Sustainable Innovation: From the Ground Up!

Sustainable innovation? Sounds like an oxymoron. Starting innovation can be easy but sustaining it proves more difficult.

Sustainable Innovation

Everyone knows the story of Blockbuster. Why did they fail? They stopped innovating. What about education? What innovation comes to mind? Are any schools shutting their doors because they aren’t innovating? NO! Therefore, some argue “if it isn’t broken, why fix it?”

Schools today have more technology than ever, and much of their time and resources have been allocated to going 1:1 or BYOD. Innovating seemed like something that would be achieved “down the road.” However, the time has come. Now what?

As George Couros defines innovation in Innovator’s Mindset, it should be something “new” or “innovative.” Put yourself in the shoes of a classroom teacher. What does that sound like to you? It sounds like the dreaded ‘C’ word. Change. To some this means that if I change what I’m doing, what I was doing before must have been wrong. NO! The landscape in which you are teaching has changed. New resources (technology…lots of it) and preparing students for jobs that are yet to exist are the true impetus for change, not poor performance.

Truly sustainable innovation can be catapulted forward using this framework: a way to satisfy the early adopters, appeal to the masses, and build the appropriate supports (leadership). It also needs to be simple. Multidimensional frameworks become complicated which diffuses impact.

The framework in a nutshell:

  1. Research and Development (R&D): Let the innovators do what they do – try new things!
  2. One Thing: Small changes make a big impact
  3. Leading Forward

Research and Development (R&D): Let the innovators do what they do best – try new things!

Provide specific funding to encourage risk-taking for the “innovators” (see graphic below) while providing parameters (specific budget, etc.). Innovators will have greater job satisfaction if the district has an in-house research and development team. Provide a specific method for getting feedback from them, and make sure you include them in the process of figuring out how this feedback is given. Remember, as innovators, they will have many ideas for sharing their findings. Leadership should have regular meetings with this group. The meetings don’t have to be long; a 10-minute “touch base” will work. Most likely, eagerness to share will outweigh the loss of time for this population of innovative educators.

Bring ideas to this group for discussion, and see if there’s interest. The partnership between administrators and the innovators is a pivotal one for idea incubation. Want to try a school within a school? This is your group. Want to try a personalized learning platform? Here’s your group.

One Thing: Small Changes Can Make a Big Impact

Small changes make a big impact but for an innovation to take hold, the teachers and students need to decide what to change. At a recent workshop, we were paired with a teacher or administrator we didn’t know. I was paired with a teacher. Awesome – I need that perspective; I’m a Central Office person. She described her experience so well, she said: “The District Office, though well intentioned, makes decisions without understanding the implications for classroom teachers.” Realistically, central office teams have great ideas, normally steeped in research, but the general population may not BELIEVE in the ideas and feel they had little or no voice in decision making.

“If you want to bring a fundamental change in people’s belief and behavior…you need to create a community around them, where those new beliefs can be practiced and expressed and nurtured.” ― Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

Gladwell mentions three archetypes that can create a movement: mavens, connectors, and salespeople. In education, we can distill this to positive school opinion leaders. You know the type, the individuals that can bring up an idea and flocks of educators rally around them. They are well respected but most importantly, they are influential. They have the ability to make an idea sticky. Imagine if district opinion leaders rallied around one small innovative change that could make a large impact on students? What if students were also asked their opinion? What if you did this annually?

Identify positive building opinion leaders.

How can you make this happen? Below are two methods but I recommend the first, if possible, as it is likely going to be the most accurate. If using the survey method, aggregate your results, and you have a list of opinion leaders. Are those individuals in your building leadership team? If not, they should be, as they have the power to move work.

  • Method 1: survey the staff to find out who the opinion leaders are. It is important to ask the question carefully. One important question: Who in your building has had the greatest positive impact on your instructional practice? Aggregate your results and you have a list of opinion leaders. Are those individuals in your building leadership team? If not, they should be as they have the power to move ideas.
  • Method 2: observation. In PLC meetings, if they occur, or staff meetings, who are groups turning to when a new initiative is launched for direction and purpose?

Launch a design challenge.

Get your opinion leaders in a room (don’t forget to add students) and have THEM decide what small innovative change could have the largest impact on students. Define the parameters and at the end of the challenge, there should be one idea everyone in the group will take back to their buildings. Administrators should not guide the group to a solution in this exercise but should be part of the group. When providing this type of outlet, it is important to accept whatever comes out of this event, which is why the initial parameters become important.

** An important note, make sure the teacher’s union is involved. The importance of the partnership shouldn’t be overlooked. Their buy-in can make or break any innovation.

Start implementing and commit to it for the year.

Rinse and Repeat annually.

The opinion leader group provides great value to the organization. This team should have multiple opportunities to provide feedback to administrators as new initiatives are considered. If new initiatives passed the litmus test of the innovative group, this is the next group to hear proof of concept and if adaptations and/or scaffolding are necessary for a more broad implementation. This group should have meetings where central office and building leadership work together analyzing R&D findings, discussing the “One Thing.”

Leading Forward

Every district has a variety of administrators at different points in their careers. Administrators may or may not understand why innovation is necessary within their building. If you are a high performing district, it may be harder to articulate the “Why?” What if test scores go down? How does it impact the report card? What matters to us? What matters to the community? Spend time discussing it. Better yet, learn together through book studies, site visits, and documentary viewings which give the group opportunities to coalesce around innovation and the future of education. Collaboratively learning allows a district to map their journey together working toward the strategic vision. Allow different administrators to lead along the way (pairs are recommended). This provides opportunities for professional growth. Ideas should be shared. If administrators feel like a fish out of water when it comes to innovation, how will those who report to that administrator feel? Behavior breeds behavior. The more confident an administrator feels about understanding what innovation looks like, the easier it will be to identify, promote, and encourage it.

Watch Innovation Flourish

Letting go of “owning it all” allows this framework to work in an organization. Listen to the practitioners doing the work and provide multiple opportunities for innovation to flourish. Support and nurture ideas by building a culture that embraces new ideas and provides opportunities for cross-positional collaboration.

Daniel Pink states that people are motivated by Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose. This framework encourages them all. Another byproduct of using the framework – future administrators are cultivated and have had fantastic mentors along the way.

“If we are to have a revolution in education, it probably won’t come from the top down but from the bottom up.“ -Sir Ken Robinson