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Column: A spark of genius

Keith Jacobus

By Keith Jacobus, South Washington County Schools superintendent

For me, there is nothing better than spending time in a kindergarten classroom watching and listening to the joy kids exhibit when discovering new things and sharing their thinking with others. The room is filled with energy, laughter and creative ideas. Sometimes, an idea is shouted out when something new captures their imagination.

Young children seem to demonstrate more creativity on a regular basis than we do as adults. Is it true that kids are more creative? Is it true that some of us are not creative? I would argue "no" to both questions. The difference is how novel ideas are generated in our brains and how freely we express our thinking and capture those thoughts.

Novel ideas frequently come to us when our mind is in a relaxed state. Einstein used to nap when he was struggling with a problem. People commonly say they had an idea while taking a shower. We are all creative. We just need an outlet to stimulate our thinking and, more importantly, to capture our thoughts. Great ideas are generated everyday and lost because of the many responsibilities we have and the constant stream of data our brains are processing. Also, ideas become "great" by refining them through input from others and working through how to implement them to solve a problem.

This year, we initiated a process to help capture the great thinking of our staff we know takes place each and every day in our school district. We wanted to provide an opportunity for people to share their ideas on any problem or innovation they were considering. We wanted the entire staff to have the opportunity to weigh in on these ideas, help refine them and determine which ones are the most important to implement. Following the lead of other school districts in the metro area, we launched a crowd-sourcing innovation program called Spark.

The first phase of Spark, "idea generation," was launched in October. Staff had the opportunity to enter their idea into a website. They were asked to describe the problem or innovation, what was currently happening to address the issue and describe their potential solution. Ideas were self-identified as small, medium and large based on how many people the issue affects and an estimate on how much the solution might cost. In all, 128 ideas were submitted.

During the second phase, people could login and vote for the ideas they liked best. Ideas were randomly presented in pairs and voters simply checked a box for the idea they liked best. People could vote for as many pairs as they wanted during the session and could vote as many times as they would like. The goal was to generate the most supported ideas from the entire population of our staff. I am excited to say that many district employees took part in the process and that during the voting phase, more than 55,000 votes were cast.

So, what were the top ideas? In the small category, the title of the idea was Converting documents to working/electronic documents. The medium idea was called Restructuring parent/teacher conferences and the idea in the big category was titled Growing mental health needs. These ideas will now move on to the final phase of the program — the design-thinking process. Each idea will have a team of people using the design-thinking process to better understand how the problem is affecting the district and if implementing the new idea is a possibility.

Our goal is to honor and cultivate the thinking of our staff. Every day they are working to improve our system and help our kids succeed. We know that, collectively, we are better as a group. We want every employee in our system to know their thinking matters and they can spark a change in our district that can positively affect our staff and students.

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