Design Thinking

Urgent Optimism: How to Give Your Team the Skills to be Futurists

2022 is quickly coming to a close. As we begin a new school year we have two options.

Option 1: We keep doing what we’ve always been doing. Go one more year facing the same challenges, and wishing for a different future in education.

Option 2: We choose to imagine and design a different future and we give people the skills and strategies to be successful in this endeavor.

If you clicked to read this article, chances are you are interested in option 2.

Imagining and designing a different future elicits a feeling of curiosity and excitement within you, and you want everyone on your team to be enthusiastic about what’s possible. 

I recently learned about the book, “Imaginable: How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything – Even Things That Seem Impossible Today,” on the Goop podcast hosted by Gwenyth Paltrow. In this post I’m going to share how you can use this podcast episode to begin the 2022-2023 school year with what she calls urgent optimism. 

What Is Urgent Optimism

Urgent optimism is the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success. It acknowledges that there are challenges, yet there is an understanding that we have the strategies and skills to overcome them and create our own future. 

Urgent optimism is made up of three psychological strengths that you continuously develop:

Psychological flexibility. It’s the opposite of being “stuck” mentally. It’s the ability to recognize that anything can become different in the future, even things that seem impossible to change today.

Realistic hope. It’s a balance of positive and shadow imagination. It’s knowing which risks and threats it makes sense to worry about – and which new solutions, technologies, ideas, and positive actions it makes sense to be excited and optimistic about.

Future power. It’s a feeling of control and genuine agency to directly impact how the future turns out, by taking intentional action today.

While we must be aware of challenges, we need to fill our brains with positive ideas and solutions. These skills of resilience, stress tolerance, flexibility, problem solving, and ideation are all identified amongst  the top 10 skills identified by the World Economic Forum. 

World Economic Forum Trending Skills 2025
Future of Jobs Report | World Economic Forum | 2022

In her book McGonigal also shares that futurist thinking, or foresight is a human right. She shares that too many people feel disempowered from creating the change that they want to see. Everyone deserves to have a voice, and with today’s tools and platforms, everyone can have a voice. One recurring observation I had when working with schools, specifically over the past 3 years, was how many people were waiting for others to give them permission. Design thinking practices give people the conversation structures and scaffolds to design the future, today.

How Educators Described The Past Year

Describe how you felt about work this past year in one word? 

That’s the question Michael Cohen and I opened our session with at ISTE when presenting, “5 Ways Design Thinking Can Impact Faculty Culture and Collaboration.”

What would your word be? The one word no one mentioned was optimistic. 

Overwhelmed, was by far the repeated response. How might we turn feeling overwhelmed into feeling optimistic? I’ve created an experience you can facilitate with your team to introduce this idea and have them reflect on their role as futurists.

You can download the deck and facilitation guide using the form below.

How To Introduce Urgent Optimism

I love books, however before making the commitment I first listen to a podcast. That’s how I recommend you invite others in your organization to this conversation.

You’ll want to set aside two 60-minute sessions. While you could do it all in one go, I don’t recommend it because the reflection and processing time in between will strengthen the dialogue. If you have any questions about the exercises or how to best facilitate you can email me at sabba@designingschools.org, or send me a message on any of my social channels.

Step One: Share the podcast episode

Here is a link to the episode on the Goop podcast where Jane McGonigal discusses her book Imaginable and shares how to think like a futurist. You can download this slide deck that has all the steps and is ready for you to customize and present.

Step Two: Support the podcast with discussion prompts

When designing workshops I lean heavily on frameworks and prompts that already exist, so I can spend more time thinking about their integration. I use the Visible Thinking Routines from Harvard’s Project Zero, and Liberating Structures. The prompts below are adapted from these sources.

3 Thoughts. 2 Questions. As people listen to the episode, have them write 3 thoughts and 2 questions. While they are welcome to do more, this is the minimum they’ll need to bring to your group meeting. 

Step Three: Discuss the episode as a group

Have everyone bring their episode notes. When everyone is together, it might be a faculty meeting, a team meeting, however you have it organized, you’re going to lead the group with a liberating structure called 1-2-4-All

Everyone has already individually noted down their thoughts and questions, so we’re going to start with people sharing these in pairs. Each pair will create 1 new thought, and 1 new question from their conversation.*

**Note: they may ask if they can use one of their original questions. While the theme can be similar, the idea is that the conversation evolves, and a more refined version of the thoughts and questions emerges.

Each pair will join together with another pair and share their new thought and question with each other. 

Step Four: Listing Facts: Practicing Agility and Open Mindedness

At the 42:33 mark in the episode Gwenyth asks Jane how we can begin to practice agility and open mindedness about designing the future. She shares an activity that I’ve slightly modified. 

You can keep it in the original form if you wish.  

Have each person in the group of 4 list 10 things that are true about school today. This can be about the school/district they are in, or about their role. Together they will have written 40 facts.

For example they might list:

  • Teachers work alone to create lessons
  • Adults feel overwhelmed

Step Five: From Fact to Fiction: Practicing Agility and Open Mindedness

Then each person will rewrite their statement so that the opposite is true, or create an alternative. These alternatives are now the foundation to inspire what is possible. 

When thinking about the previous examples they might say:

  • Teachers work in teams to design learning experiences
  • Adults feel optimistic and energized 

Step Six: Group Voting

Each person in the group will choose 3 alternative statements to post on the wall.

Each person will be given 3 red dots to use to vote for the alternative statement that resonates with them, or that they would like to learn more about. The group will then vote and choose the top 4 voted alternatives.

Step Seven: How Might We…

The group will take their four voted alternatives and turn them into a “How might we…” statement. Between now and the next meeting their goal is to find someone who is doing that or to create how this could become a possibility. 

In keeping with our examples they might share:

  • How might we give groups of teachers the same students to co-create learning experiences across subjects?
  • How might we collaborate based on what energizes us?

Step Eight: Closing Reflection

Give everyone 3 minutes to respond to the following prompt:

  • When thinking about this school year, I used to think _______ and now I think ______ so I will ______.

Facilitation Advice

Ask. Don’t Answer. Your role is to elicit thoughts and feelings from your audience, and make connections between what people are saying. You do this by asking questions that allow everyone to go deeper into the dialogue. 

Structure Creates Freedom. While it’s tempting to let things get off track, make an exception to the design of your exercises here and there, all these little changes open the door to conversations and people being sidetracked. While it sounds counterintuitive, the more structure you have, the more freedom ideas have to flourish.

Timekeeping. Clearly state how much time will be dedicated to each activity. Have a timer visible and share a reminder at the last 30s, and 10s mark. 

Clear Directions. Don’t overcomplicate things with lots of text on a slide. Have clear bullets in a list for what needs to happen in step 1, step 2 etc. Break up activities as much as possible to avoid too much happening all at once. 

Documentary Launch – Designing Schools: The Future is a Place We Create

On September 7th the documentary I’ve been working on, “Designing Schools: The Future is a Place We Create,” will finally be ready to be released to the world! You can view the trailer here and I invite you to share it as together we create a culture of urgent optimism across education and beyond.

I facilitate design thinking workshops for individuals and groups. If you’re interested in learning more and being part of a workshop experience, you can learn more here. Or send me a message and let’s discuss. 

A design thinking workshop is one of the best investments you can make, as you can apply the strategies and skills to every scenario.  It strengthens your mindset and skills toward managing change, creating a culture of innovation amongst your teams, and helps you move from feeling overwhelmed to feeling optimistic about the future. 

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