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  • Writer's pictureMichael Walter

Not “no” but “not yet” – how to support your student leaders to develop feasible and viable project ideas

Students can become frustrated when they suggest ideas to the school leadership only to get rejected each time. This can cause a lower morale and lead to a lack of momentum with developing new ideas. “They said no to our last idea, they’ll probably say no to the next idea!”

The school leadership often have good reason for the rejection of the idea, “The idea was unsafe and expensive, it would never have been approved by the school leadership.” OR “It was a great idea and if we had an extra couple of grand floating around, we would’ve let them do it!”

Neither group is wrong, however if students hear “no” too many times, they will quickly become despondent, and a culture may form where students feel they aren’t being heard.

How do we fix this dichotomy?

Rather than saying “no” develop a practice of saying “not yet”. Share with them the reasons why this initial part of the idea has been rejected. Iteration is a key aspect of design thinking. It is extremely unlikely that the complete idea will be formed from the initial conception. We develop our ideas with limited information and some of the information we have might be biased or incorrect.

We must learn what the constraints are and then adapt our idea/project to be better suited. Student leadership is a great opportunity for students to learn this process. While it can be frustrating, it better matches life. When they begin working professionally, they’ll quickly learn that they need to listen to their customer, manager, constituents, and key stakeholders when developing a project. So, let’s help them learn this highly important skill now. By providing a scaffold to formulating new ideas you can help develop these important skills for your students.

Below are some steps that will help create a review process that will enable more feasible and viable ideas.

1. Communicate with your student leaders and key stakeholders and explore options

Canvas ideas and support from your student leaders on how they’d like this process to be. It can be tempting to do this in large groups (as it might seem more efficient) however these can quickly become talkfests where lots are said but not much is done. Organise smaller conversation groups of 3 or 4 students and share what you are thinking. They will have insights that you might never have considered that will enable a much better process to be designed.

Do the same with your key stakeholders. Try and understand what leads to an idea being rejected and what their decision process is. This will help you incorporate and mitigate these issues earlier in the process.

2. Develop and communicate a pilot of the review process

Go back to your stakeholders (students and executive leadership) and explain what you’ve developed. Ask for their feedback and incorporate this.


3. Communicate the plan to other champions in your school

Seek others who can help you manage this process. Consider your capacity to review all the ideas and bake this into the design of the process.

4. Implement the review process

Develop a clear visual of the review process. Keep it simple as you don’t want to scare students from submitting their ideas. Consider using technology for your process. This could be a Microsoft form, a Google form or a simple form on the school intranet.

5. Make changes as challenges occur

In any design process accept that you will need to iterate as you discover problems with the process you have designed.



Alongside developing this process you’ll also need to develop a culture that supports innovation.

6. Provide some resources on how to improve the project idea

As ideas come in, support your students to hone their idea to something that is feasible, viable, desirable and ethical.

A venn diagram with 4 circles containing the words desirable, feasible, ethical and viable
Melbourne design studio Meld developed this visual to describe this criteria

Feasible: Can it be done? Is it safe?

Viable: Do we have budget to make it happen?

Desirable: Does anyone want this, or is it just a shiny idea?

Ethical: Is this idea good for the environment? Is anyone excluded by this idea?

If students understand the criteria that their creative project idea will be assessed against, they can prepare for this when putting together their proposal.

You don’t want to dampen the creative process too early; this is why design separates ideation from implementation. Consider ways that you might have facilitate ideation sessions with your students (prior to submitting ideas into the review process.)

7. Develop a “not yet” mindset rather than a “no” mindset

Having reviewed the ideas that come through the review process don’t say “no” to the project ideas say, “not yet”. Support your students to adapt based on the constraints. Provide different ways of reconsidering the idea.

For example: Your students might want to get a jumping castle for an end of school event. Unfortunately, this has been deemed unsafe (and out of budget) by senior leadership. When you come back to the students share that the project idea has not yet been approved. Give them the reasons why. Help them to zoom out from the initial idea. What were they trying to achieve with the jumping castle? What other ways could this be achieved? What else could they also do to make this goal happen?

Can you see how the design process is cyclic? By saying “not yet” rather than “no” they can continue to develop their project idea and create something that meets both the needs of the students and the requirements of the school.

If you're looking for ideas of what students could do in their school or community check out or article 15 unique ways for student leaders to take tangible action in their role.


This is an ongoing process and a recurring challenge we see faced by many schools. We’d love to hear how you’ve approached this challenge and what has worked and hasn’t worked!

Also, while you’re here, are you looking for a comprehensive leadership development program in your school? Check out our curriculums on leadership development for high school leaders. These units are 12 weeks with 2 lessons a week. Unit 1 is focused on leadership and unit 2 is focused on applying design thinking to bring about social change. We can also join your students and support them to plan their year. Curious to find out more? Check out our page about the curriculum. 

Looking for interactive workshops for your students? Find out more about our workshops:

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