A Year of Thinking School

Its been a year since the first Thinking.School blog post, so I thought it would be worth taking a moment to reflect on it.

We started finding our creative voice

First thing I notice looking at the videos we started posting in 2016 was that it was raw. Really raw. The production, the filming, the audio, the content. Raw. So what changed in the year? Well, I spent a lot of time talking to people and watching how they produced their content. I found that there are a zillion tricks to filming and recording to make it faster to produce once it is in the studio. The bottom line though: get it right when you record.

So, what's the best way to get it right when you record? Know your gear: those first videos used all sorts of solutions to try and get the production right - high-end gear which should have been better - but it was just too fiddly or too hard to calibrate. We finally found a low cost production rig that gave spectacular results.

Gear nerd warning: All the content we produce now comes from a pair of GoPro Hero 4's with some high-end lens-filters on them (neutral density and polarization) and a pair of Rode SmartLav mic's plugged into an iPhone using an audio recording app called RodeRec. The only other tool we really rely on is iZotope's RX5 which we use to clean up the audio in post production. On top of the production workflow, we spent some time getting our 'look and feel' sorted out with our sound-track thanks to Bent Stamnes and the glitch-style intro titles. By getting a better workflow we improved the look and quality of each episode while we also cut our production-time per episode down from two days to around 2 hours - from film shoot to post production to YouTube upload!

More important than the look and feel though, was the content. It took a long time to get really clear on how to break down what I was working on every day - either researching or building the course material - and making it short, sharp and meaningful for someone in five minutes. I don't pretend to have that down quite yet - but it has come a long way in the last year. We're trying out more mediums - like the podcast and blog posts - to see which format people really appreciate more.

We found the right customer

So much time was spent finding the right audience. Initially I thought we might deliver the Thinking.School curriculum online and direct to consumers, however after six months, I found myself in a situation where I was trying to build a consumer-facing content-marketing pipeline, while real opportunities were coming from enterprise and corporate clients.

This meant I had to pivot the sales, marketing and delivery of the product: how you deliver behavior-change courses like this is vastly different when it's an enterprise client rather than a single consumer. Not to mention the sales process. Mind you - I didn't mind the idea of being focused on enterprise/corporate sales since we have done that for the last 14 years.

Two courses

There was a LOT of time spent on research. The research took two paths and ended up becoming two distinct courses. Its interesting how as the two distinct courses emerged so did the customers for them! Here's the outline on what the courses ended up as:

Innovation Leadership: Basically CEO and exec-level management are not that interested in using 'design thinking' or 'creative problem solving' - but they are very interested in how they can be more innovative as an organisation. How they can lead innovation and 'manage' it. They know innovation is the secret to them having a competitive edge. They even have 'innovation' projects - but they just want more structure around how to build a culture of innovation and how to manage the result of that creative culture with discipline. So I brought together a bunch of content combining Self-Determination Theory, Innovation Leadership and Agile Project Management into a single course that executives can really engage with.

Creative Problem Solving: Once you need to start solving problems - big problems - you need a workflow and some tools to help structure the process for you. This was actually the origin of Thinking.School. I had been using a set of thinking tools with clients for decades which they thought were really useful and powerful. These tools were the foundation of our strategic software consulting business, which is called Thinking.Studio and has been running for nearly 15 years. (Previously called Pixolut)

My question was this: how can I empower these people I work with every day to use these tools themselves? Wouldn't the impact be that much greater if we could teach people to do this on their own? Turns out, I'm not the first person to have this idea: not by a long shot - so the Creative Problem Solving curriculum brings together the best problem-solving frameworks (Design Thinking, Creative Problem Solving, TRIZ) with a bunch of 'Thinking Tools' (thinking strategies, collaboration strategies and visualization techniques) - some designed by me - to empower people to be more effective.

Ongoing value

Once we started delivering the half-day, full day and two day courses - the next thing we realized was that we were in the behavior change business. Problem: people don't change after two days!

The solution was to engage the team with their own challenges - they set the targets and measures - and we measure them and support them through a portal designed specifically for them and with an online community where the team can participate. The videos and audio from the event is there for people to refer to. Their whiteboards, ideas and targets are there for everyone to refer back to and we support the teams with live coaching as well as being there within the community to comment and provide feedback in the forums. Its really a huge buzz to see teams take this and run with it.

I learned a LOT - but mostly - I learned how to listen

So last year was a blast - and even though it was very challenging to get through all these things and still be actively engaged in the rest of the Thinking.Group companies - I would not change anything. I would say the best thing about last year was finding some outstanding people to work with. Finding our creative voice, the right customer and building the courses would not have happened if it were not for those amazing people.

A retrospective would not be complete if I didn't pause to reflect on the failures. Last year provided many good ones: when I got feedback from people that aspects of the material was not clear, or that I was not facilitating the right way for a situation, I had a chance to grow. That was scary and exciting. Comfort zone: gone.

Learning to listen with a new depth, to focus on people and their needs with a new intensity, has been the greatest gift that last year gave me.

...With that, I think we're ready to take on 2017...

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Make sure you let me know what you think in the comments...