The other day Kathy Chin Leong published a review of what Google’s chief social evangelist, Gopi Kallayil, calls Google’s Nine Principles of Innovation. I tweeted out the post (as did others) and I know many of my followers linked to it. A major section of my upcoming book will discuss how key elements of innovation strategy are particularly effective in a school setting. Much of what I found in my many school visits resonates with this list of what makes Google one of the most innovative cultures on the planet.
Here are some very brief examples of how I see Gopi’s keys to Google innovation, as applied to a K-12 setting:
1. INNOVATION COMES FROM ANYWHERE
My preferred definition of innovation is “ideas that enhance the value of the organization”. A cardinal rule of innovation is that these ideas do not come from the top of a vertically hierarchical organization chart. Organizations maximize innovation if they embrace distributed leadership that truly amplifies opportunities for anyone in the organization to imagine, prototype, and build on new ideas. In my work in the last year, for example, students have been responsible for offering some of the most creative and potentially valuable ideas I have encountered.
2. FOCUS ON THE USER.
Last month I Tweeted a question: “Who is our customer?” In various forums we have been debating the answer, and it is likely that the answer will not be the same for all schools. We must also dig into the question: “Who is our user?” Schools serve many purposes and therefore we have many user groups: students, teachers, parents, and the community. Innovative schools focus on teaching each individual user, not on the process of content transfer. Differentiated learning, truly adapting the learning experience to the needs of the student-user, leveraged through the differentiated resources of the teacher-user, will be the tsunami of educational change in the next decade.
3. AIM TO BE TEN TIMES BETTER
One of the critical keys to institutional success is to communicate a clearly differentiated value. Schools that tweak the existing assembly line model of learning will become increasingly irrelevant in a world that does not reward the output of that learning. I have described the effort we need as crossing the bridge from the industrial age assembly line model to a fundamentally different ecosystem model of learning. Bridges are useless if you only build them part way over the river or gorge. History is littered with the names of large, powerful, industry-dominant companies that thought they could tweak their way through a period of disruption/mutation like that which education is encountering today. Successfully innovating organizations make numerous bets, many of which are small, and some of which shoot for the moon.
4. BET ON TECHNICAL INSIGHTS
Educators need to believe in themselves as experts in how children learn best. “Technical” does not mean “technological”; new technologies are arrows in the quiver of good learning. “Technical” means that there are methods of learning that work better than others, and the experts are experienced teachers. They know what works; they just may not know how to adapt this knowledge to a setting in which they, the teacher, are farmers in the ecosystem, not preachers in the pulpit. Innovative schools leverage the technical brain power of their experienced teaching professionals by giving them the time and resources they need to collaborate across internal and external silos, develop fast-paced networks of knowledge exchange, and percolate their ideas across the organization.
5. SHIP AND ITERATE
This is one of the most uncomfortable elements of innovation for schools…and therefore one of the biggest dams we face. Adults want proof that something new will work; we want a 20-year longitudinal study to show that something different is better than what we have done in the past. The era of five-year strategic plans and 12-year implementation cycles (for example, that is the rough time frame in many schools from the first drafts to full implementation of Common Core Standards) is over. The world does not work that way any more; it simply is changing too rapidly. Innovative schools become culturally comfortable with rapid ideation, shipping, and iteration.
6. GIVE EMPLOYEES 20 PERCENT TIME
Schools are increasingly finding the real value in giving students a “genius hour” or “Google time” during the week. Schools are a knowledge industry, and NOT giving both adults and students time to pursue knowledge about which they are passionate is antithetical to our core mission. Does it need to be 20%? Of course not. But people, young and old, will not be creative, innovative, exploratory, quirky, entrepreneurial, or any of the other non-rote things we want them to be if they don’t have time to practice those skills. Innovative schools find time for the personal exploration of passion by both students and adults, realizing that this exploration results in better, more permanent, acquisition of content knowledge.
7. DEFAULT TO OPEN PROCESSES
Networks are universally considered one of the critical keys to innovation; few, if any important innovations are discovered, created, designed, or implemented by an individual acting alone. Schools are traditionally highly compartmentalized (“siloed”) organizations that have failed to promote intentional networking and open process collaboration. Opportunities to network are now ubiquitous as colleagues can connect frequently, inexpensively, and across all divides of space and time via professional and social media. Rather than waiting for an annual conference or a pre-determined professional growth day, educators are meeting synchronously or asynchronously, sharing resources, curriculum, and experiences. Innovative schools support, or even require, adults and students to participate with colleagues in openly creating and sharing knowledge.
8. FAIL WELL
Aversion to risk and failure is one of the greatest impediments to innovation. Schools have had a special relationship with the concept of failure, different from other human experiences like learning to ride a bike, throw a ball, building a working prototype, or starting a successful business. The assembly line model of learning demands that a student move at a proscribed rate, and that failure to learn at that rate results in a big red “F”. Failure is discouraged, so risk is discouraged, for both adults and students. Schools that do embrace innovation share a universal quality: leaders who are willing to take risks; who support and require their employees to take risks; who develop systems that leverage failure as a unique learning experience that builds institutional grit.
9. HAVE A MISSION THAT MATTERS
This is the one step of Google’s Innovation Nine where schools lead the way: our mission matters! But having an important mission and living that mission are very different. I found that effectively innovating schools share a common approach to mission: everyone in the school knows how and why they are helping to advance the mission every day. They can, and do, each tell their own story of mission advancement. Schools that have a forward leaning vision become culturally innovative when they adopt the other characteristics of effectively innovating organizations…visibly, systematically, and passionately.
How does your school measure up?