The Worst Possible Idea: Seeing Our Challenges Anew

By: Anna H. Surratt

In my last article, I posted that when faced with an adaptive challenge, we intuitively make assumptions about the root cause, reasons for a problem, and possible solutions – moving quickly from problem identification to solution generation. However, that swift movement often ignores the value systems, attitudes, competencies, beliefs, loyalties, identities, and coordinated efforts of the people and dynamics involved in shaping the problem. Thus, we must slow down to listen to the problem through the experiences of those involved. This speeds up the trajectory of change by giving you the information you need to more accurately diagnose the problem and better design a solution aligned to the needs communicated by those to whom you listened.

Not so Fast
Great. Now we have identified and prioritized a communicated need and are ready to dive into identifying and applying solutions, right? Not so fast. The pitfalls of rapid solution generation mirror those of rapid problem identification: (1) the solution “fixes” the problem for a short time but the problem resurfaces later, (2) the solution yields a problem that frustratingly persists, or (3) in some cases, the applied solution worsens the problem. None of these are viable options when dealing with the hearts and minds of people. We need a way to break free of the status quo, deconstruct the patterns of behavior that keep us stuck, and build a foundation of insights that leads to effective solutions.  We need to think about the problem differently before jumping to solutions.

Rational or Innovative
Narrowing an adaptive problem to a communicated need (based on the perceived pains and desired gains of those involved in shaping the problem) serves as our starting point. For example, I recently worked with a team of teacher leaders and administrators who were committed to better understanding the experience of teachers with observation, feedback, and evaluation in order to better design the overall experience. Through empathy interviews and mapping, the team identified the challenge as, “Teachers need clarity of expectations because their anxiety and fears center around the unknown (ex: unknown timing, unknown outcomes, etc.).”

It would make sense at this point to begin thinking about how we might bring clarity to the processes of observation, feedback, and evaluation to ease the anxiety teachers feel. A quick revision of the process, timeline, and expectations for teachers in the employee handbook seems like a rational first step to take. It’s a simple, quick, and reasonable solution. But reasonable and rational do not always do the trick. Pervasive problems of practice require creative and innovative approaches that stretch our minds beyond what seems obvious and respect the adaptive nature of the problem at hand.

Breaking Free
Here’s where counterintuition steps in to free us from the most logical next step – a solution that may potentially yield little to zero or even negative impact. Let’s slow down and deconstruct this diagnosed challenge in the most unexpected of ways using The Worst Possible Idea, or as some call it, the Anti-Problem. Instead of wondering what solutions might fix a need for clarity and anxiety reduction, this team considered the anti-problem, “Teachers need discouragement and elusivity so that they are anxious and fearful about observation, feedback, and evaluation.” 

I encouraged the team to brainstorm ideas that ranged from unavoidably obvious to borderline illegal. Besides generating a great deal of laughter (and maybe a few sinister laughs), something unexpected happened. These ridiculous ideas made it easier to see where a current solution might be going astray or where an obvious solution isn’t being applied. These questions helped us see the real problem anew:

  • What are some of the things you notice about the solutions you generated in relation to the actual challenge?
  • What tendrils of our current reality do you see in these terrible ideas? Do any of the ideas point to a solution that’s already in place and might be contributing to the actual problem?
  • In what ways does this exercise open the doors to begin thinking about solutions for the actual problem? How might some of the bad ideas be flipped to provide a springboard into actual solutions?

The Unexpected Solution
Even though these ideas are clearly some of the worst out there, fear that the evaluation cycle would expose inadequacies was a common thread among most of the ideas. This increased the empathy of the team and their overall commitment to design an experience that affirms, encourages, and builds on the collective strengths of one another. Here are a few of the solutions generated, ranging from logical to innovative:

  • A clarified and defined purpose, timeline, and frequency by which all teachers will be observed by administrators.
  • An experience centered around teacher-generated and student-centered goals supportive of overall school goals (to replace a deficit-minded model of evaluation focused on improving areas of weakness).
  • A teacher-generated survey of strengths aligned to their evaluation rubric and school-wide goals used to partner teachers up for peer observation and feedback related to their goals.

Think of what would have been lost if the team had jumped to and stopped at the first solution.

The Ultimate Unexpected Solution
While the anti-problem strategy is innovative and new in nature, the pattern of following the unexpected solution to freedom is ages old. Scripture shows us that it is often the unexpected that frees us from the places in which we find ourselves stuck. Consider the coming, life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

  • His Coming: He was born fully God and fully man, void of dignity in a cave, and worshiped by shepherds and pagan magicians rather than religious leaders.
  • His Life: He was the son of a carpenter and served as a rabbi whose followers were some of the most hated and uneducated people of his time. He chose to confront the devout religious leaders over the oppressive Roman rule. 
  • His Death: He was blasphemed, convicted, and executed without honor or respect.
  • His Resurrection: He unexpectedly defeated death and rose from the dead three days after his public crucifixion. 

The Messiah was expected. The way in which he came, lived, died, and rose again provided the perfect, most unexpected solution to the problem our sin created – separation from God. As a result, we now can stand freely before and in relationship with a holy God (Ephesians 3:11-12).

Tendrils of Impact
Look at the image of this team’s work below. While it is safe to say you are not buzzing teachers every time they make a mistake, you may find that you see tendrils of processes and expectations in the example below that are currently in place within the confines of observation, feedback, and evaluation at your school. Additionally, consider other adaptive problems your team is working to tackle. Where are you being called to explore the unexpected solutions? Where might the expected solutions already in place be leading you astray or keeping you stuck in the status quo? What problems are you facing that deserve to be seen anew?

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