Genius Hour Projects: Start with a Feasibility Study

One of the most common questions I get with a Genius Hour/ 20% Time project is: “Where do you start? While I could go into brainstorming ideas, collecting and connecting methods, or even proposal guidelines, I want to start off with a story to illustrate what a “feasibility study” is and why it may save you time and your sanity.

Two years ago I had a student in my innovation class that loved sports. She was a gifted athlete that was offered several different scholarship opportunities for volleyball. However her brother had Down Syndrome, and she felt that his opportunities to play sports were limited. So after some brainstorming (and watching a “Real Sports” episode on HBO about the Miracle League) she proposed to start a baseball/softball league for special needs athletes.

She did all the things each student was required to do- find collaborators/ mentors to help her, draft up a proposal, create a calendar of accomplishable goals, etc. The proposal looked great because the mentors were top-notch, and her goals seemed in line with her task. Nothing seemed out of place… until she got started.

Three months of somber meetings and survey’s led to more reasons why starting this “league” was nearly impossible for one student to accomplish. She had no idea about the “red tape” that is associated in starting non-profits. She knew nothing of liability insurance, finding board members, or seeking out volunteers.

So, after months of dead ends, and feeling totally defeated, she figured that maybe she should just host one game, then talk with the parents, and see if it was worth pursuing.

In the end, she learned that the parents really didn’t want to volunteer, mostly because they wanted to be a spectator for once. They were, in general, tired and wanted the joy of watching their child play rather than work an event. She also learned that getting past the “legal stuff” was an enormous task.

In her reflection that she turned into me she mentioned that it would have been better if she had asked more questions in the beginning. This led me toward “The Feasibility Study,” which according to Wikipedia is: “an evaluation and analysis of the potential of a proposed project which is based on extensive investigation and research to support the process of decision making.” 

So, had she done this at the beginning of the project, she would have saved weeks, if not months. This would have been a one week study of talking to the parents, mentors, and school administrators to discuss the odds of this project ever getting off the ground.  When she started off she never asked her mentors about the obstacles that were going to creep up. Had they been asked “what am I really up against?” the mentors probably would’ve been honest. Instead they probably didn’t want to crush the her spirit, so they just brought up the obstacles in smaller bits.

I read “Think Like a Freak,” by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, and they wrote about something similar- the Premortem.  Most people know about a “postmortem examination,” (also know as the autopsy) which is a look at why something died, or failed to survive. But here is how Stephen Dubner explains the premortem:

“The idea is simple… it tries to find out what might go wrong before it’s too late. You gather up everyone connected with a project and have them imagine that it launched and failed miserably. Now each write own the exact reasons for its failure.”

 Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brainimages-2

So learning from the past (and from the good guy at Freakonomics), I now start every large project with a “Premortem,” usually in a group setting. We place post-it notes to the wall for every conceivable idea on why any large project will fail. Then the smaller groups take the proposal to the mentors, but instead of asking them to help, they ask them for candor. “Can this work?” or “Can you come up with three reasons why I shouldn’t start this project” are now common questions for the mentors.

So I admit a feasibility study might “scare the creativity out of them” or cause “analysis paralysis,” I believe it is worth the time and effort to do a feasibility study. Believe is or not, knowing when to quit is a valuable skill. We just took a field trip to the Silicon Valley area this fall and heard this from several developers at Google, Facebook, and Voxer when we visited their headquarters. In fact the smaller start-up Invoice2Go CEO told us that trial and error learning happens fast. Trying to stick with an idea that is bound to fail is pointless. Basically what my students heard was: “Fail fast and fail often. Get the data, then get it right.”

“Fail early and often” at Invoice2Go

Learning from the development team at Facebook

Learning from the development team at Facebook

Learning about workspaces at Google

Learning about workspaces at Google

Earlier this year I had a group that wanted to start an ASL (American Sign Language) class. They felt that our school should offer ASL class in the foreign language department, and there was a need/ demand for the class. They wrote up a proposal, found two good mentors, and had reasonable goals. What they didn’t realize is that they have NO say over the school budget. They never thought about who was going to hire a teacher for a class that didn’t exist yet. After one day of the feasibility study (they met with the Principal), the team learned that they had to demonstrate demand. They hadn’t thought about the potential of “replacing” a teacher that taught a less popular class, let alone the money it would take to hire a new teacher. Then they learned about the curriculum costs, scheduling tasks, etc.

So after the study they took all the data and re-focused their project: start an ASL CLUB. A club could be student-led, would be virtually free to offer, and most importantly, would show a demand in student interest if they would want to still pursue it as a class offering.

I wrote a book titled “Pure Genius: Building a Culture of Collaboration and Taking 20% Time to the Next Level” because these types of learning experiences has changed the way I feel about education. I am more inspired by my students everyday by providing them some freedom and creating a culture that encourages collaboration and a willingness to take risks. I also wanted to ease the fears of students embracing social media as a means of showcasing work and finding great mentors.

Pure Genius

If you have any questions about our unique class, or want to learn more about Genius Hour, I encourage you to connect with me, or other great educational leaders like Joy Kirr, A.J. Juliani, and Chris Kesler (among many others). The movement is taking shape, and these connected educators are always willing to help! If you do a Twitter search for #GeniusHour or #20Time you will come across some great resources. Or is you would like, feel free to email me at:

“Opportunities Are Everywhere”

-Don Wettrick


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