Poking Holes in Your Pockets of Innovation

“Our job, sometimes, is simply to be the spark, help build confidence, and then get out of the way. If innovation in any school is solely dependent upon one person, it will continue to happen in pockets. In contrast, when we focus on empowering learners to become leaders, they help spread ideas.” – George Couros in The Innovator’s Mindset

Poking Holes in Your Pockets of Innovation

It seems that every school or organization I work with, speak at, or talk to has a similar problem. In all honesty, the school’s I’ve been a part of as a teacher, staff developer, and now administrator have dealt with this exact same issue.

Pockets of innovation.

Many of you are probably nodding in agreement right now. Maybe you’ve been in this situation. Maybe you’ve been one of the teachers or leaders in the pockets of innovation.

In fact, the pockets of innovation get a ton of praise and accolades from school leaders. They are often shared with the parents and community. The students in these pockets receive the benefit of having their work connected to an audience. The teachers in these pockets tend to get new opportunities for professional growth, which in turn pushes them to continually innovate in their classroom.

The pocket life, is the good life.

Except, it’s a lot of work. It takes a lot of time as a teacher and school leader to keep the innovative and creative work going. It takes countless hours of reading, creating, collaborating, and facilitating to do this work.

And then, at the end of the school year. Even after all the sharing. Even after all the celebrating of this work. Even after all the hours of professional development. We are often still left with pockets of innovation.

The cycle continues the following year. Many of the same teachers get new opportunities. Many of the same students are celebrated for their work inside the pockets of innovation. It’s great work. It’s great learning. It should be shared!

But teachers, parents, school leaders, and community members are left wondering: What about the rest of the school?

The Explorers and the Settlers

There is a series of commercials for DirectTV that have been on for some time now about the “settlers” who would rather settle for what they currently have, then try something new and better. It’s easy for the “settlers” to point to their current way of living as a good life, and fight back against the new and innovative that is in the world.

Turns out there is a term for this: loss aversion.

In economics and decision theory, loss aversion refers to people’s tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. Most studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains. Loss aversion was first demonstrated by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.

This leads to risk aversion when people evaluate an outcome comprising similar gains and losses; since people prefer avoiding losses to making gains.

We see this loss aversion happen in companies, organizations, and also schools. I’ve actually heard of some school leaders sharing the video below at staff meetings to talk about whether or not they are promoting a culture of “settling” or a culture of exploring.

It’s funny, but also concerning. Even those schools that have poked holes in their pockets of innovation and allowed it to spread far and wide may be left with pockets of settlers. Those that are risk averse and content to do things the way we’ve always done them.

You can tell I think a lot about this problem in schools. I wish I had a magic solution. But it seems in order to poke holes in your pockets of innovation and spread creative work beyond a few places, there has to be a lot of hard work that takes place.

In my time studying companies, researching, and talking to teachers and school leaders around the country (and world for that matter), I’ve seen four areas that help spread this innovative type of work wide and far:

1. Sharing is Not the Same as Highlighting What Works and Fails

There’s a story about a woman at Google who lost the company millions. When she apologized to Larry Page, he told her, “I’m so glad you made this mistake. Because I want to run a company where we are moving too quickly and doing too much, not being too cautious and doing too little. If we don’t have any of these mistakes, we’re just not taking enough risk”. (Read more at Reverse Engineering Google’s Innovation Machine). Google is a company that actually values mistakes and is willing to pay for them. It’s probably a nightmare for their accountants and risk-averse types. [footnote] Found via this Quora answer. [/footnote]

That story speaks volumes to anyone who works at Google, or anyone that wants to work at Google. Knowing that you’ll be able to innovate and fail (and not be fired for it) makes the hard work less risk averse than at other companies.

I see many schools, mine included, sharing the stories of successes, and celebrating those who are in the pockets of innovation. But what about highlighting the initiatives, pilots, and projects that might not have been that successful? When we highlight what works and fails, we highlight the process and the work that goes into innovation, instead of only the final outcome. This helps build a culture where, as Sir Ken Robinson says, “Everyone’s ideas are valued.”

2. Reassurance of What Will Be Measured vs What Used to Be Measured

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO (one of the most innovative companies in the world) offers this advice on building a culture of innovation: [footnote] Found via this Yale insight’s article. [/footnote]

What’s important is an ability to create spaces where trust can happen, where risks can get taken. We tend in our operationally minded view of the world to try and mitigate and design out as much risk as we can, but if you want to innovate, you have to take risks. And to take risks you have to some level of trust within the organization, because if people get penalized for failure, particularly the kind of failure that’s most useful which is where you learn a lot, then they’re not going to do it, in which case you’re not going to get any innovation.

Many teachers I talk to say the same thing: My school (or school leader) still cares about our scores on the standardized tests. How can I possibly prepare students for these high stakes tests, and also do creative work in my classroom?

As leaders we have to own up to this. If we are consistently praising and measuring teacher and student success with measures of “accountability” then that is what we’ll get…standard accountability.

Instead, when school leaders offer up new ways of measuring, praising, and assessing teachers based on creative and innovative pursuits/work, then that is what we’ll get. What we measure always will matter, and we need to be intentional about shifting the narrative.

