Imaginative Thinking and Escaping The Past


Publication date:

March 30, 2021


In my book, “Rough Diamonds” (, I explain my dislike for giving ready-made recipes to solve problems. The rationale given is that recipes don’t require any thought; they are just tasks to be executed with little mental activity beyond remembering the recipe.

As thought and reflection are fundamental to learning, relying on recipes circumvents learning. Hence, I wrote my book not as a cookbook but as a series of observations, reflections, and inspiring thoughts. Unless we are willing to learn and question the very mindset we have become a hostage of, not much change will occur. As Einstein used to quip :” you can’t solve a problem with the mindset that created it.”

In that sense, I am a big fan of out-of-the-box thinking. Not easy to do but learning only starts when we leave our comfort zones. It is interesting to observe that out-of-the-box thinking is preached left and right but I know of no school that actually teaches how to do it. We also don’t generally practice what we preach. We should reflect on that and perhaps change course.

Even inside-the-box thinking is a challenge for many. Readers of my book have asked me what I would do. Don’t get me started! I have never been short of escape velocity! I don’t have all the answers but I know what I would play and experiment with. Here are two examples of what I played with in executive education. I give them to illustrate how easy it is to innovate if one is willing to experiment and open to learning from it.

One example is in-class real-time personalization using an online platform. I don’t see online and offline as parallel universes where the use of one precludes the use of the other. They can (and should) be woven together into creating valuable learning experiences for participants (and faculty).

In my teaching, participants have to bring their tech toys to class. I believe that me stepping into their world is far more effective than me requiring them to step into mine. Hence, class discussions evolve around their screens and not mine. One experiment I played with was to enable online questioning as the in-class discussion unfolded. Using Tencent’s WeChat platform (popular in Asia and China), participants could ask questions online all through the class discussions. The questions raised related to clarifications or additional sources of information that would aid the participants’ understanding, illustrative examples from their own industries, etc. I could see all the online posts on screens in the back of the classroom. It gave me a much broader picture of what was on the minds of those in the classroom than the one I could piece together  from my direct interactions with the participants in the classroom.

I picked up on some  of the questions raised while a backup team provided answers to other questions. Hence, we had a rich  discussion that involved online and offline interactions simultaneously. It enabled, for example, for each participant to get complete scaffolding in their own industry for what was being discussed in more general terms in the classroom . It takes a bit of effort to set this up but my interest was in learning how to weave online and offline together in real-time learning and explore the feasibility of building intelligent systems to help support such learning.

Another example was extending learning beyond those present in the classroom. I am a big believer in gamefied learning and I have used (and developed) simulation games as alternative tools for effective learning. In one particular case, I had senior execs playing a game in the class but had their respective back-office teams help them with analyses etc. The back-office teams could observe my in-class interactions with the senior execs online but could not participate in them. Hence, I only dealt with the top of the decision pyramids (the senior execs present in the classroom) but the decision processes activated in the game mimicked the decision-making processes these senior execs were familiar with. This not only enriched the learning of  the senior executives present in the classroom with me but extended the value of the gamefied learning beyond them and well into their organizations. Again, senior execs interacted with their teams in real time using an online platform. Evidently, this experiment can be extended to further broaden the bandwidth and deepen,  standard in-class learning.

Maybe my head works different but I have never been short of ideas on how to innovate within the standard classroom setting. What helps me in this is that I get easily bored doing the same thing over and over. I have had to teach the same class more than once over time but I never did it exactly the same way. I just cannot do it. I constantly look for and explore novel ways to encourage and support thinking in my students.

Of course, with the massive move to onine teaching as a result of the pandemic, even more creative approaches can be envisioned as we are no longer constrained by the physical classroom setting. Where I see in this an opportunity to leave the classroom concept behind and innovate beyond it, I find it is amusing to see how most schools hold on to the classroom concept to steady themselves in the chaos that the pandemic created.

Innovation beyond standard classroom teaching that would benefit learning for all is not rocket science. All it t takes is a willingness to experiment. Isn’t that where a lot of our learning originates from? We should perhaps take a dose of our own medicine and learn to practice what we preach.

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