Sustaining Innovation: Focus at 3,000 Feet

Sustaining Innovation: Focus at 3,000 Feet

How can your school best create the conditions that support innovation? There are essentially three broad levels of concern that take up the attention of innovation-oriented educators:

  • The 10,000 Foot Level: creating a powerful, value-laden, forward-leaning vision, and building towards it through long-term strategies.
  • The 3,000 Foot Level: creating and sustaining the processes and practices which build a culture of systematic innovation and great, deeper learning; that actually allow the organization to realize its vision.
  • The Ground Level: daily classroom-teacher-student-office level implementation of what we say we are going to do at the other two levels.

I have been thinking deeply about these.  If a school has not developed a “North Star” vision, work at the other two levels is most likely isolated and random. There may be incredible pockets of innovation and deep learning at the Ground Level, but if they are not systematized, they are likely not pervasive nor sustainable. Some of these Ground Level practices may percolate throughout the school, which is great, but the time to full implementation will be long and success will be fragile.

If a school HAS developed a forward leaning vision, the real work of building a sustainable culture of innovation and deeper learning lies at the 3,000 Foot Level.  Good teachers are comfortable operating at Ground Level: developing powerful learning experiences within their own classrooms. Most teachers are less comfortable in the 3,000 Foot Level because systems thinking and process development are either not in their background of training, their interest portfolio, or both.

Traditional, static organizations can exist without widespread participation at the 3,000 Foot Level; they have mid-level managers for that.  But traditional organizations are becoming less successful in the modern era because extra layers of mid-management create inertia and burdens that are out of phase with the demand for nimbleness and rapid innovation. In schools, teachers have to develop some of this capacity amongst themselves, and learn to work effectively at the 3.000 Foot Level. Some of the key activities that occupy this level include:


  • Design basic communication protocols to ensure that everyone knows what they need to know.
  • Consider categories like: “Need to know”, Should be informed”, and “Available if you want to know”.


  • Everyone needs to know their responsibilities and decision making authority.
  • Where overlaps occur, clarify and create processes for resolving conflict.
  • Build a decision making/responsibility matrix that might include “Responsible, Approver, Consult, Inform”.

Sustaining an innovation culture:

  • Time and resources for mentoring new hires.
  • Busting silos or not allowing them to form.
  • Frequently asking “does this move us in closer alignment to our North Star?

Developing leaders:

  • Creating opportunities for a wide range of employees to take part in strategic decisions.
  • Expecting teachers to take a turn in decision-making groups.
  • Training and support in leadership skills.

Schools that hope to sustain innovation within an organizational structure that is flatter, more distributed, more nimble, more adept at risk-taking, more outwardly connected, simply must develop the capacity of the 3,000 Foot Level.  They will find rich resources in three primary areas: outside consultants who can tailor training to their specific needs; professional development programs at business and leadership schools and institutes; and through the very productive process of “working the problem” themselves, using the brain power that already exists in the school.

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