[cross-posted from  Connected Principals]

Heidi Hayes Jacobs:  ”If you’re not updating your curriculum, you are saying that nothing is changing.”

“Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of school administrators who responded to a recent survey said 1:1 computing classrooms where teachers act as a coach for students are the future of education.” (T.H.E Journal)

“Innovative teaching supports students’ development of the skills that will help them thrive in future life and work.” (ITL Research)

One of the most exciting books of the year for those of us seeking to become ever more effective as innovative school-leaders and leaders of innovative schools, and, even more importantly, seeking to facilitate our students’ development of more innovative mindsets, is the new book from Clayton Christensen (et.al), The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the 5 Skills of Disruptive Innovators.

(Bill Ferriter has written brilliantly about this book herehere, and here).

The book is framed around the Five Core Skills of Innovators, a framework highly valuable for ourselves and our students: What are we doing to do more of and become better at

  • Associating,
  • Questioning,
  • Observing,
  • Networking,
  • Experimenting. 

It is my aim to write more about these five traits, particularly for teaching and learning, but here I want to focus upon school leadership and the book’s concluding three chapters, People, Processes, and Philosophies, to draw and offer 15 takeaways for Principals and School-Leaders: What You Can Do to Become Stronger Innovation Leaders in Your School:

1.  Own as Principal the role of Innovator-in-Chief: You can’t delegate innovation:     

Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”  Steve Jobs.


“In the most innovative companies, senior executives didn’t just delegate innovation; their own hands were deep in the innovation process… Their focus was innovation, so they actively engaged in questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting, which had a powerful imprinting effect on their organization and team.

Because innovators excelled at the innovator’s DNA skills, they valued them in others, so much so that others within the organization felt that reaching the top required personal innovation capability.   This expectation helped foster an innovation focus throughout the company.

 If top executives want innovation, they need to stop pointing fingers at someone else and take a hard look at themselves.

2.  Make your practice of “active innovation” visible, such that “everyone sees or hears about it.”  It is not just that we practice innovation ourselves, but that we find ways to demonstrate it publicly to model it for our communities and inspire those with whom we work.   Whether it is in faculty meetings,  student assemblies, or online via blogging and social media, find the way to showcase your innovation leadership.

3.  Create complementary teams in school leadership, balancing innovation/discover strengths at the top with delivery skills very nearby.  ”Delivery skills” include analyzing, planning, detail oriented implementing, and self-disciplined.”

4 . Building on the ideas of networking and cross fertilization, take initiative as Principal to observe closely what other schools are doing, from across many educational sectors: K-12 and post-secondary; private, public, charter; etc.    (p. 202)   My own most powerful learning and innovative-mind developing activity has been visiting other schools, shadowing students, and blogging my observations.

5.  ”Arrange for employee swaps” with other schools and organizations.  This is something I have almost never heard of in education, but what a great idea!    Swap elementary and high school teachers for a week, swap admins and teachers inside the same school or better with schools with sharply different methodologies or philosophies.   At my school we are embarking on teacher swaps with our two new “sister” schools in Hermosillo, Mexico, and believe the result will be greater innovation in both schools.

6.   Ask Why?  Use this method as school-leader with your team and with your constituencies:  ”When confronted with a problem, ask yourself why at least five times to unravel causal chains and spark ideas for innovative solutions.”

7.   When hiring, seek people who “had invented something, held deep expertise in a particular knowledge area, and demonstrated a passion to change the world through excellent products and services.”    ”Clearly if companies want innovative ideas from employees, they should screen for innovation potential in the hiring process.”

8.  Remember that ”innovators want to work with and for other innovators.”   With each innovation hire, and each positive step modeling and positively reinforcing innovation, you are turning the flywheel in your school for increased momentum towards becoming an innovation hub.

9.  Embed innovation as an “explicit, consistent element of performance reviews.”  Ask every teacher every year in self-evaluation and performance review to identify and reflect upon their innovative practices, risks taken, and lessons learned.  Hold everyone accountable for the practice of innovation.

