Leadership In Innovation In Schools


You would think that a school leader in 2016 would have an easy time. Never have we had more information and research on what works in learning and teaching. But no statement could be further from the truth. At the same time, the landscape of work beyond school shifts on a continual basis, introducing the potential of new approaches in work and ever-more exciting play. The journey is often a rough one for schools as they prepare young people for new approaches in work, aim to reflect the excitement of innovation in play, while also providing a robust learning environment based on the latest learning research.

But these pressures are not solely the domain of educators. In my day job I am fortunate to spend at least a couple of days a week working with teachers or young people in schools, and the other days in some of the world’s most creative businesses, as well as with the world’s biggest businesses of tomorrow: the startups. I have learned so much from these young, fresh companies that might help experienced school leaders in their biggest challenge yet: dropping their assumptions and seeing new innovations and new challenges with fresh eyes.

Over the past eight years I have read through over 2,500 ideas from innovators, entrepreneurs, business people and public servants. All of them think their idea is innovative. Only 30 have seen their idea receive investment. Only three of these have made any money worth talking about. One is consistently in Apple’s Top 30 all-time best-selling games list.

This might sound like a low success rate, and it is, but the advantage of expending effort on so few ideas is that those which succeed do so in grand style.

Sharing these tactics with school leaders through workshops has been enlightening: those who had been struggling with overload, rejection and abortive attempts at innovation were, within the space of hours, able to bring their teams with them on innovative, long-term projects. These startup tactics work incredibly well in the world of education, and offer a nimble way for leaders, innovators and students alike to develop their new ideas in better ways.

‘Initiativitis’, Not Innovation

Most schools and their teachers, leaders and school boards, are paralysed by a terrible, perennial case of ‘initiativitis’. Instead of dealing with the two or three big ideas that will make their fortune, schools seem to be expending cash, hours and energy on the 2,497 other ideas that feel cute at first blush, but whose long-term ‘business model’ is debatable.

The Three Horizons – Your Innovation Map

For school leaders to remain focussed on the big ideas, yet provide teachers, parents and students with tangible next steps is a challenge. The Three Horizons is a framework for planning innovation, originated by McKinsey consultants in the 1980s.

Horizon One is the here-and-now, the initiatives that take up our time today. Horizon Three is that far-off-feeling place of the innovations that the organisation needs to undertake to guarantee its future.

Horizon Two is the transition period where, in theory, at least, Horizon One type activities are phased out as Horizon Three’s ambitious innovations take their place. Rarely is that second horizon smooth, and most education innovations, in reality, fail to push the first horizon out of the field of vision of leaders, colleagues, parents or even students alike. Horizon One, that place of current politics and policies, getting through each day, each term, each school year, and being content with having simply managed to keep on top of that, this first horizon might be described as the innovator’s lead weight. Horizon Two is often mapped out as a linear journey in a school’s strategic plan, instead of being recognised as a non-linear, complex, even hexagonal journey.

It is no surprise that we point to so few educational innovations that have stood the test of time as long as those we see in the technological, engineering, design or creative worlds: The Burberry Trenchcoat (1857, and more popular today than ever); the Dyson vacuum cleaner (the result of 5,126 failed prototypes before it); the Eiffel Tower (designed to stay one year, and still there 120 years later). All these innovations have evolved in terms of their physicality, or the service around them, to the point where the experience would be unrecognisable. The education innovation of the industrial era is still visible 120 years on in far too many classrooms. It is time to bring on the innovative Third Horizon.

What Is An ‘Innovative’ Idea In Education?

In schools, ideas are often assumed innovative when they are not, and plenty of genuinely innovative ideas are ignored. The inclusion or absence of technology has increasingly become the mistaken indicator of innovation, the practice of students and teachers – the evidence of actual learning – less so. Whether or not an idea contains technology, its definition as innovative or not depends on a journey that starts well before the press releases, blog posts and gushing praise from Edutopia. The most innovative ideas begin their lives in the same way, through the same actions of the entrepreneurial thinkers behind them:

–        Innovative people relentlessly search for big problems that people care about and no-one has yet solved particularly well. They ignore problems that do not matter so much to the people they affect.

–        Innovative ideas come both in the shower and around the boardroom table. A mixture of approaches and people involved in sourcing ideas is seen as the only way to guarantee a consistently satisfactory idea quota.

–        Innovative leaders know how to frame creative argument, in order to create better ideas, involve more people and maintain ownership of the idea by the person or people who came up with it.

–        Innovators know how to ‘sell’ their ideas, but are never too precious about the ideas themselves. Indeed, they crave feedback and work fast to change their ideas based on how they actually go down “in the real world”. They hold their ideas lightly.

–        Innovators bring together diverse teams to deliver their idea, and often to manage it. But as entrepreneurial thinkers, they know their role in leading it.

For each Horizon in which we operate, leaders can encourage certain attitudes and activities.

First of all, find someone who can act as an independent arbitrator of what is actually happening, currently, in Horizon One. Much of the time schools live on their assumptions, but rarely test them. Having someone to ask “why”, often, helps ascertain where today’s way of doing things actually came from. A good way to uncover these assumptions is through interviewing large numbers of people about both specific areas you think are ripe for improvement, and general areas they see as breaking points themselves. You can also use techniques such as “the Squid” to probe every assumption several times over from different angles, or harness Tom Kelley’s Ten Faces of Innovation to offer team members a different perspective to the angle they would normally take.

This immersion in the first Horizon should come to an end at some point – a period of synthesis is needed to draw together the key clusters of remarks, spot those outlier ideas and observations and begin to define what the underlying problem needing solved might be. The answer to this forms your Third Horizon, those innovative ideas that will solve the beefy challenges presented by the First Horizon way of working.

Often, Horizon Three ‘innovations’ do not aim high enough. They are actually steps on the journey to something bigger, and belong in the Second Horizon, as an activity on the road to innovation. An American CEO with whom I have worked always asks for those innovations to be BHAGs – Big Hairy Audacious Goals. In ideating around the problems identified in Horizon One, we use techniques that encourage people to shoot for the moon – quantity of ideas is important but so too is seeing what would happen if alternatives, opposites and ‘ridiculous’ ideas were put into action. Often it is the ideas that would be received by people as ‘ridiculous’ that are the kernels for developing ambitious, workable Third Horizon innovations.

To manage that journey to innovation, the Second Horizon needs to be thought through in advance. One of the most useful tools for doing this is one that tackles the people touched by the innovation. Actor Mapping helps the innovation team undertake a ‘pre-mortem’ – an examination of the innovation before it is killed off by those whose lives might be rocked by it. Carrying out an actor mapping exercise should not serve to justify the original idea – it should help change it to become a better idea, one that involves more people in its creation and implementation.

There is only one constant in this innovation game: that to keep on top of the potential around us, it is not just students who will need to learn how to become robust lifelong learners, capable of knowing how to keep apace on their own, without school spoon-feeding them. School leaders and teachers have to once more become learners themselves, with healthy toolboxes of strategies and activities to structure their discussions, cover the bases and see innovation from the eyes of all of those around them.

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Ewan McIntosh

Ewan McIntosh

Founder & CEO at NoTosh
Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh Limited, a startup that develops products and services with creative companies on the one hand, and then takes the processes, attitudes and research gained there to the world of education. His company works with hundreds of schools and districts, providing ideas, inspiration and research on how to better engage kids.
Ewan McIntosh

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