What are some signals that your school is becoming more powerful, comfortable, and capable of innovation? What are some signals that perhaps you are not? One of the benefits/privileges of NOT working at one school is that I get to observe and synthesize what I see at many schools. Here are a few measures of innovation capacity that I commonly see, and examples of what you might look for to honestly evaluate if your school is increasing capacity for change…or not.
Increasing Organizational Innovation DNA:
- Good signals: By hiring faculty and staff who have a demonstrated comfort and track record with creative invention and team-based collaboration, schools can move the center of gravity from one that resists change to one that embraces it in a relatively short period of time. A few employees self-select to leave. A minority who have loudly resisted change either begin to develop a growth mindset or, at a minimum, reduce their public resistance to others who do.
- Bad signals: Some of your top faculty and staff decide to leave; they may make an excuse that has to do with moving closer to family, finding a more affordable cost of living, or taking a more senior job title, but these often mask the real reason: a lack of support for a more innovative, collaborative, growth-focused learning environment. Great organizations thrive and rise on the back of champions. If the environment truly offers a champion the chance to build a better school, they often forgo other reasons to leave. While it is easy to say “no one person is critical to the success of the school; we will solider on even if that person leaves”, the fact of the matter is that real champions are rare and very hard to replace.
Building Distributed Leadership:
- Good signals: Faculty and staff increasingly take authority to try new things, often without the overt approval of a supervisor. They feel comfortable doing this because the CEO has made it clear that this is not only OK, but expected, and that failure is to be embraced, not feared. Groups with shared interest in a pilot project rally around a leader based on situational, not positional authority. The community finds ways to share their successes and failures on an increasingly frequent basis.
- Bad signals: The real pathways to decision making are little changed. Major decisions are still made at the board or senior administration level, largely in committee meetings that are restricted to small groups. A few people sit on most committees or attend most meetings where decisions about change are discussed and made. Decisions about the use of school resources—time, space, budget, and personnel—require the constant attention of the CEO or a few senior administrators.
Shifting Away From Assembly-line Learning:
- Good signals: The educational program is evaluated and modified based on a shared vision of great learning, not what has been done in the past or what will lead to better results on standardized tests. The community develops and then rallies around that shared vision, and are able to articulate how what they do each day is contributing to its effectiveness. The stakeholders in the school community participate in expansive or design thinking-type routines that ask questions like “why, what if, and how might we?”
- Bad signals: The school claims, often in a strategic plan or via communication tools, to be trying new things: adding a new program, hiring someone with a new title, trying a new teaching strategy. But these are “one-off” or “check-the-box” efforts. When we ask around, many stakeholders don’t have an understanding or cannot articulate the context for these trials. The silos of classroom, subject area, grade level, and division remain stronger than the cross-cutting framework of a strong, shared vision.