State of Innovation 2015 Part 2: High Hurdles

What are the common obstacles to innovation in a school? What are the characteristics of a leader who can routinely overcome those obstacles? In my book #EdJourney, I identified fear, inertia, silos, and college admissions as some of the key obstacles to innovation and school. Now we can drill down into, and learn lessons from, similar studies from outside education that apply directly to innovation practice in your school.

As I noted in the first in this series, Paul Hobcraft published  a review of management consulting reports on innovation at the end of 2015.  Paul cited PA Consulting Group for their work on quantifying the obstacles to effective innovation and how to overcome them. At a 30,000 foot level, PA Consulting Group found that 50% of CEO’s interviewed said that their organizations had seen a “brilliant idea fail for reason that could have been avoided”, and 47% described their innovation initiatives as a “costly failure”.

When they drilled down into why innovation failed at such a high rate, they found five dominant reasons (the categories are those of PA Consulting; how these manifest in schools are my thoughts):

  • Fear: as I have found in studying and working with many schools, fear of change is a dominant theme.  We are not comfortable with the unknown, even when continuing along the same path is clearly leading in the wrong direction.  Both my work and that reported by PA Consulting suggests that some portion of this fear is caused by a lack of skills amongst school leaders in how to overcome fear and try new things.
  • Lack of Focus: I found, and PA reenforces, that there is dissonance about what the term innovation even means in schools.  Innovation is inextricably tied to the creation of future value. Lacking a discussion and clear definition of what innovation actually is at a school, it is hard  to support the design and piloting of programs that might generate such future value.
  • Engine Failure: Innovation requires a definitive path that starts with expansive and creative thinking and carries forward through research, design, prototyping, piloting, evaluation, iteration, and implementation. If a school does not have and support this pathway, most great ideas will stutter and fail way before they get to full implementation.
  • Wrong ROI: Measuring success is critical, but not all success can be measured according to traditional or purely objective metrics.  Qualitative assessments are hard to agree upon but are every bit as valuable as quantitative measures. Over-reliance of traditional accounting measurement of success can be an innovation killer.
  • Unwilling to Invest: Most schools are budget constrained with full call on our primary resources: people, time, and money.  It is easier for a leader to slake the thirst of stakeholder groups…and then find nothing left over for innovation.  Unfortunately, that strangles innovation before it has a chance; innovation requires investment, period.

Leaders who overcome these key obstacles are different than leaders who face the prospect of necessary innovation and stall out:

  • Innovation pioneer: Top leaders understand, can articulate, and create the conditions that empower others to break out of their own comfort zones. In fact, demonstrating a stretch of the comfort zone becomes an expectation, a part of the faculty/administrative staff job description.
  • Back high potential but risky innovations: Successfully innovating organizations have a risk-weighted innovation portfolio.  Successful innovation leaders don’t always bet on risky projects, but sometimes they do.  They know and proudly publicize the willingness of their co-leaders to take a risk, and celebrate both success and failure.
  • Learn quickly from mistakes: Schools have a long change arc, often described as “turning the aircraft carrier”.  There is no legal or rational basis for this other than the frequently conflicting inertial forces that keep schools on a more-or-less traditional path.  Effective innovation leaders are quick to try and also quick to kill a pilot that is going in the wrong direction in order to apply resources to other good ideas.
  • Put innovation at the heart of their corporate culture and mission: Nothing else works unless there is an overt, sustained alignment between what a leader says is important, what she does every day and where resources are allocated.  A culture of innovation does not arise over night, and stakeholders will fail in the face of obstacles unless the leader’s push is visible and sustained.

Next up: How to measure innovation process and progress in your school.

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