Monday, April 18, 2016

The Kobayashi Maru

Having recently received this IDEO book and tearing through it, I've been thinking on the role of ethics (or if you like, professional responsibility) in the work of innovation. 

A quote in the book from Coe Leta Stafford, Design Director at IDEO Palo Alto, stands out:
At first glance, it appears that ethics and creativity have nothing in common; one is constrained and the other unbridled. And yet, ethics is the insider handshake to a world of unexpected delights and creative starting points. The secret to getting others to share their secrets is to conduct yourself with the utmost respect.
My wondering is: as we seek to build empathy and design change to innovate education, what role do ethics play?

Last Friday, I was in a meeting with some teachers and some representatives of Steelcase, looking at certain design thinking facets that we might use in our work. During one of our thinking exercises, I asked our facilitators if we could do it a different way, and then said out loud: "Kobayashi Maru." Three people in the room laughed out loud, and it was a sure way to know who else was a Star Trek fan (and perhaps a bit nerdy).

Since then, I've been thinking about that Star Trek moment. During his learning at Star Fleet Academy, James T. Kirk re-programmed a no-win computer simulation to avoid an ethical dilemma known as the Kobayashi Maru. Some called Kirk's actions cheating; others "original thinking."

I wondered if anyone out there had ever written about this scenario in a business ethics sense, and behold, I quickly came upon an article in Forbes. The author, Janet Stemwedel, focused a lot on big picture thinking:
Not every ethical decision requires grappling with a dilemma. Indeed, most of the time good ethical decision-making before there's a crisis can bring good consequences all around, heading off a moment downstream where you have to choose which stakeholder gets stuck with a dramatically bad outcome.
Of course, there's always the issue of the ethics of Kirk in reprogramming the simulation to avoid losing. Stemwedel writes:
Young James T. Kirk reprogrammed the Kobayashi Maru because he didn't grasp the point of the simulation. Kirk thought it was a test of whether in the circumstances you could succeed in saving everyone. On that basis, he thought the circumstances were unfair (since there was no way to save everyone), so he changed them.
In fact, the Kobayashi Maru was meant to find out how the cadet responds when it becomes clear that you can't save everyone -- and that your best efforts may have created a situation where you can't save anyone. It's a test of character, and one that wouldn't work if the cadet knew ahead of time that this was the point of the test.
The real test of the Kobayashi Maru is not how you respond in the simulator, but how you go on from there. Do you recognize that the universe may present you with situations your knowledge and powers are inadequate to address? That logical and ethical formulae can only get you so far? That sometimes the least-bad is the best you can do? Does this realization put you off the ethical responsibilities that come with leadership, or do you use it to adjust your expectations of how being a leader might feel in extreme situations?
If we think of Kirk's "original thinking" as innovation, what might we glean? Are we sometimes so focused on the solution that we don't see the problem in all of its fractal components? And like any complex system, changing one part may have significant, unforeseen impacts on others. It's not linear. 

Kirk may have been the only cadet to ever beat the Kobayashi Maru, and he certainly never liked losing. But he robbed himself of learning something early in his career that ultimately, he had to learn much later through the death of a friend.

As we lead this complex work of innovation in educational systems, we need to mindful of the unforeseen consequences and head off that unfortunate downstream moment as best we can. We also need to conduct ourselves with honesty, transparency, and respect at all times. There's an old adage, "it's easier to beg for forgiveness than seek permission." However, as the IDEO book states, where ethics are concerned, you "[s]eek permission, not forgiveness."

Join the conversation...
What ethical issues do you see in the work of educational innovation? How might we best deal with them?

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Door to Innovation

I took this picture on March 27, 2016, in the Amtrak 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. The ad above the door is for an April event in Baltimore, but it really makes me ponder whether innovation in education is as simple as walking through a door. 

Doors have been used as literary devices by many. For example, in Othello, Shakespeare employs a "door of truth," which can both admit and exclude. More recently, characters in the Disney movie Frozen sing Love Is An Open Door, again with the concept of doors initially being shut or exclusionary, until the right moment occurs to see a door as an entry point to a better future.

What conditions must exist for an educator to see the door as an entry point? Certainly in the picture above, there is sunshine behind the door, but not many other clues as to what lies on the other side. But maybe that's the point. When you decide to be an innovative educator, you have to be at least somewhat comfortable with the unknown.

You also have to be ready to lead, from wherever you are. I am reminded of three excerpts I read in The Dawn of System Leadership

  • [E]mbody an ancient understanding of leadership; the Indo-European root of "to lead," leith, literally means to step across a threshold -- and to let go of whatever might limit stepping forward.
  • Real change starts with recognizing that we are part of the systems we seek to change.
  • [O]perating within our comfort zones will never lead to engaging the range of actors needed for systemic change....
So, how do we come out of our comfort zone, step across the threshold, and through that door? And to see that when we cross the threshold, we are still part of the systems we want to change?

I believe it is about elevating agency, and creating the conditions in which educators feel efficacious:
With all that is happening in the education profession today, it is important to remember that teachers have power to change the system. This power for change can be called “Agency” which is defined as the capacity of teachers to shape critically their responses to educational processes and practices (Biesta and Teddler, 2006). 
With all the external push from various sectors, ultimately teachers are the ones that can cut through all of the cross-purposed mandates and transform their own process and practices to ensure the best educational experiences for their students.  

(Collins, 2013).

Light bulb! Maybe the door to innovation isn't just about us crossing the threshold, but opening our classroom doors -- and keeping them open. With the door open, we invite our colleagues and the world in over our threshold, and begin changing the systems in which we operate. Only in a collaborative group that ebbs and flows across the threshold can we transform processes and practices and become innovative for and with our students.

Join the conversation...
What doors do you want to open? What thresholds do you want to cross?