Asking questions vs providing answers

“Innovation starts not by providing answers, but by asking questions.” George Couros, author of The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity

Recently, I attended an invitation-only “innovation forum” billed as the next-generation of “conferencing.” Described with enticing phrasing of participating with a select group of thought leaders with genuine and meaningful dialogue with like-minded individuals, I opted in despite the fact it was mid-May; and in the school business, May is…May. Ask any educator which is more challenging, August or May, and the answer will at a minimum cause a pause, but most likely reflect the time of year asked. What I didn’t notice at the time was the event was listed as “strictly limited to Senior-Level Administrators and Executives” in the conference narrative; I picked up right away once there, however. Translated, this means “persons with the purse strings;” and we were sitting ducks in a pond for the host of vendors who clearly were footing the bill. The exclusivity and notion of high society in those words bother me. Even though I am in central administration, I am the antithesis of hierarchy. Given the option to spend a few hours with a group of administrators being wined and dined or a few hours with a group of teachers footing our own bill, I’ll choose being with teachers 99 of 100 times. (What if they picked one of those Brazilian restaurants with all you can eat meat? (That’s never been an option, but there’s something primal about those places. So in the event I could go caveman, I’m reserving one spot of the 100.)

One of the things I’m most grateful for my position here in our school district is the fact that I am in the middle of the org chart, yet entrusted with the district mission and goals. This year, I’ll be leading the charge to becoming a “District of Innovation” (or “DOI”) from the bottom third as I have voluntarily requested to drop from full to part time, thus relinquishing my role as director to coordinator. Our district has demonstrated a belief in the Gallup Strengths. With futuristic and strategic being two of my top five combined with my prior experience training and supporting districts across the state with the planning process while working in the Education Service Center system, I was asked a few years ago to lead the district Educational Improvement Council (EIC). Agreeing to do so if I could “throw the baby out with the bathwater and remodel the tub;” I began paving the way through the creation of a new mission statement through social media, the rebranding of our logo through crowdsourcing, and the complete overhaul of the EIC from a group who endured 45 minutes of program plans being read to them to an interactive, discussion based body engaging in real issues. When time to purse the DOI distinction, it was a logical process for me to take on (not to mention it’s so in my wheelhouse). Thus, despite the fact I will serve at a Level 4 admin (in a 12 level hierarchy) from this point forward, I’m entrusted with the role. (Note: My decision was based on health and personal issues; and if you’ve read my other blog posts on the site, you’ll know [some of] what I mean.) I am blessed to be a part of an organization that is willing to challenge convention. “You are either defending the status quo or challenging it,” writes influential author Seth Godin in “Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?”

Undoubtedly, a strategic component of the innovation forum was the “focused, mutually selected business meetings.” In reality, this meant, attendees met one-on-one for 30 minutes with product vendors selling their wares. During one of these intimate sessions, I was asked about my work in the district, which quickly was redirected into what we were looking for in the DOI process. Offering the objective had yet to be defined, he pressed ostensibly put out with my response. His line of questioning indicated I was without clue (at least that’s how his words made me feel). Later I realized, his frustration was more likely the fact I wasn’t buying what he was selling (his products or his thoughts). While reading our book study text, The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity, I highlighted and underscored the following quote. “Innovation starts not by providing answers, but by asking questions.” In dialogue with one of our DOI members via email, she responded to the quote quite well. “Providing answers” is reactive; whereas “asking questions” is pushing the envelope so that our community will be better because we asked those questions.”

Today, I know my response at the forum was not only apropos, but unmistakable. In taking the 60+ member DOI committee to an unknown place, I have had no intent on leading others toward a predetermined destination or decision. Instead, it is my resolve to allow the process to be organic. Noted author and speaker Sir Ken Robinson said in a talk at RSA, “Education can be encouraged from the top-down, but can only be improved from the ground up.” With the work being done in Denton ISD from the development of our community-based accountability system to our pursuit as a “District of Innovation” (as much about local control as it is innovation), consider Robinson’s charge accepted.

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