State of Innovation, Part 3: Five Key Questions to Frame School Innovation

In his year-end summary of innovation best practices, Paul Hobart references discussions and key questions from the annual executive innovation summit held by consulting firm Innosight.  The five key questions below are theirs from “Leading Transformation: 2015 CEO Summit”; the commentary on how these manifest in schools is mine.

  1.  Is our balance of exploitation vs. exploration consistent with our strategic objectives?  As I wrote in #EdJourney, schools and school leaders are increasingly focused on innovation and transformation, and the pace is only increasing. But talking and doing are very different. Many schools that talk a lot about innovation spend 95% of their resources on exploitation of existing practices despite the fact that we KNOW that creativity, innovation, and group performance all thrive with a far greater emphasis on exploration.  Simply, if you want your school to actually change, there has to be a very definitive alignment between strategy and the frequent, sustained practices of exploration.
  2. Do we understand our unique capabilities and assets that could give us an unfair advantage?: I love the term Innosight uses: “unfair advantage”.  As educators we bristle at first at this term…and then we remember that families have a wide range of education options for their children. We better look for every advantage that distinguishes our school as a place that offers differentiated value; in fact that is our duty to our students.  Your board, leadership team, and larger stakeholder community should be spending an increasing amount of time and energy unwrapping unique capabilities and assets and turning them into advantages that are as “unfair” as possible.
  3. Do our metrics lead us to shortchange investment in market-creating innovation?Many of our school leaders, including trustees, came of age when successful businesses measured as objectively as possible in order to guide everything from strategy to detailed movements along an assembly line or in the supply chain.  These are great measurement practices, but they are not the only great measurement practices.  Roger Martin, Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto in Canada is quoted in the Innosight report: “I don’t use the word ‘metrics’ because that is biasing us towards analytics.  I use indicators like the reviews of a new play or a new show at the museum.”  For schools, many of which have been bogged down in the inertia of non-change because we lack objective metrics to measure the effectiveness of change, this quote would make great wall paper in the board room.
  4. How do our leaders role-model behaviors consistent with market-creating innovation?  Nothing is a greater boost to innovation in schools, and nothing is a greater obstacle to change, than the leader role model.  There are very few secrets in schools. When leaders “do” or “don’t do” everyone knows it by the end of lunch time.  As I have said many times, educators are risk averse because the downside of taking a risk in most schools has always been greater than the upside.  Leaders can’t change that culture by talking about it; they have to model it, because everyone is watching.  Trustees and superintendents that want innovation to take hold have to highlight “model innovation best practices” as a top job expectation.
  5. Are we properly organized to protect our innovation investments?  Innovation is not a one step process; we don’t come up with great ideas, hold a committee meeting and BAM, successful innovation. We can’t hold a one-day brainstorming workshop, write up the elements of a new strategic plan, and expect value to pour forth.  Value-building innovation requires a systematic approach which includes organizational relationships and exploration-exploitation processes that are fundamentally different than those of traditional schools.  As I will discuss in the next post in this series, there are stages of research, prototyping, piloting, and implementation through which we can invest in, and track, progress of promising leads.  There are objective and subjective assessment tools by which we can determine if a new program is working or not.  There are simple rules we can craft to help guide informed decision making without endless meetings wading through the same arguments we talked through a year (or five years) ago.

Does all this sound like a lot of work? If you work at a very small group of schools lucky enough to be relatively insulated from customer pressures to change, you might be able to avoid it. If not, welcome to the real world!

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