Friday, February 17, 2012

8 Ways Schools Can Enhance a Culture of Innovation

 One of my favorite blog posts of 2011 was published in The Innovation Issue of Think Quarterly on  The article was written by Susan Wojcicki and is titled, The Eight Pillars of Innovation.
Susan begins her post with the following statement:
The greatest innovations are the ones we take for granted, like light bulbs, refrigeration and penicillin. But in a world where the miraculous very quickly becomes common-place, how can a company, especially one as big as Google, maintain a spirit of innovation year after year?
Nurturing a culture that allows for innovation is the key. As we’ve grown to over 26,000 employees in more than 60 offices, we’ve worked hard to maintain the unique spirit that characterized Google way back when I joined as employee #16.
She then lists and explains each of the eight principles of innovation that Google has adopted that continues to guide the company.  They are:
  1. Have a mission that matters
  2. Think big but start small
  3. Strive for continual innovation, not just instant perfection
  4. Look for ideas everywhere
  5. Share everything
  6. Spark with imagination, fuel with data
  7. Be a platform
  8. Never fail to fail
After reading the article a number of times, I found myself asking the same question over and over again.

How can school leaders and administrators apply a similar approach to schools?

In order to address the question, let's translate Google's innovation principles into "school friendly" definitions.

1.  A mission that matters

Schools must be driven by some force that is greater than the individual needs of its members (students, teachers, etc.).  This force should be the mission of the school.  Mission is one of the foundations upon which a leadership platform is created.  For schools, the impact made on the larger, surrounding community is often related to its mission - not just in statement, but practice.

While institutions may (and likely do) have independent missions, those with the potential to make the most impact are those school's whose missions guide organizational matters and action plans.  Missions need not be long, elaborate statements.  One or two sentences is usually best.  In my eBook, Foundations, I suggest two questions that need answering by your mission: "What is your purpose?" and "What do we do to accomplish this purpose?"

2.  Think big/start small

As an administrator, you will find that new ideas are not hard to find.  What is hard is how to implement good ideas in a way that makes a big difference in your school.  Often, there is pressure to begin a new program or idea on a large scale - after all, it is such a great idea that it cannot possibly fail, right?

Prudence is an often overlooked virtue and can be quite useful in such situations.  If you have an idea that has potential, don't forget that a small scale trial in a classroom, grade level, or division may provide feedback that will help make a larger initiative more productive.  Do not forget the value of a good pilot test.

3.  Strive for continual innovation, not just instant perfection

There is tremendous pressure put on schools (and students) to be good.  In other words, the focus is often placed on fixed outcomes, test scores, good grades, high GPAs, etc.  There is nothing wrong with those goals.  As a mater of fact, focusing on being good often produces very good results.  On the other hand, if you are trying to develop a more creative and innovative culture, being good goals work against you.  In their place, focusing on being better is the correct approach.

Being better aligns with creativity and self-chosen autonomous goals.  While their may be less emphasis on the details, being better encourages resilience and allows performance to fuel motivation.  If you strive for perfection and fail, being good can cause students and schools to give up too soon.  If you focus on getting better, any movement towards your goal is a victory.

4.  Look for ideas everywhere

There is no shortage of information.  I think everyone will agree to that.  However, while you may have a robust PLC, subscribe to great blogs (hopefully this one included), or engage at conferences, sometimes we forget to look for ideas within our own school.  Chances are that someone on your team has a great idea.  If we look for ideas everywhere, don't ignore the ones sitting in front of you.

5.  Share everything

...that will help your team deliver the school's mission and help demonstrate the school's commitment to student learning.  Sharing is, in my opinion, has positive outcomes.  "Spreading" is not sharing.  Spreading rumors, gossip, biases, stereotypes, is not sharing and does not promote your mission.  One doesn't share a cold, you spread it.  However, sharing good and/or bad news does promote your mission.  Sharing does not always mean comfortable.  It means necessary for mission, and thus, ultimately it is a positive.

6.  Spark with imagination, fuel with data

Here are a couple of statements to consider.  Imagination is seeing with your mind's eye.  Putting imagination into action is creativity.  Of course, when we use our imagination, we can see past events, current events, or project a future event - and play it out as we want, including mental manipulation.

For example, I can imagine myself playing football in high school (which I did), but I can also imagine it as if I was 6 ft. tall and 200 lbs. running a 4.2 40-yard dash (which I wasn't and couldn't).

Now, imagine a future for your school.  Imagine a picture of what can be.  Chances are, there are a number f pieces to your image that involve real/current items or people.  Now, think about how to make that a reality.  What do you need?  Again, you probably see items or conditions that are known.  In addition your image may involve multiple, creative steps to make it a reality.  How do you decide what needs to be done first?  What are the priorities?  How do yo know your imagination is leading you down a productive path or derailing current progress?

You need information.  This is where data fuels your ideas.  While your ideas may have been born out of imagination, whether or not you apply creativity to make them happen is based on what you know (or what you can find out) - that is hoe data helps make the necessary connection between what could be and what will be.

7.  Be a platform

Schools that serve as platforms are those that invite others to partner in program development.  The school acts as a central place from which great ideas can emerge and be tested.  Schools as platforms create knowledge.  Creating knowledge is a social function.  It happens when people share ideas and information, thus creating a higher level of discourse and understanding which benefits all who share.  In other words, schools can be places where students take information and use it for personal gain or schools can be places where its members share what they know with each other and create an atmosphere of intellectual stimulation from which new ideas emerge and spread.  The latter are schools as platforms.

8.  Never fail to fail

There are seldom a shortage of ideas for how to address any challenge in a school.  The difficult part is often choosing the right one.  The challenge is choosing the right one, the one that is the best fit for your school.  Unfortunately, often the only way to know is to try something and see how it works.  If it doesn't, you can either adjust or try something totally new.  In order to do this, and do it comfortably, schools need chances to set promotion goals and think in terms of getting better.

Unfortunately, schools are often faced with fear of failure.  There are certainly always going to be some discomfort associated with failure, but of all the places or institutions in the world at which learning from the past is critical, schools should be at or near the top.  Avoiding failure leads to prevention goals and focusing solely on being good.

There is a place for both types of thinking and both types of goals in schools.  The trick is knowing which is most appropriate for establishing and nurturing a culture of innovation.  If you are only prevention/be good minded, then you will choke innovation.  If you want and need innovative thinking, allow for promotion/be better thinking.

These are just a few thoughts about innovation in schools, and I am sure you may have your own separate ideas and/or stories related to school innovation.  Feel free to comment below and share your own ideas about sparking innovation in schools.
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