We are presently in the midst of the most innovative period in the history of education since the invention of the overhead projector (ah, those were heady days!). To meet the needs of student learning in this unusual environment, the great mass of skilled and passionate educators in this country are harnessing digital tools in unfamiliar and original ways. But sudden change is always accompanied by a certain level of trepidation. Whenever we try something new, the fear of failure always looms. I’m going to suggest something that has worked for me whenever, as a school leader, I’ve tried new things, the “soft launch”.
When a restaurant opens, before they put up signs and advertise their Grand Opening, they often do what’s called a soft launch. They open for business, start serving food, get the waiters used to the way the chef works in the kitchen, get a sense of which dishes people prefer, experiment with the drink menu, work out all the kinks. The soft launch allows the restaurant to figure things out before they put their reputation on the line.
If you’ve ever been to a restaurant in this phase of development, it’s rather exciting actually. You’re trying new things, there’s a casual atmosphere of experimentation, sometimes the food is cheaper. We once happened by accident to wander into a restaurant during its soft launch and because they didn’t have a liquor license yet, they were doing BYOB. We didn’t know, so we hadn’t brought anything with us. The owner ran across the street and bought us a bottle of wine to have with dinner.
People are much more understanding and forgiving of imperfection during the soft launch. They recognize the passion and commitment of the people behind the restaurant, they sincerely want it to succeed. We went back to that restaurant several months later, although the food was fantastic, it was never as much fun as that first time we went. The waiter was genuinely enthusiastic and committed to this new venture on that first visit, so what if he brought us the wrong dessert.
I’ve used the soft launch when trying new things as a school leader.
I had some ideas about running digital student forums during this school closure, but I was unsure about some of the new features of Google Hangouts. Specifically, I wasn’t sure how to Livestream and how to record while in a Hangout. I went onto our learning management system, Canvas, and posted an announcement, “Anybody have time for a 20 minute Google Hangout, just want to check in.” In just 10 minutes I had 25 students in a conversation. We had fun talking about the quarantine. Kids shared how they’re getting along with remote learning. One kid even played the violin. It wasn’t smooth, it wasn’t perfect, but it was a lot of fun. And now I know how to live stream and record a Google Hangout. I’ll use what I learned to do a digital PTA meeting next week and schoolwide forums for students.
Often, on the first night a restaurant opens for their soft launch, they invite only family and friends. You can do the same thing with your innovation project. Our incredible public relations director, Denise, was planning our first digital school board meeting. She invited the administrative cabinet to be the audience for a panel of central office leaders while they worked out the process. We had fun seeing them play with their backgrounds, adjust the volume, fix their hair, and joke around while we used the chat function. Denise worked through 3 or 4 glitches that she wouldn’t have anticipated if we hadn’t done this soft launch before the actual public meeting.
Harry Houdini once escaped from a straitjacket and chains while suspended by a wire 60 feet over Times Square. Do you think this was the first time he ever wriggled out of a straitjacket while hanging upside down? No way, he did it hundreds of times in the basement of his tenement before announcing to the public that he would do it at the most crowded spot in New York City. You can do the same thing. For educators, these times call for our best efforts. Embrace innovation, but consider the soft launch. You’ll crush the anxiety associated with change, have fun, and learn from your mistakes. Let me know how it goes.