The 2023 version of thinking outside the box

The 2023 version of 'Thinking outside the box'

"If you're don't like change, you'll like irrelevance even less."

So goes a quote I read several years ago and became one of those screenshots that I keep on my phone.

Brutal, but true. And as school business management continues on its inexorable curve of seemingly getting harder, it's ever more important that we can find creative ways of approaching the challenges in front of us.

We talk a lot at Keystone about embracing the 'art of the possible'. It's not just a glib marketing slogan; but is a key cultural attitude.

It's a shortcut for focussing the mind on looking at what can be achieved, not just the easy or common route. It means going beyond how things are done now and pushing towards what is possible, exploring and questioning how things can, and should, be better. It helps the schools and trusts we work with develop a clear sense of their aspirations and develops an ethos of going beyond in the way they think about how they manage their schools and trusts to provide better outcomes for pupils. It's a powerful approach.

So, what does this really mean in practice, and how can we practice creative thinking in roles in schools.

There are two schools (pun not intended) of thought about creativity. Both have their merits, which one works for you?

Schumpeter creates a theory of Creative Destruction. Simply put, significant progress occurs when we do something differently and this will likely mean something we currently do has to stop. You can't make an omelette without first breaking some eggs. Right?

Often, we get concerned about protecting the status quo, and this can significantly limit the creative thinking we can do.

Children entering reception this year will still be in classrooms in 2036 if they stay on to do A-Levels. A lot changes in 13 years, and you can bet the last pennies in your tight budgets, that the way we teach in 2036 will be significantly different than how it is in 2023. Therefore, don't we owe it to the children to be thinking creatively about what needs to change and start engaging in that process now?

The other model is known as the Austrian model, but that has pretty much zero to do with the country in the way it's practiced. This theory talks about iterative development, but consciously putting a focus on continual improvement. It requires a mindset of recognising that nothing is quite the finished article, and we can always build on what we have. Too often we set out on a project with an end point in mind. This model of creative thinking recognises the journey, and that the horizon moves as you get closer to it. This gives you a broader perspective of your position in the grand timeline of your school and what comes down the road.

I've personally found tools such as Fishbone diagrams really useful for understanding the core issue of a problem. This then opens up the possibilities of true creative thinking, and then allows you to explore the art of the possible. There's more on our blog about how these tools work in practice, and some real life school examples (

They start with the problem you're trying to solve, this may be something like 'our payroll process isn't efficient'

That problem goes at the 'head' of the fish skeleton diagram. Draw a spine horizontally and then 6 or so 'bones' going off at angles. Title each of those with a broad relevant area, such as 'staff, Software, regulation, budget, processes'. Along the bones of these areas you can then list the reasons that contribute to your problem.

 What becomes clear is that there are several issues that create your problem, not just one. Recognising this gives you the chance to iterate your solutions to meet several of those contributing factors, which will give you a much greater impact and sustained success.

The art of the possible is powerful. Liberate your thinking by taking the time to look at your journey, and not just what you think you know.

About the Author:

Stephen is an experienced leader, with a finance and organisational leadership background, who enjoys going beyond the numbers, and adding real value to an organisation.

He was, until recently, the CEO of a growing 5 school Trust in the Midlands, with a secondary school in the top 1% of schools in the country for Progress 8 measures. He has previously worked as Chief Operating Officer for a multi academy trust which runs 17 schools, with a turnover of approx. £100m, 2,500 staff, and serves 18,000 children.

Stephen qualified as an accountant in 2004 and has an MBA, with a thesis focussing on improving the quality of management in education.

A Fellow of the Chartered Managers Institute (CMgr FCMI), a Fellow of the Institute or School Business Leadership (FISBL), a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Arts (FRSA) and a Member of the Institute of Directors (MIoD). He is also a Professional Associate of the Chartered College of Teaching.

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