The following letter was written by Sep Kamvar to faculty at Wildflower schools.


Our “Default To Yes” Culture

All of you have likely been at an organization in which you brought up a new idea that has been met with resistance. In fact, resistance to new ideas is the natural state of organizations, for four reasons:

  1. People get used to the way things are. Once an organization has certain systems in place, changing those systems brings about a certain level of discomfort. Often, good ideas are killed simply by saying: “That’s not how we do things here.”
  2. Everything touches everything else. So a change in one thing will likely have unanticipated consequences, some positive, some negative. Regardless, proactively bringing on unanticipated consequences is scary.
  3. It's easier to be critical than constructive. There are dozens of reasons why any new idea won’t work, or would be a bad idea. (This is particularly true for good ideas.) Because its so much easier to be critical than constructive, the natural tendency when hearing a new idea is to say why it won’t work.
  4. New ideas are very fragile things. In a large enough group, if you bring up a new idea, there will be at least one person who will have an issue with it, and bring that issue up. That single voice of criticism is often enough to kill a good idea before it has a chance to grow.

The consequence of this is that organizations calcify quickly. They resist innovation. And soon enough, the people within them feel like they are a cog in a machine, unable to have meaningful impact on the organization of which they are a member.

A good way to address this is by creating a culture that embraces autonomous small-scale experimentation. This must be intentional, since the natural state of organizations is to resist change. At Wildflower, we create this culture in six ways:

  1. Default to Yes.  If somebody brings up an idea in a faculty meeting; the default response should be: “Yes, that sounds like a very interesting idea, do you want to try an experiment on that at your school?” Empower the person who has the idea to try a pilot. In the process of designing the pilot, a lot of the concerns that you might have in your head will naturally be addressed by the person putting together the pilot.
  2. Don’t overdiscuss in the faculty meeting. The faculty meeting shouldn’t be a venue where the details of pilots are hammered out. Once the high level idea is proposed, the job at the faculty meeting should be to ask for volunteers to flesh out a broader proposal. The task force will come back with a recommendation and request for advice.
  3. Don’t be a gatekeeper, be an improver. If you have a concern about a pilot that is being put together, take time outside the group meeting to come up with and suggest constructive alternatives that works with the original spirit of the pilot.  
  4. Know that the first implementation won’t be the final one. The process of coming to an idea is a process of continuous iteration.  No decision is final; we should continuously seek to iterate and improve.
  5. Have an escape hatch. All pilots should start with the idea that there is some chance that they won’t work. If we are pushing the boundaries enough, there should be many that don’t work. So each pilot should be positioned as a temporary experiment, that has a limited lifespan (say 3 months), and an assessment period after that.
  6. Have a process by which, if the idea turns out to be a good one, it gets adopted by other schools. This can be as simple as communicating how things are going at the end of the 3-month-period.

Overall, what we want to create is an environment where people’s ideas -- regardless how crazy -- feel supported by others, where people have a mechanism to try out these ideas, iterate on them, abandon them if they don’t work, and help them to spread if they do.  

If we are successful at this, everybody will feel alive with possibility, and as a side effect, good ideas will spread.