10.  ”Develop formal and informal processes to facilitate knowledge exchanges.”   We need to help our fine people share more than they do at present in our schools; we need to lift them up out of classroom silos and into collaborative exchanges.   Is there more we can do to help teachers and administrators have lunch together?  Can we set up online sharing networks for people to contribute to from across the organization?   Are we doing enough to generate PLC’s?  ”It’s totally possible for you to be sitting by someone who has been working in an area that you were not interested in.  And then suddenly a discussion with that person may trigger some new ideas for both of you.”

11.  Network externally.   Our silos are not only within our schools, but our schools themselves are too often silos, isolated from strong networks.   “Over the last few years, companies have increasingly looked outside their own walls for new ideas.”  One example I have seen of highlighting this kind of external networking comes from New York’s Riverdale Country School, which has a web-page celebrating all its many external organization connections, a page they are regularly seeking to add to and strengthen.   To quote: “Riverdale is a great school, but great institutions are measured by their collaboration with other great organizations.”

12.  Practice Beta testing and Prototyping.  It is not enough to come up with ideas; as Principals we have to put them in place and see what happens. The book quotes leading innovators:   “How do I do this now?”  ”Screw it. Let’s do it.”    As at Google, “Institutionalize experiments by using “beta” labels to release products early and often for public trials, allowing Google to quickly get direct customer feedback.  It pursues innovation by having hundreds of small teams prusuae and pilot new projects simultaneously.”   My favorite word in educational leadership is “pilot.”   I regularly attach it to experiments underway, letting people know there is room here for multiple iterations, and if it doesn’t end up being effective, we’ll take it down and try another approach.

13.  Build many small, diverse teams for projects.   At Google, “engineers typically work in teams of only three to six people. ‘We try to keep it small.  You just don’t get productivity out of large groups.’  The result is an empowered, flexible organization with small teams pursuing hundreds of projects, an approach that Schmidt claims ‘lets a thousand flowers bloom.’”   Remember Margaret Mead:  ”Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

14.  Communicate and reinforce that Innovation is everyone’s job.   It is fascinating to me to read and realize that “the Think Different campaign at Apple “targeted Apple’s employees as much as its customers.”  Steve Jobs explained: “The whole purpose of the Think Different campaign was that people had forgotten what Apple stood for, including its employees.”  What are we doing to convey effectively that “innovation is everyone’s job?”

15.  Make innovation an explicit core value of your school: ”Companies incorporate innovation, creativity,and curiosity into their core values, in word and deed.”   At my current school, we embedded the importance of “innovation” in our mission and our slogan: “Creating Leaders and Innovators.”

16.  “Give more time for innovation.”  ”Innovative leaders know that innovation doesn’t just happen but requires a significant time commitment… budget more human and financial resources to innovation activities.”  One of our greatest opportunities as school leaders is also one of our most challenging, but let’s not yield in the face of the difficulty: Find, carve out, insist upon more time for collaboration, more time for shared reflective practice, and more time for innovation.

17.  Create “a safe space for others to innovate.”  Encourage questions, especially tough ones, and watch and listen.  Encourage everybody to ask why on a daily basis.  ”Researchers call this psychological safety in which team members willingly express opinions, take risks, run experiments, and acknowledge mistakes without punishment.”

18.  Model your risktaking and your learning from failure. Principals can make more visible their risks, their failures, and their learning from failure, to better model these practices.    ”The most essential part of creativity is not being afraid to fall.   For innovators and innovative companies alike mistakes are nothing to be ashamed of.   They are an expected cost of doing business.   ‘You do enough new things and you’re going to bet wrong,’ says Jeff Bezos.”

Our students are waiting for 21st century learning, and our world is awaiting graduates who can succeed and flourish in fast-changing times.   None of this is to say that everything must change, hardly.   There are many, oh-so-many thing we do that should never change.  I was charmed recently by Nancy Flanagan’s piece in EdWeek Teacher, Time Traveling Teacher, when she wrote:

But I’m wondering if there isn’t a kind of timeless core in formal education–and if change isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, in classroom-based learning. That core would begin with the relationship between teachers and students.

Of course we must preserve and perpetuate this core, but at the same time it has never been more important to, as Collins writes, stimulate progress.  Christensen’s Innovator’s DNA is a fine resource for thinking about practical and inspirational steps we can all take as school-leaders to advance educational innovation within our schools.