think tank sessions. I’ve found when you get people together who bring diverse subject expertise, prior school experience, or backgrounds together, the discussions often yield more complex and sometimes even surprising solutions. This is because they bring their own perspectives which helps mitigate associative barriers that would arise from a homogenous group. At Marcus Samuelsson’s restaurant Aquavit, his 100 employees come from countless different countries around the world. For our students, this provides a great case for intentionally seeking out and working with different people in classes on projects, rather than just your close friends who might think the same way as you. That goes double for our 8th graders who are heading off to high school and will have opportunities to expand their social circles in their increasingly diverse communities. Yes, some norming and agreements may need to be laid as foundation for successful collaborating, but the different perspectives are likely to yield more creative solutions.

B)  Designing solutions from the perspective of the user, rather than your own- This is a principle that is at the core of design thinking and is an essential stage in creating solutions that actually work for the users for whom you are designing. Over the years we've had sixth graders interview preschoolers and kindergartners as a step before building prototypes for the outdoor classroom. We've done an empathy exercise simulating what it's like to have limited mobility when we were designing everyday solutions for the elderly. As a staff when we’ve been building our program at St. Anne’s in the Hills and trying to iterate the program, curriculum, and logisitcs, we’ve been conscious to interview and survey students and faculty about their experiences. I have also found that by faculty doing training that has put me on the low ropes elements, we all have a greater appreciation for the experience and feelings of our students, thereby better allowing us to scaffold and design our trips.

C) Nurturing divergent and alternative uses for objects to overcome the cognitive bias of functional fixedness - Functional fixedness refers to the mindset of being unable to see other uses for an object beyond its primary use. Alternative use exercises like finding ten different ways to use a paperclip help counteract functional fixedness. For example, a paper clip can be used beyond clipping papers together such as a tie for a bag or screwdriver for a loose screw on glasses to even jewelry! While the practice of generating lots of ideas is important, ultimately what is more important is to simply not have one chain of thinking.

D)Exposure to a variety of experiences:  Part of what is so impactful in our students’ experiences is the breath of classes they get to take at St. Anne’s. Beyond science, social studies, English, and math, are students can take world language, learn about world religions in chapel, support various communities outside St. Anne’s through outreach, and education at St. engage in cultural competency curriculum. Add in the outdoor education and a robust art offering and are students are put into a variety of environments from which to draw inspiration and make connections. When I see the creative content our 8th grade students are producing as artists, musicians or actors on stage, I’m reminded of the role of variety of experiences they are gaining are influential in the creative process.

In a world where content creators are becoming increasingly more valued than content consumers, helping students see the value and role of diversity in innovation is essential to their growth. It is also vital for us as adults to keep in mind as design and provide experiences for our students to nurture their perspective.

-Sumant Bhat
Head of Middle School