A Rapid Framework for School Innovation

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A Rapid Framework for School Innovation

What are some key steps to ensuring that innovation takes root at your school, that it is not just a spark in the dark or checking-off-the-box on a laundry list strategic plan?

In their article in Harvard Business Review (HT Bo Adams), Scott Anthony, David Duncan, and Pontus Siren of Innosight suggest a 90-day framework to develop an innovation engine. Their work and examples come largely from the for-profit world and I think the timeline for schools may be slightly longer than 90 days. But the framework sounds a LOT like what we are doing, for example, at Miami Valley School. Here are the highlights of their rapid four-step framework, and how it applies to a school environment.

Day 1-30: Define Your Innovation Buckets

As the authors point out,

“…strategically speaking, all innovations fall into one of two buckets. In one are innovations that extend today’s business, either by enhancing existing offerings or by improving internal operations. In the other are innovations that generate new growth by reaching new customer segments or new markets, often through new business models.”

Innovation is NOT about coming up with a new, great idea; it is about implementing ideas that will enhance the value of your school. The first step is to clearly define what value the school brings to your community, and expand your collective thinking about ways to enhance that value. When I work with schools I always urge leaders to include as much of the stakeholder community as possible in this visioning stage. At MVS and many other schools I have worked with in the last year, a single day of rapid-fire, expansive, visible, collaborative thinking with faculty, staff, trustees, parents, and students can provide all the inputs we need to define these core areas of differentiated value that create a workable foundation for effective innovation.

Day 20-50: Zero In on a Few Areas of Strategic Opportunity

Organizations often fail to high-grade truly strategic opportunities, falling into the “throw it against a wall and see what sticks” trap, (even though they never see themselves in that light). Schools are particularly prone to this trap because we are highly collegial places and don’t like to tell our colleagues that their “great idea” is just that: a great idea with limited potential to actually move important measures of value. Schools need to find opportunities that can increase meaningful value amongst current and potential families.

This phase of “zeroing in” lies at the heart of the strength of the design thinking process: understanding the needs of the user. In the past we have constrained focus group thinking by asking questions like: “What do you think about this new program? Do you think this would be a good idea? How do you think this new pilot would make the school better?” These questions trap the focus group or survey responder into a narrow framework that presupposes where we actually want to go. In a good design thinking approach we ask users to tell us stories about the conditions that create value for them…and then we prototype our ideas around those conditions. The great news is that everyone likes to tell stories about both the good and bad experiences they have had at school. By gathering many of these stories in a short period of time, and synthesizing what we hear, we are quickly ready to start building solutions.

Day 20 to 70: Form a Small, Dedicated Team to Develop the Innovations

Schools are busy places and everyone already has a job; very few schools can afford to support a team that is dedicated solely to innovation. That’s OK; unless your school is facing an imminent threat of closure, you have a luxury of time and experimentation that many for-profit organizations can only dream about. The question for schools is this: how do we free up enough resources (largely time) for a small team to actively pursue an innovative opportunity, not as a sideline, but intentionally, visibly, and supported by the school organization?

At MVS we have formed what we call “window teams”, so named because they bust holes in the normal walls of silos that define most schools. These teams of 8-10 people include a cross-pollinating group of faculty, administrators, trustees, and students. They have a unique charter that lies at the heart of effective innovation: they are tasked to implement the all-school vision through the lens of key elements of LEARNING, like curriculum, professional development, assessment, or leadership. Learning is what lies at the core of any school’s value; these teams have the authority and responsibility to propose strategic level innovations that speak directly to that link between vision and value. Their job is to understand user needs, prototype solutions, iterate, fail with their heads up, and move on.

Day 45-90: Create a Mechanism to Shepherd Projects

The article authors advise us to

“Begin by forming a group of senior leaders who, from then on, will have the autonomy to make decisions about starting, stopping, or redirecting new-growth innovation projects. Don’t just replicate the current executive committee, however. If you do, it will be too easy for group members to default to their corporate-planning mindset or to let day-to-day business creep into discussions about innovations meant to fulfill long-term goals.”

I would argue that by creating and empowering “window teams” we are already there. The trick is to give these teams the responsibility to bring real solutions up for senior, all-school feedback and validation on a defined timeline. Schools are trapped in change cycles of years and decades when the world is changing in weeks, months and years. Some schools cannot react more quickly due to political inertia, which can spell the death of an organization. Others are stymied by nothing more than fear of the unknown. Fear is dispelled by “doing” rather than “talking about doing”.

The breakthrough step is to align the resources of the school with the teams and their process of innovation. Don’t let this be a window dressing. Make the call to shift some time from faculty meetings to window team meetings; shift some professional development budget from conferences to in-house innovation; shift some authority from positional titles to situational leaders.

Is the 90-day target reasonable for all schools? No; but there are schools working within this kind of time frame, and less. Others have stretched it to 300 days…but are living within those 300 days. The point is to identify a time frame that pushes the school’s comfort level; stakeholders are constantly amazed at the progress we can make in 15 minutes!

My final notes:

  • Be incredibly intentional.
  • Build an innovation strategy around three elements: creating a unique vision, aligning resources to that vision, and communicating the heck out of your progress.
  • Don’t start with “we are going to innovate”. Start with “how might we provide the greatest learning experience for each child”.
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