What Is a Culture of Innovation and How Can We Build It?

Access and Inclusion October 30, 2014

Like many educators and organizational leaders around the globe, my organization is working hard to design and implement new approaches to education that we believe can be more effective for students than those we currently have in place. Through sheer force of will, many of these new ideas will have the chance to be tested in practice—and some will prove effective.
Along the way, each of these ideas must pass through the context of one or more organizations. How receptive an organization is to new approaches will determine whether or not they succeed and, more importantly, whether ideas that prove effective will have a chance to spread to other parts of the system. This begs the question: What more could we do to help leaders across the education sector develop and sustain a culture of innovation?
Based on primary and secondary research and our industry experience, The Learning Accelerator in partnership with 2Revolutions recently published: So You Think You Want to Innovate? Emerging Lessons and a New Tool for State and District Leaders Working to Build a Culture of Innovation. The publication provides context on what we believe a culture of innovation is and how we can think about it, and identifies factors that influence a culture of innovation. We also created a self-assessment tool that provides leaders with the opportunity to take stock of their readiness to innovate and build a culture of innovation over time.
Here are just three of my favorite ideas from the tool.

1.  To get something you want, you often have to give up something else you (also) want. For example, if you really want principals to innovate—to solve the challenges they face—they have to have decision-making authority to try new things that might create the very best conditions for adult and student learning to occur.  While all principals would be committed to the same mission, how they deliver on that mission would be free from what is usually an overabundance of centralized rules or “control.”  Solutions to challenges can emerge when they are free to distribute their resources across multiple drivers such as staffing, redesigning learning environments, accessing new technologies, hiring experts, providing more professional development support, or things not yet imagined in their community. Some inefficiencies will occur as each principal spends time researching, negotiating, and trying out the best options for their school, and some principals will be better prepared than others to make use of this space to innovate.  Tolerating some inefficiencies— so students might benefit from new innovative best practices— is a trade-off you must be willing to make.

2.  It is important to advocate for specific innovations and for the environment that will make people feel comfortable trying new things.  Some individual leaders champion the role of innovation and risk-taking, but this is not always an organizational value. Large public or governmental organizations in particular don’t often create environments that promote risk-taking and new approaches, but when they do, the sky is the limit.  For example, a state or jurisdiction that champions its belief in innovation might stage a competition and award a grant to a school or schools that are the most creative in rethinking teaching and learning with technology.  Awarding such grants can help to create an environment that says it is okay to try new things—and it just may initiate a tidal wave of curiosity and innovation elsewhere.
3.  Innovation requires dedicated time. In most organizations, little or no time is created in the schedule to support innovation or the pursuit of new ideas. There is much to accomplish, time is precious, and innovation is most likely considered an “add-on” or something reserved for special occasions. Yet innovation requires a certain amount of dedicated time.  Google is widely held as the best example of this, having instituted different versions of its “20 percent time” over the years, allowing employees to dedicate one day of work per week to the pursuit of new ideas—many which have proven successful.
While the percentage of time might vary, organizations like my own have adopted policies that give staff similar dedicated time and space to learn and innovate. My own connection to the WISE Community grew out of my own “20 percent time” at The Learning Accelerator. My goal: to “discover how I can both learn from, and contribute to, the education of a million people around the world.”  
As I’m packing my bags and heading to the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha (using my dedicated “innovation time”), I can’t help but wonder: What would a version of our Culture of Innovation framework and tool  look like in other cultures, or in low or middle-income countries where we have so much to learn from innovators? Perhaps these are the questions that will guide the next phase of my time dedicated to innovation.