Innovate or Die

By David Fox

Innovation is crucial for progress in all fields of life[i] and organisations are no different. Whether is it continuous, incremental improvement or radical innovation, organisations need to be moving forward. In the corporate world, organisations are faced with two options – innovate or die.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the English Language Teaching (ELT) industry highlighted this. In a time when most ELT institutions around the world were closing[i], those that survived and even thrived did so due to their ability to innovate through digital delivery[ii]. But innovation is not something that comes easily.

Enter Design thinking…

Design thinking is receiving increased attention in the business world and is the merging of both a creative and analytic process that allows for participants to experiment, create, gain feedback, redesign and reframe[i].  It is a structure for thinking outside the box, which utilises creative problem-solving.

I experienced this recently in a workshop and witnessed firsthand how effective this can be. My three key takeaways were springboards, excursions, and reframing and I will carry these with me not just in the business world but in life.

I came to the workshop armed with my problem:

How can I attract more people to enrol for ELT teaching courses, without spending a cent on marketing?

This was the headline I threw out to my group for discussion. What followed next blew my mind.


Springboards are all about idea generation by the group. There is no judgement here but only suggestions starting with ‘I wish’ and the reasoning behind them. Questions were discouraged at this stage to allow for a flow of suggestion, no matter how out there or perceivably impossible they were. The ideas came through thick and fast as people leveraged off previous suggestions. By suspending judgement, my eyes were opened to a world of creative possibilities. In three minutes, we had two flip chart pages of wishes but we were slowing down.


We needed to eliminate any obstructions to our creative problem-solving. We needed to put the problem out of our minds with some ‘directed forgetting’[i]. Cue ‘excursions’. Going on excursion from the task at hand in our heads. We did this by writing down all the words we could associate with a previous, unrelated activity we had completed. For me, words and phrases like ‘introverted’, ‘awkward’, ‘here to learn new things’ appeared on my page.  Then we were back to springboards, but now we were all incorporating the ideas from our excursions. This helped me to recognise that my own perceptions and inhibitions were limiting my ability to think creatively.


Now I had pages of wishes and I needed to focus on the ones I liked the best. I spent two minutes choosing my favourites and another minute reframing the problem with a ‘How to…’ sentence stem:

How to raise awareness of the benefits of ELT training in current and new markets through virtual experiences?

This was my problem definition and I now need to explore the pros and cons of the idea through constructive evaluation before I can focus on solving the problem.

This is still a work in progress, and I have spent a lot of time since the workshop playing this through in my mind. What I have learned is that incremental or radical, innovation is necessary, and it should not take a global pandemic to highlight this. Organisations need to be thinking creatively and constantly looking forward. Remember innovation is not a luxury, its life or death.

[i] Beda, Z, Smith, S & Orr, J 2020, ‘Creativity on demand – hacking into creative problem solving’, NeuroImage, vol. 216, pp. 116867 – 116880, viewed 24 January 2020,

[i] Razzouk, R & Shute, V 2012 ‘What is design thinking and why is it important?’, Review of Educational Research, vol. 82, no. 3, pp. 330-348, viewed January 2021,

[i] Yi, Y & Jang, J 2020, ‘Envisioning possibilities amid the COVID‐19 pandemic: implications from English language teaching in South Korea’, TESOL Journal, vol. 11, no. 3, pp. 1-5, viewed 8 September 2020,

Baurain, B 2020, ‘Editorial: TESOL in the time of COVID-19’, International Journal of Christianity and English Language Teaching, Vol. 7, pp. 1-2, viewed 8 September 2020,

[ii]Atmojo, A & Nugroho, A 2020, ‘EFL classes must go online! teaching activities and challenges during COVID-19 pandemic in Indonesia’, Register Journal, vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 49-76, viewed 8 September 2020,   

[i] Drumea, P 2016, ‘The need for innovation’, Hidraulica, vol. 3, p. 5, viewed 18 January 2021,


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