What if you had to increase results by 1,000% with fewer resources than you have today? Impossible. How would you even get started, when simply working harder, using the same approach, is not likely to get you there?

Leadership Public Schools, an innovative charter school system in Northern California, faced such an impossible situation. When students arrive at one of the three LPS high schools in poor communities like Richmond, they're already several grades behind the kids from more well to do neighborhoods across the San Francisco Bay. It's a tough environment for the teachers, made tougher by the funding cuts post Great Recession. Back in 2008, less than 10% of LPS students reached college readiness.

But rather than accept this reality, the teachers at LPS did something counterintuitive: they increased their ambition. What, they asked themselves, would they need to do to get 100% of their students to college readiness--a 1,000% increase? How could they possibly accelerate learning 2-3 grade levels per year of high school when, to quote CEO Dr. Louise Waters, "these students have given up on school?"

This scale of the ambition requires a major re-think. So Dr. Waters and team began by white boarding everything, revealing tired models and assumptions, challenging each other to get down to the fundamentals of how to boost educational achievement. The two Holy Grails, they determined, are Differentiation and Intervention, i.e. the ability to understand the unique needs of a particular student and to customize teaching accordingly.

But conventional wisdom would prescribe thousands of hours of one-on-one tutoring to accelerate learning in this way, not something LPS could afford. A better solution showed up in the form of donation from a foundation: the kind of remote-control devices used to poll audiences at conferences.

On a hunch these "clickers" were put to use in one math class in one school and the teacher noticed how much more engagement he achieved as the kids became interested in seeing their collective results in real time. Improvement became a game.

The team gambled and spent all their spare resources to hire a part time CIO to develop "the ultimate clicker," reprogramming used iPods bought on eBay to give the teacher just enough data by student, allowing for quick, customized interventions in real time.

The program bore fruit, achieving its impossible goal of 2-3 grade level advancements in a single year in math and science, and by 2013 a third of LPS's students were college-ready without remediation--short of their big ambition of 100%, but a huge improvement nonetheless. LPS spun off a start-up around the finished product called Exit Ticket, the proceeds from which they will reinvest in more innovation to meet their goals. By asking hard questions they reinvented their teaching process and their business model.

So what can we learn from LPS?

  • If you want to achieve outsize growth you'll need to break path dependence: Understandably, organizations, like people, create habits around success. But these habits may stop serving us when circumstances change. They may blind us to opportunity. From time to time leaders must reexamine the model, challenge deeply held assumptions, and reveal biases, in order to see new paths to success.
  • In the face of constraints, increase ambition: A good way to break path dependence is to dramatically change the equation between ambitions and constraints by asking a Propelling Question, one that pairs an increase in ambition with the very real constraints of the day (such as 100% college readiness with less funding). Demanding a 1,000% improvement without any increase in resource necessitates a major rethink of method and model. Ask your organization a Propelling Question.
  • Ensure your question has legitimacy: The teachers at LPS badly wanted to give their students a better chance of success, it is why they do the work they do. A powerful, legitimate ambition, coupled to the purpose of the organization will find its own advocates. This is not an excuse to put the squeeze a good team.
  • Fresh answers will find their way to fresh questions: Would LPS have spotted the opportunity in the clickers had they not formally stated their Propelling Question? Maybe. But the process of articulating ambitious questions whose answer can't readily be found speeds the process of discovery.

Repeatability is vital to any successful business model. It helps prescribe the right behaviors, drives efficiencies, and builds confidence. But when someone in that organization tells you something is impossible, what they really mean is it's impossible given the way we currently do things. A healthy organization will challenge itself with the impossible. Becoming path dependent is inevitable unless we deliberately create methods to break it.