Leadership Geared for Innovation (Part 1)

Innovative.  It is one of the first words that is equated with successful organizations in today’s rapidly evolving world.  Without a doubt, those companies or organizations that master innovation, are those that are most adept at dealing with the rapid change technology has brought upon us.  In education, the “traditional” practice of leadership has not produced a model geared for growth, in contrast to what can be seen across the private sector in companies such as Google, Apple, and Facebook.  Faced with a rapidly changing world, schools are now beginning to ask the same question those same companies have been asking for the last several decades and that is “How do we continually push and scale innovation?”  In this first of a two-part blog post, I will discuss my views on how we best address this question through the lens of leadership.

Before looking at how certain organizations and their leaders are facilitating innvoative leadership, it is important to discuss the “traditional” paradigm of educational leadership. Traditionally, K-12 organizations have taken on a top-down approach, where each tier of the organization dictates the actions of the ones below them.  District and building level leaders, in this model, would be the driving force for the vast majority of  organizational decisions, and their decisions would then be passed on to those below them .  Top-down management is most effective when the person making the decisions knows exactly how to best make the product and the market conditions within which this product will be deployed.  For the sake of brevity, I will focus on only two challenges this management style can pose in a dynamic or rapidly changing environment.One of the obvious challenges, particularly when it comes to education, is the needs of our students beyond graduation (the market) are changing rapidly, and the skills they come in with and leave with (the product) are to say the least dynamic.  It is naive to suggest that any one person would be able to understand ,in it’s entirety, the needs of 100, 1000, or 10000 students in any given school district. I think generally speaking, most educational leaders have acknowledged this challenge by starting to move down the road of innovation by creating strategic objectives that can help promote it (innovation).  In a top down model of management implementing these objectives and this type of change, can be a major challenge. The consistency between leaders and buildings can lead to “dead zones” where innovation rises and falls with those who decide to get on board.  Scaling innovation and leading innovative schools can be a very dynamic challenge for just a couple of the reasons above

So if the traditional paradigm of leadership, ie. the few making decisions for the many, is not the best model for promoting innovation, what is?  To be clear there is no one size fits all answer to this question, but there is research that points to some of the tenets of leadership that can promote innovation.  This section of the blog contains some elements of one of my favorite TED Talks via Linda Hill’s “How to Manage for Collective Creativity.”  In order to understand what leadership leads to innovation, we must understand the space in which innovation not just exists but thrives.  Based on research of many leading companies, Linda and her team found 3 specific areas that leading companies were able to navigate and replicate to scale innovation.

  1. Creative Abrasion- Friction.  Innovation really is about unleashing the talents and passions of many people  from different dispositions and backgrounds.  Collaboration amongst these groups inevitably leads to friction but it is the productive discourse that leads to truly groundbreaking and innovative ideas. collaborating.
  2. Creative Agility- Moving on the go.  With technology rapidly disrupting many parts of our world, the need for action, reflection, and adjustment is one that is going to become more important that a 5 10 15 year plan.  Agility is what will allow an organization to rapidly redeploy resources where needed to meet the needs of the consumer.  In this cases our students.
  3. Creative Resolution-The middle ground.  Creative resolution is the ability of an organization to resolve challenges by effectively selecting the best solution, which may or may not, take into account multiple solutions.

Based on her research, Linda Hill describes the three cornerstones of innovative leadership as being collaborative problem-solving , discovery-driven learning, and integrative decision-making.  It is the ability of organizations to not just find creative ways to problem solve, but more importantly “unleash the talents and passions of many people.”

When working through this post, I read an article by a local leader, blogger, and educator Ross Cooper titled, “All the Wrong People in all the Wrong Meetings.”  What really resonated with me in his post was the message that  schools are the workplace of a large group of people with a diverse array of skills and talents, and often times those resources go untouched. In the traditional model of leadership, most decisions are made at the same administrative level, thereby not maximizing the talents in the room.  Ross’ post goes beyond the research and looks at five simple ways schools can begin to leverage collaborative problem-solving.  I highly recommend checking out his article and his additional content on curriculum at http://www.rosscoops31.com/.

Leadership is about creating the space for people to work together and tap into their skills and talents, to tackle the challenges that organization may face.  Is that space being created in your school?

Stay tuned for part 2 of this brief series, I which I will take a look at some ways we can collaboratively problem-solve and tap into the creative potentials of our schools.

Linda Hill- “How to Manage Collective Creativity”

Ross Cooper- “All the Wrong People in all the Wrong Meetings”

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