Three Innovation Questions Left Unanswered

Blogger's Note: Excused the rough feel of this post, y'all.  I'm running late this morning but I wanted to do some transparent reflection before heading back to #educon.  Hopefully something here will spark your thinking too.


So I'm here in Philly this weekend for #educon — one of the highlights of my professional year — and I left last night's panel discussion on sustaining innovation with a TON of unanswered questions.  Here's just a few that are roiling through my mind right now:

Can innovation happen without remarkable leadership?

I've spent the past month reading I'm Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee #59.

One message that comes across loud and clear in the book is that Larry Page and Sergey Brin were the driving force behind Google. Their choices and attitudes and ideas and believes permeated through every decision and action and organizational direction in the early days of Google. 

That made Google much more than just another startup company in Silicion Valley to Larry and Sergey.  Instead, it was literally an extension of their core beliefs — about the role companies should play in the world, about the ways that workplaces should be structured, about what "don't be evil" looks like in action.  

Don't you think that's true for The Science Leadership Academy too?  Don't you think that in some ways, the remarkableness of SLA is an extension of their remarkable principal Chris Lehmann?

So the question for me is what happens to SLA after Chris is gone? 

Isn't it possible that SLA's next principal will be a well-intentioned guy or gal who unintentionally squelches what SLA has become? 

The sad truth is that there just aren't a ton of Chris Lehmanns out there, so can we really believe that SLA will remain the inspiring place that it is today under the stewardship of someone else?

And if not, shouldn't school districts spend more time and money on principal professional development programs to find and to feed and to grow their most innovative leaders?


What role does accountability play in either encouraging or hampering innovation?

At one point in last night's conversation, every panelist preached about the important role of failure in the life of an innovator.  Successes were just the tip of their professional icebergs, argued robotics genius CJ Taylor.  Failures are adorable added Alex Gilliam — the founder of Public Workshop.

Their thinking lined up nicely with Steven Johnson's work on the evolutionary nature of sustainable change.  Growth doesn't depend on out of the box thinking.  Instead, it depends on a willingness to think at the edges of your box — even if that thinking results in failures because you are pushing your intellectual comfort zone. 

But I couldn't help thinking about the impact that consequences have on our willingness to push ourselves to the point where failure is a possibility.  Aren't we more likely to stand squarely in the center of our boxes if we know that failure will lead to embarrassment or professional and personal ridicule?

And if so, how do today's grading — and cudgel-based school accountability — programs stifle innovation in our schools?  More importantly, is there anything that we can do to foster innovation even when we remain shackled by these practices?


Is innovation even possible in large organizations?

When they were asked to define innovation last night, the panelists used words and phrases like "nimble" and "ready to react and respond."  A sense of action shaped their perceptions of innovation — and that resonates with me.

But as a guy who works in one of the 20 largest school systems in America, that also has me worried because there's nothing nimble about my district — and while I think our leaders have a commitment to innovation, I worry that it will never happen simply because we're so huge.

Is it possible that small schools and districts have greater innovation potential than large schools and districts?  And if so, why the heck are we still building 2,000 student schools and cobbling together 100,000+ student school districts?

More importantly, why are we so fixated on standardizing everything in education?  Wouldn't we be better off if we looked at schools as innovation incubators — an idea that Clayton Christensen pushes for in Disrupting Class — and encouraged as much diversity within the local context as possible?

Finally, what the heck are we thinking when we put our faith in the federal government's ability to successfully encourage innovation in schools?  Are we REALLY convinced that centralizing educational choice at the national level is going to make us MORE nimble and responsive and innovative as a system?

I'm not.


Related Radical Reads:

Innovation Interview Questions

Innovation and Intellectual Collisions

Teaching Innovation with the Curiosity Box


7 thoughts on “Three Innovation Questions Left Unanswered

  1. Robert Ryshke

    These are three very good questions. I am not sure I have answers, maybe just more questions layered upon your three. However, let me throw out three answers that may stimulate more thinking.
    1. I think the leadership guiding innovation is essential. I would add that I think the leader needs to model innovation or risk taking. As in the classroom, I think it is very difficult for a teacher to teach students to be creative or think creatively if the teacher is not in touch with their own creative tendencies–exploring them and using them. Same goes with a leader and innovation in my mind.
    2. I think schools have to shift their mindset entirely if they want to promote innovation and creativity. We can’t continue supporting policies and practices (incessantly grading student achievement, wrist-slapping teachers with top-down evaluations, etc.) that discourage people for taking risks and failing. As teachers, we have to model more dynamic and responsive systems that those that have been around for 100 years.
    3. Is innovation possible in small organizations is my response? Does size matter? Isn’t it more about #1 (strong visionary leaders) and a supporting team (a faculty) that share a common goal? I think size is not the variable although I see why you ask the question. It makes sense. I just think organizations like Apple innovate. What about schools though? We can if we have the right ingredients.
    Really good questions to get the juices flowing.
    Bob Ryshke

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Thanks for the link to the NYT article, Blair….It was a great read.
    Im constantly trying to learn from places like Google and Apple only because theyve been so successful over time. Its interesting to see their different approaches.

  3. Blair Peterson

    Bill, There is no doubt that the leader is so important to the organizations success (and failure). Just saw this article today from the NYTimes that compares the culture of Google and Apple. They say that the leaders took two very different approaches. One is top down, the other bottom up. Interesting to see how both worked. Thanks for sharing your thoughts from the Friday night talk.

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Marsha asked:
    Can you imagine what would happen if allowed students to devote 1 day a
    week to studying something or a question THEY deemed important.
    Im with you, Marsha — and Im trying to do a bit of this in my school. We have a regularly scheduled intervention period during our week and my activity is often Design your own mini-lab. The premise is simple: What are you wondering about? How can you study it? What do you need from me? What have you learned?
    Of course, its only one period of free exploration per week — but at least its something, right?
    Whats also weird is that the majority of my kids seem to get swallowed by the notion of choosing what they want to study. Its like they dont even know where to begin — and thats very, very sad to me.
    Anyway — hope youre well!

  5. Elizabeth Sky-McIlvain

    We need to wonder WHY there aren’t a ton of Chris Lehmann’s out there. Instead of focusing on education for “career” success (corporate model), we should focus as many students as possible on the growth of big idea thinking – risking-taking on big ideas – and how to sell an idea successfully. Training leaders, not worker bees: that, it seems to me, is the focus of the best of educational innovation. Marsha’s “once a week” idea is a good one, but I would amend it to “once a day – every day – all year.”

  6. Marsha

    You know I read stuff from Google too…it’s a gr8 source of inspiration for the reasons you mentioned.
    Know what I just read? …”We try to encourage this type of blue-sky thinking through ‘20 percent time’ – a full day a week during which engineers can work on whatever they want. Looking back at our launch calendar over a recent six-month period, we found that many products started life in employees’ 20 percent time.
    What begins with intuition is fueled by insights. If you’re lucky, these reinforce one another.”
    Of course they use something like this 20% time. Can you imagine what would happen if allowed students to devote 1 day a week to studying something or a question THEY deemed important.


    Great questions Bill. I have a few follow-ups that I wonder about:
    Can leaders build capacity within their organizations so that if they move on the core values like “don’t be evil” will continue to be the focal point?
    In regards to your last question, I too wonder if large school organizations can ever be “nimble.” If this is the case do we need to totally blow up the organizational structure and look for a different model?
    Thanks for getting me thinking so early! See you at SLA!

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