Thinking Young – What High School Students Can Teach Us About Innovation

Late last year, I was given the opportunity to work with a group of high-school students as part of a program designed to teach them innovation skills.

The program, dubbed INTRSCT, was the brainchild of a good friend and former Strategos colleague, Brad Sharek who felt that bringing together students, entrepreneurs, and other innovative thinkers might just create learning for all of the participants.

Well, I can’t speak for the other participants, but I can tell you that I learned a lot!

After hearing brief introductory talks from four innovation practitioners including Netflix founder Marc Randolph, Chief Technologist of Monterey Bay Aquarium Jim Bellingham and myself, the students broke into groups of 40 for some hands-on practice.  Our session engaged the students in some tried and true Strategos innovation approaches that have worked in companies around the globe.

I have to confess, however, that I was a bit concerned that given the very brief introduction, the one-hour breakout length, and the fact that these were, after all, 17-year-old students, we might just have a few problems achieving the learning and outcomes we hoped to see.

Well, I needn’t have worried – by the end of a very lively hour for the four sub-groups of 10 students in our session, the teams had cooked up some great ideas and I had been struck with a number of behaviors by the students that our much more experienced clients might be well-advised to emulate.

What did they do so well?

Made use of provocative thought-starters – We gave each of the sub-teams a few “discovery insights” of the type that our client teams generate.  These included Orthodoxies – statements of conventional wisdom such as “Faster service and delivery is always better” for the students to challenge, and Discontinuities – big step changes in the external environment like the shift from “Defined spaces to blurred places” for the teams to leverage.  The challenge we put to them was to think about how these insights, working in combination, could give them ideas for potential businesses.

And, guess what?  They fell silent for a bit as they studied the thought-starter sheets, and then began to volunteer ideas that were clearly based on two or more of the stimuli.  In real life with our grown-up clients, what we hear far too often is “I didn’t really use the thought-starters, but I’ve had this idea for a while to do…” followed by something they’ve had in mind all along.  We even have a session in our client workshops in which we give folks an opportunity to “empty their pockets” of their pre-existing ideas so that we can then increase the use of the insights from the factual discovery process!  These students seemed completely comfortable with using the materials at hand, and trying – at least once – the process that their facilitators suggested.

Using a small number of thought starters at a time also seemed to help, by the way.  It’s well established that creativity flourishes under constraints – by demanding that the teams use only a small number of stimuli, but understand them in depth, we were able to help the teams to tap the real value of the discovery materials.

Generated Ideas before Applying Constraints – one of our key innovation principles is that one must diverge before converging.  Too often, though, our experiences lead us to hedge our concepts before we even spit them out – or we don’t want to appear naïve, so we mention a litany of reasons why our idea might be a bad one before we volunteer it.

Our high-schoolers had no such qualms – our observation was that they were absolutely fearless in putting forth their thoughts for the group to consider.  Some of these ideas were super from the start – and in other cases, a “bad idea” was just the stimulus that the group needed to start generating better ideas.

Contributed Specific Ideas – rather than saying “we could build some sort of business that lets whole families participate,” one student started to lay out a very specific idea: a two-story building that had moveable walls upstairs and downstairs.  Multi-generational families could live upstairs with the space configured to suit each family’s size and structure, and the downstairs space could be configured into a set of small businesses that were staffed either by single families or cross-family groups.

By being specific, this student gave the rest of the members something to work with, challenge, and improve.  It’s hard to make much out of opportunity ideas that are general restatements of some of the discovery insights (in this case, the emergence of multi-generational living), but it’s easy to spin in all sorts of directions with a concrete idea to start the team off.

Honored Others Thoughts – This school is a pretty unusual one, as it draws students from over 40 countries and sends the vast majority of its graduates to prestigious universities around the globe.  My expectation was that the group would be a highly competitive one – but what we saw was careful listening, few interruptions, and a legitimate effort to build on others’ initial contributions.

In turn, the original contributors, instead of objecting to modifications to their initial concepts, joined whole-heartedly in the work of tuning and improving the idea.  And, as the idea of an individual transformed into the shared vision of the group, both excitement and commitment blossomed within a surprisingly short period of time.

Made Use of Diversity – As noted above, this was a geographically and ethnically diverse group!  Clearly, either the students had been coached well over their time at the school, or were simply very inclusive, because they actively sought out others’ views, drew on the experiences of their colleagues, and at times encouraged members who had been silent to speak out.

As the discussions developed, some students also went back to the original discovery thought-starters and used that feedstock to enrich the dialogue.  Diverse participants and diverse inputs – two key foundations for great idea development.

Revealed Their Thinking – It’s nice to talk about the “what” of an idea, but in many ways more important to align on the “why.”  By revealing their underlying thinking, and encouraging others to share their rationales as well, the group was able to surface where they agreed and disagreed – and to identify rapidly areas where a bit more information might help to resolve the differences in opinion.

But they didn’t stop there – in true millennial style, a few clicks on mobile devices were able to conjure up a key number or fact that helped the group to converge to a shared point of view and move on.

What a great hour!  My colleague Steve and I were impressed by the quality of the ideas, the way that the teams improved them through dialogue, and the nature of the dialogue itself.

At the end of the day, it turned out that there was a lot for us to learn from these teens – I hope that you’ll have a chance to consider some of the eye-openers we encountered, and that applying them to your own practice of innovation will yield results for you.

Watch this video to hear what students think about innovation.

Watch the video below to get a feel for the day we spent at Stevenson School.


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