3. Empower With Opportunities (Even for Those Struggling)

This one is simple. Give more people better opportunities for growth. Expand the pockets of innovation by supporting different teachers and having them attend conferences, Edcamps, online opportunities, and other avenues to empower their creative work.

The cycle of pockets of innovation will continue if the only people growing in a school are those that are already living in the pockets. We have to make the conscious decisions to spread the opportunities to all teachers and students.

4. A Framework for Creative Teaching and Learning

Tim Brown continued to speak about building a creative culture by saying:

Any organization that wants to innovate, wants to be prepared to innovate, I think, has to have a few things in place. One is-and perhaps the most important thing is-methods for having an open mind. A sense of inquiry, of curiosity is essential for innovation. And the quickest way for removing curiosity in my opinion is to have organizations that are too inward-facing, that don’t spend enough time out in the world.

What are your methods? How are you supporting inquiring and curious minds in your school or organization?

We often here this myth of creative and innovative work. The myth that says it has to be “lightbulb” moments where one person has an amazing idea to share with the world. The truth is that creativity doesn’t work like that. It can be structured. It can be collaborative. There can be a framework and methods in place for creative work.

It’s why John Spencer and I created The LAUNCH Cycle. It’s a simple way to use the power of design thinking methods in a K-12 environment. We’ve seen teachers and students use this around the world during the Global Day of Design. We’ve used it in our own classrooms and schools. It’s a framework that can work in any grade, any level, and any subject.

As we work towards “poking holes in our pockets of innovation” we have to consider the alternative. If we don’t expand this creative work, we leave ourselves open to being disrupted by outside forces that we will have no control or influence over. Let’s move education forward by moving everyone forward. It’s not easy work, but it is the right work to be doing.

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Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • John Bennett says:

    I retired almost seven years ago. Sadly I think I was a fairly small pocket of innovation. The really unfortunate consequence was the number of students who decided to accept the consequences rather than work with me to build the Effective Learning skills – often supported by advisors and other faculty by the way. I quickly learned to be happy I had some to work with me (and usually was rewarded by gracious feedback).

    My scholarship of Effective Learning continues post-Emeritus. My only regret is no longer having a chance to work with students. Oh what changes I would make – no textbooks, no grades, even more student control…

  • Mark Allen says:

    Nice post, A.J. You’re describing a situation in which school leaders know that they need to spread the pockets of innovation in their schools, but what I find more prevalent, particularly in the secondary phase, is that pockets often emerge where individual teachers ‘get it’ before their leaders do and are consequently innovating in isolation. They work in an oasis of new thinking in a desert of conventional practice, and I feel for them because it’s very hard to effect school-wide culture change this way. Unless school leadership teams buy into the vision of what is possible and create the kind of culture you describe in this post, and unless they model the kind of behaviour they want to see in others, systemic change won’t and indeed can’t happen.

  • Paula says:

    I like your mention of Loss Aversion – IMHO, the higher up the structure you go, the stronger loss aversion becomes. You also need to look at the rewards for innovation. It’s worth looking at the personal and institutional incentives in place, to see whether innovation can actually happen.

    Think of someone in a leadership role at the US Dept. of Education, or State Dept of Education. Whether they go for innovation, or go for lip service change or simply go for the status quo… they keep their job, go up the political career ladder; there’s little difference between innovation and just doing nothing new, oiling the existing machinery. However, the cost to them personally of failed change is extremely high. If they are responsible for a major innovation initiative that goes wrong, their career will be at risk, the entire state or country will be impacted under their watch.

    It’s somewhat different in the business world where most organizations MUST adapt or change, because they’ll go out of business if they don’t. Someone else comes up with a better idea/service that solves the problem in a better way. Happens all the time – Blockbuster > Redbox/Netflix, Kodak > Flickr/Picasa, retailers > Amazon, Nokia > Samsung/Apple, Yahoo > Google…
    The Dept of Education will not be shut down or see budgets cut if they fail to innovate (in fact, gov’t depts often get MORE resources if they fail – a la FEMA after Katrina).

    Schools are somewhat the same in terms of innovation – not much pain if you don’t innovate – it’s rare to see a school close or a leader removed if they simply sustain past results. Most of us can’t afford the high cost of private K-12, so the funding stays the same if they innovate or not.

    Innovation in education starts at the “Pocket” level – where costs are lower. How to spread it and scale it are the exactly right questions to ask and answer! It’s worth looking at the personal and institutional incentives in place, to see whether innovation can actually grow.

    I think the Most Likely To Succeed book and film and ‘movement’ have noted this, and that’s why they’re doing a national tour, providing resources for local teachers, parents, administrators to try and help them spark change. http://www.4pt0.org (School 4.0) is another one I am following looking to support local innovators.

    My theory is that the pockets of innovation hit an incentive ceiling and is prevented from spreading far and wide because of it. But I could be completely wrong on this part, just saying! I don’t have hard evidence for it, just a bunch of stories at this point.

  • […] There’s a story about a woman at Google who lost the company millions. When she apologized to Larry Page, he told her, “I’m so glad you made this mistake. Because I want to run a company where we are moving too quickly and doing too much, not being too cautious and doing too little. If we don’t have any of these mistakes, we’re just not taking enough risk”. (Read more at Reverse Engineering Google’s Innovation Machine). Google is a company that actually values mistakes and is willing to pay for them. It’s probably a nightmare for their accountants and risk-averse types. 1 […]

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