What is better than a solution to a problem? The answer is an elegant solution.
Matthew E. May, author of the Change This Manifesto titled Elegant Solutions: Breakthrough Thinking The Toyota Way explains that, “An elegant solution is one in which the optimal outcome is achieved with the minimal expenditure of effort and expense.”
Each day educators confront a myriad of problems. The increasing complexity of the world around seems to create ever increasingly complex problems, be it problems of teaching, learning, curriculum, pedagogy, behavior, finances, collaboration, technology, etc., educators must create solutions to complicated problems every day.
Clearly, we need and want solutions. According to Matthew, “And when it comes to solutions, simple is better. Elegant is better still.”
“Elegant solutions embrace the overarching philosophy of doing far more with much less.” Education certainly has been called upon to do far more with less in recent years. The elegant solution is about finding that wonderful solution within the restrictions of our resources.
The problem, as Matthew points out is, “…elegant solutions aren’t obvious, except, of course, in retrospect.”
So what to do then? The answer is to make your classroom, your Professional Learning Community, your school, and your district more innovative.
Now innovation is a powerful word that elicits all sorts of ideas and reactions. Many believe that innovation is the realm of inventors, research and development departments, technology companies, or lone geniuses. While that may be the image, it is not the reality.
David Neeleman, founde of Jet Blue says, “Innovation is trying to figure out a way to do something better than it’s ever been done before.”
Read that carefully. He didn’t say we must do it better, but that we must try to do it better. Innovation in this way is a process, not a destination. Every educator I know is capable of trying to figure out how to do something better than its ever been done before. Most educators are constantly tinkering with their instruction methods, plans, etc. They are innovating. Professional Learning Communities try to do things better. Schools try to do things better. Doing things better provides solutions to problems.
Matthew says, “…when I refer to innovation, I mean solving the problem of how to something better than ever.”
It is important to remind ourselves that innovation, doing something better than its ever been done before, is susceptible to a few “big traps.”
According to Matthew there are 3 big traps to avoid on our way to finding elegant solutions.
1. Swinging for fences
“This is the ‘homerun or bust’ trap, which invariably destroys a strong batting average over time. It carries with it huge risk, usually accompanied by high cost.”
Education has seen this trap time and time again. Instead of changing how we deliver curriculum, we scrap the entire curriculum and buy new curriculum, spending thousands of dollars and causing a ton of frustration in the process. Instead of figuring out who is actually using technology, we buy dozens of laptops and LCD projectors. We keep swinging for the fences.
2. Getting too clever
“This is the ‘bells and whistles’ trap, which can easily get out of control in an effort to outdo competitors. It carries with it the danger of complexity and customer alienation.”
Teachers are notorious for trying to come up with the next great project, the one that outdoes the teacher next door and gets their picture in the paper. Too often, what happens is parents get upset at all the work they end up doing, students are confused, and administrators get frustrated.
Administrators love to create the next big “program” that is going to take learning to the next level. Schedules are created, new curriculum purchased, complicated plans and procedures developed, meetings are scheduled, etc. They get so clever, they outwit themselves, and the students don’t benefit.
3. Solving problems frivolously
“This is the ‘brainstorm’ trap, which is misguided creativity far afield from company direction. It’s a symptom of poorly defined work, and fraught with waste. There’s a reason we call it an organization.”
Sounds like the ultra-new behavior management and tracking program, which includes staff development, new forms, and a computer database to solve a student behavior problem that doesn’t really exist. Solving a problem that doesn’t exist.
Maybe it’s the new 8-step purchasing request process, when the teachers could simply just shoot an email or ask the principal in person. What problem did we solve?
So now that we know what traps to avoid, what are the key principles for creating or discovering and elegant solution?
Matthew explains there are 3: ingenuity in craft, pursuit of perfection, and fit with society.
1. Ingenuity in craft
Ingenuity in craft means that we accept limitations. Education is filled with limitations, rules, regulations, laws, bureaucratic thinking, corrosive or inflexible cultures, limited resources, etc. We use limitations to our advantage by viewing it as a challenge to overcome and a problem to solve. “No challenge, no creativity.” Limitations challenge our minds to find the elegant solution, without challenges what motivation would we have?
It also means we, “…pursue the simple question that drives the thinking behind every breakthrough, big or small: Is there a better way?”
2. The pursuit of perfection
“If ingenuity is the starting point, perfection is the vector. Approached as a process, it can drive breakthroughs. Approached as a goal, it can actually block innovation.”
It’s all about the chase. The mantra should be, “No best, only better.”
We need to embrace the twin wins of ideate and initiate.
3. Fit with society
The goal of innovation and the pursuit of the elegant solution is meaningless if it doesn’t fit with what your school needs. The solutions need to fit within the larger system of the school’s needs and function.
Does the innovation solve a problem in the context of the classroom, the professional learning community, or the school? A great idea that doesn’t fit within the context of the school is going nowhere.
These three principles are the signposts that guide creative and innovative thinking and energy toward the pursuit of elegant solutions. Being careful to avoid the 3 big traps, educators can discover solutions to problems that are optimal for the context with minimal expenditures of valuable effort, time, and expense. Any solution that can do that in education is definitely elegant.