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Ten Tips for Creating a Culture of Innovation in Schools and Districts

By: Keara Mascareñaz on January 18th, 2017

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Ten Tips for Creating a Culture of Innovation in Schools and Districts

Personalized Learning  |  Innovative Leadership

Recently it seems that innovation is a buzzword on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Need happier employees? Innovate! Need bigger profits? Innovate! Need better leadership? Innovate!

Over the past six months I’ve explored hundreds of news stories, white papers, and blog posts focused on why and how leaders might foster a culture of innovation. Unfortunately, innovation is too often be touted as a silver bullet solution without even defining what innovation is. Some folks have taken a stand against innovation, given its use as a catchall strategy. Yet I stand firmly in support of innovation as a focus for making better organizations and happier teams. I believe that what is most important is not that we “innovate” for innovation’s sake, but that we create cultures of innovation in our organizations -- cultures that supports risk-taking, reflection, and real collaboration. Out of the hundreds of strategies for and stories of innovation, I believe there are ten key lessons we can draw out to support us in creating cultures of innovation in schools and districts. Why ten lessons? David Letterman, obviously.

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  1. Know who you are. Innovative organizations, from Google to Apple, are places where every team member knows about and is inspired by their vision and values. At Otterbox, a Colorado-based company I visited last year, the “otter” way is evident on everything from the way teams are organized to the awards that are celebrated, the way news is shared, and even in the otter slide at the center of their corporate headquarters. Think about how to engage all of your team members with your vision and values in big and small ways throughout the year.

  2. Encourage your team to ask questions. This NY Times article shares the power of simple questions like  “why?” and “what if?” in changing the culture of your organization. Challenge your team to ask 50 “why” and “what if” questions in the next two months.

  3. Move beyond compliance-driven structures. Just like we want to move our students from compliance-based engagement, we want to move our staff towards engagement that is based on creativity, relevance, and meaningful relationships. Reflect on your current structures for communication and collaboration- how can you make these less about compliance and more about authentic engagement?

  4. Engage in R&D. By developing a cycle of experimentation and experience you can develop a research and development group within your team or building. Some districts we work with think about innovations in sprints, a term borrowed from engineering, focusing on a key problem every six weeks.

  5. Don’t drop everything. Too often when we say innovation we mean “let’s scrap everything!” True innovation is about iterating on what already exists. The best way to find an improvement is to name both what is already working and what needs tweaking and attention. Use a stoplight protocol to identify what you want to keep, rethink, and stop doing for the next quarter or year.

  6. Support all voices. Creating a culture of innovation within your organization requires building systems to ensure all voices and ideas can be heard. As Ken Robinson says, “the role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas, it’s to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel that they’re valued.” Many tech companies in Silicon Valley, where EE is based, have an online form for employees to share ideas for improvements. Employees know that these get reviewed by their leadership team once a month, with a guarantee that the best idea will be implemented (and celebrated with awards!) and that all ideas will be recognized and responded to. Think about how to best set up this kind of inclusive feedback system.

  7. Train your team to think like intrapreneurs. Too often staff feel like if they want to do something new and different they have to take on a new role or a new organization. Channel that energy and desire for change into creating new systems and structures in your own organization. Inspire your staff with these strategies for creating a maker mindset to support them in beginning their “intrapreneurship.”

  8. Break down silos. Innovation requires diverse and new perspectives on existing challenges. Find ways to help people work across grade level, subject, or functional teams at least once a month. Focus these heterogeneous working groups on a specific problem, starting with something small like “how do we improve lunch distribution,” and moving to something larger like “how to we better support our Tier 2 students?”

  9. Be willing to get messy! Trying something new means that sometimes you will flop. Take inspiration from a district like MSD Warren Township. The district team gave a bar of soap to every teacher trying personalized learning for the first time. Teachers could trade in the soap if their principal or superintendent came into their room when they were trying something new. The soap signified that it was okay to get messy and that district and school admins wouldn’t be evaluating or judging teachers for trying something new.

  10. Be willing to get REALLY messy and even fail. Often innovation takes more than just getting a little messy, it also required frequent, fast failures that you learn and grow from. As a recent Harvard Business Review article on leadership and innovation shared, “Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO, has said that if his people have a one-in-ten chance of making a 100x return on an investment, he wants them to make that bet every time. But that means that to reap the reward Amazon needs to be willing to tolerate someone failing nine out of ten times.”

And that’s the top ten list. I will continue exploring how education organizations can develop a culture of innovation over the next year. Please write to me if you have questions or stories to share about creating this type of culture in your own school or district. In the meantime, I hope these ten lessons help kick off 2017 as a year of true innovation!

For a deeper dive into creating a culture of innovation, check out my talk, "Five Ingredients to Create a Culture of Innovation" at TinyCON.


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About Keara Mascareñaz

Keara is a Managing Partner at Education Elements who focuses on how to build and scale a culture of innovation in large systems, how to create national communities of collaboration, and how to keep laughing when pursuing daunting, large-scale changes. She was lucky to collaborate with co-authors Alexis Gonzales-Black and Anthony Kim to design the website and toolkit for The NEW School Rules: 6 Practices for Responsive and Thriving Schools.

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