“How do we know that our innovation strategy is effective?” This question freezes many organizations, including schools, from creating an intentional, systematic approach to changing traditional practices. Organizations with effective innovation strategies have a portfolio of programs that spread resources (time, people, ideas, money) across a range of projects with varying levels of risk and reward. Innovation is an investment in the future of your organization, and like any good investment, you don’t put all your eggs in a basket that has only short or only long term potential return, and you balance conservative and aggressive risk.
Innovation Leaders’ “Innovation Benchmarking Report 2015” provides a simple matrix for tracking and “dashboarding” an organization’s innovation portfolio and progress. This kind of benchmarking is becoming increasingly commonplace in non-education knowledge-based organizations, but to my knowledge is rare amongst K-12 schools.
There are essentially four meta-stages of innovation:
- Research: Discovery of what is possible, what has been done by others, and what will best satisfy user demands.
- Prototype: Designing, building, gathering rapid feedback, and iterating potential solutions.
- Pilot: Putting early generation prototypes into alpha or beta trials under real-world conditions.
- Implementation: Full scale practice of those pilots which are most likely to add real value to the organization.
We can look at our innovation portfolio in a number of different ways as project progress through these stages or are winnowed out, each providing a window into how effective we are at building and converting ideas from early to late stage development.
- How many ongoing projects do we have at each stage? This is a snapshot of the innovation portfolio taken at regular time intervals. My suggestion, based on how long many good ideas in schools take to percolate through the system, would be quarterly. This may seem like an overly frequent sampling, but I think it is appropriate for two reasons. First, educators are actually quite good at coming up with innovative ideas that can progress quickly through the stages of innovation. Many are not entirely new; they are borrowed, shared, or “stolen” from other schools and education groups, and can be tested, evaluated, and either discarded or taken to scale quickly at your school. A frequent review encourages rapid prototyping and evaluation. Second, this snapshot takes almost no time to acquire, yet frequently reminds people across the organization that the innovation portfolio remains squarely on the front burner.
- How much are we investing in each stage? We can think of investment in an idea as a function of two independent variables. On one axis early stage investments range from small to large depending on if the idea is completely novel or has already been tested and proven by others. On the other axis later stage or implementation investments can be large or small depending on the scope of the innovation and how much change it might require across the school. Schools can put real numbers on these axes, which will be very different for schools with different levels of resources available for the innovation pipeline.
- How long are projects in each stage? Schools are notoriously slow to change, yet rapid ideation, prototyping, testing, implementation, and discarding are highlights of effectively innovating organizations. Best innovation practices demand that we place time limits on each stage. Sometimes these time windows might be weeks or months; in other cases, particularly in the early prototyping and pilot stages, they might be measured in minutes, hours, or days. Schools should “tune” the rate at which ideas are moved through the stages to keep the organization on that balance point between complacency (“don’t worry; it’s not really going to happen) and unworkable discomfort (“we can’t drink any more out of the fire hose”).
- How many projects advance? There is no cookbook recipe for the right number of projects to advance from each stage to the next. Certainly the funnel for a high tech company that might invest millions of dollars for design and testing should not be the same as for a school where pilot projects that involve modifying teaching practices might require only modest research and professional development. And this funnel will look very different for schools that are just beginning to develop a cultural comfort and capacity for change (a handful of simultaneous pilots might be a lot), as opposed to a school that has become both comfortable and effective with the innovation pipeline. This is one benchmark that will show progress over time in terms of the growing capability of the school for innovation.
- Which groups generated each idea? Are some departments, divisions, or individuals your school’s engines of innovation? Are informal groups forming, performing, and disappearing based on the progress of mutual ideas through the innovation pipeline? This knowledge is critical in the full range of the leader’s role in building an innovative organization: aligning, resourcing, expecting, empowering, recognizing, and rewarding. If innovation is truly a strategic, as opposed to an ephemeral, element of your school, you have to track where it is and is not taking place.
This set of dashboard elements will take virtually no time to gather every few months, and over time can be an essential element in answering that key question: are we becoming a more effectively innovating school?