#424  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 9          September 1999

A Lesson About Vision 
by Jack V. Matson, Ph.D. and Jeff Soper, Ph.D.,

Dr. Matson is Professor and Dr. Soper is Assistant Professor, College of Engineering, Pennsylvania State University.

We teach a course, “Creativity, Innovation, and Change” to senior  students who are completing the requirements for the Engineering Leadership Development Minor, a six- course curriculum open to any major at Penn State. The other courses deal with the principles of leadership, leadership in organizations, entrepreneurship, and a leadership internship.  Approximately one hundred students are enrolled in the Minor. By the time the students take the course, they think they have mastered leadership.  One of the purposes of the course is to bring them back to reality, that being they are just raw beginners.

Student Leadership?

We offered the thirty students an eight-page syllabus delineating what they would learn, how they would learn it, and the methods of evaluation.  We then offered them the opportunity to reject the syllabus and develop their own.  As potential hot-shot leaders, they were unanimous in voting to throw out the syllabus.  They kept the course outline, but wanted teach each other the subject matter. We were relegated to be students in the class with no special privileges.  Our mantra in response to their decisions was that three questions had to be answered: 1) What are you going to do? (the vision thing); 2) How are you going to do it?; and 3) How are your going to know how well you’ve done it?

The students divided themselves into groups and developed weekly exercises in various topics such as brainstorming, fast failure, feedback, etc.  In the third week of class, a group of students requested a time out to discuss if the class was headed in the right direction (the vision thing). The majority decision was to carry on as planned.  More activities followed.  Dissatisfaction grew.  The activities didn’t flow together, or grow, or lead to anything.  Activity without vision was mostly a waste of time.  Students started dropping out.  We repeated the mantra with no noticeable impact.  Civility was breaking down in the classroom with students arguing and debating minor points.  Leadership became a ritual of whoever could shout the loudest.   Were these really the leaders of the future?

With one week to go in the semester, the problem of grades loomed large. How were letter grades to be allocated?  Some students wanted to punt the decision back to us.  We refused.  The students discussed how the grades should be based on how well each one of them met the course requirements.  But what were the requirements?  They decided to have each one of them determine his or her own requirements and give themselves a grade.   The paradoxical result was that eighty percent of the students gave themselves  “A’s,” yet deemed the course a failure.

Turning Failure to Success

Was there any way to redeem the course?  The class decided to spend the Saturday before finals at a cabin in the woods to resolve the issue of grades and the meaning of the course.  We acted as facilitators and tossed out the three essential questions:  1) What are we going to do here? 2) How are we going to do it? and 3) How are we to evaluate our progress?  We tackled the vision question by asking each student what he or she expected to get out of the day.  Almost all expected to learn the processes of creativity, innovation, and change.  

Next, we asked how we would decide whether the day was a success.  With some creative input, it was agreed that each person at the end had to state whether or not the goal had been met. Further, if anyone didn’t agree, his or her concern had to be worked out before we would disband.  The process question was cleverly addressed be tossing a cushion around to each person.  The one throwing the cushion had to ask a question about creativity, innovation and change to the one who caught it.  That person then answered the question, asked his or her own, and threw the cushion to someone else. 

The students left knowing what the course was all about.  We, the faculty, didn’t know in advance if anything would happen on that Saturday.  We had to have faith in questions posed throughout the course.  The lesson that finally got across to the students was:  If you know where you’re going, and you have some ideas on how to get there and how to evaluate your progress, the processes of creativity, innovation, and change will eventually occur.   

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