Monday, February 29, 2016

There Is An "I" In "Innovator"

We all grew up hearing the adage "there is no 'I' in team" to promote the importance of collaboration and a collective mindset.  Now, with the proliferation of images on the internet, we can get images like this that are not only funny, but may cause us to reflect:

Without a doubt, there is an "I" in innovator, in more than just the obvious way.

George Couros has written many posts and articles about the traits of educators who desire to be innovators, and most recently, has published the book, The Innovator's Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity. The use of the word "innovator" rather than "innovation" puts the focus on the people, not the products or processes. The traits Couros identifies for educators include empathetic, problem finders, risk-takers, networked, observant, creators, resilient, and reflective.

In the same vein, there is also a great article from 2009 in the Harvard Business Review: The Innovator's DNA.The authors (including Clayton Christensen, Mr. Disruptive Innovation) detail five "discovery skills" that each one of us can choose to cultivate: associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking:

  • Associating
    • What: much like synthesizing, it is the ability to take seemingly unrelated ideas and make connections.
    • How: spend some time thinking about the common themes or patterns between school improvement, the instructional framework, professional learning communities, and a learning-for-all culture.
  • Questioning
    • What: asking "why?" "why not?" and "what if?" 
    • How: the HBR authors suggest spending 15 minutes or so each day writing down 10 new questions that challenge the status quo in your organization. What might that like look for you in your school or district?
  • Observing
  • Experimenting
    • What: intellectual or physical testing of hypotheses. 
    • How: make a small bet and try something new in your school or classroom for one day or one week.
  • Networking
    • What: a conscious effort to meet people with different ideas and perspectives. 
    • How: invite members of a different grade level or content area team to a "new idea lunch" and invite them to offer feedback on one idea.

Great news, right? You don't have to be born an innovator. You can choose to be an innovator through intentional cultivation of your mindset and skills. And then you can help cultivate them in students, too.

Join the conversation...
How do you put the "I" in innovator?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall

I find this flickr image funny, but also realistic. It is much easier to express a desire for change rather than to engage in the personal, hard, long, and sometimes frightening work of change.

A little more than a week ago, all educators in our district were guided in professional learning by Ken Williams, co-author of the book Starting a Movement: Building Culture From the Inside Out in Professional Learning Communities. Ken functioned as our thinking partner around creating and sustaining a learning-for-all culture. Evaluations from the day were overwhelmingly positive, but as with any outside consultant, the real "change" work begins after he or she finishes. Otherwise, the professional learning is an event, not a process:

Innovation is a process, too; a process to introduce change.

Even with a process in place to move the work forward, you cannot overlook that the work will be done with, by, and for people. it is utterly dependent upon them. And sometimes, it is difficult to come to a consensus. It reminds me of this great meme from An Affair to Remember:

I actually believe that it is out of the difficulty that great things arise, but when you're mired in the process, the easiest thing to do is to go back to what you know, and shut your classroom door. 

If you're trying to be innovative and hit roadblocks, how do you stay committed to the process and keep others committed? One idea is to spend some upfront time exploring identity -- both individually and as an organization.

One place I go to for guidance is William Bridges' book, Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes.  On page 80, he writes:
Whether the source of transition is an external change or your own inner development, the transition always starts with an ending. To become something else, you have to stop being what you are now; to start doing things a new way, you have to end the way you are doing them now; and to develop a new attitude or outlook, you have to let go of the old one you have now.
Again, easier said than done. If my identity as an educator is being who I am right now, coupled with doing things in a certain way, change -- even change I say I want -- threatens my very core. How do I let go, especially without knowing where I will end up?

I recently read some work of Parker Palmer, specifically the first chapter in The Courage to Teach. I was moved by this excerpt on identity:
If students and subjects accounted for all the complexities of teaching, our standard ways of coping would do—keep up with our fields as best we can, and learn enough techniques to stay ahead of the student psyche. But there is another reason for these complexities: we teach who we are.Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together. The entanglements I experience in the classroom are often no more or less than the convolutions of my inner life. Viewed from this angle, teaching holds a mirror to the soul. If I am willing to look in that mirror, and not run from what I see, I have a chance to gain self-knowledge—and knowing myself is as crucial to good teaching as knowing my students and my subject.
"We teach who we are." That one phrase, 1/3 of the way into the excerpt, hit home. It's not just about specific strategies or techniques or classroom management -- although they make a difference. Are we willing to look in the mirror and reflect on who we are? Are we willing to look in the mirror and reflect on whether who we are is what our kids deserve? Are we willing to look in the mirror and reflect with our peers on who we are?

This might be the most innovative process of all.

Join the conversation...
What are your thoughts on educator identity? Does the connection to innovation make sense?

Thanks for reading,

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Creating A Sense Of Urgency

In the book The Relentless Pursuit of Excellence, Richard Sagor & Deborah Rickey detail the work of Dealous Cox, superintendent of the West Linn-Wilsonville School District near Portland, Oregon. It is the story of the role of leadership in school improvement; more specifically, it tracks 30 years of impressive results using strategies of personal reflection and community. I highly recommend the book, a fairly quick read at less than 200 pages.

It is hard to pick out just one passage that is striking, but I'll give it a try:
Where there is general satisfaction with the current level of performance, no one feels a compelling reason to alter professional practice. When there is satisfaction with the status quo, people should be expected to continue to operate in essentially the same manner, which should be expected to produce essentially the same outcomes.
Of course, things are quite different when the status quo is considered unacceptable. In circumstances where an organization has articulated a goal of relentlessly pursuing excellence, then maintaining a culture supportive of change along with rich opportunities for meaningful and continuous professional learning becomes essential.
My sense is that it is easier to have a sense of urgency and take risks if you are in a system where a majority (or all) believe it is failing kids, and even more so if there has been some sort of rating assigned or action taken by the state. But where is the sense of urgency to improve and innovate within a good system? How do we motivate ourselves (and our community) to reject a status quo that is "good," or even "above average"? 

To answer my questions, I turned to some extraordinarily bright educational leaders...

Stephanie Hirsh, Kay Psencik, and Frederick Brown suggest that an internal assessment of current reality is the way in which to begin to "release" ourselves from the powerful forces that maintain the status quo. Along the continuum of strongly agree, agree, no opinion, disagree, and strongly disagree, the authors encourage us to assess these statements:

Our school district has embraced a vision and mission for professional learning.
Our school district has adopted a formal definition of professional learning.
Our school district leaders align their advocacy and practice to the district vision, mission, and definition of professional learning.
Every educator in our district engages in effective professional learning every day so that every student achieves.
Professional learning in our schools occurs primarily within learning communities committed to continuous improvement.
 Michael Fullan asserts that it is about focusing on the right "drivers":
1. Capacity building, not negative accountability;
2. Teamwork, not individualistic strategies;
3. Pedagogy, not technology; and
4. Systems, not ad hoc policies.
Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Ian Pumpian use a different approach, one that focuses on reflection and culture. They seek to be the best school in the universe, and recognize that comparison must go beyond their own school or district: 
best school in the universe requires that we expand that window and compare our performance to our dream organization. We have to ask ourselves, "What is the best school I can ever imagine, the school I would want my children to attend, and did we live up to that today?"
There are many other educational leaders who also have a variety of answers to the questions I posed; these are but a few.

Join the conversation...
What are your thoughts on moving a good, above average, or even impressive school even higher? How do we encourage educators to "swim upstream" and innovate when current results are accepted?

Thanks for reading,

P.S. Another great education-specific read on this subject is Good to Great to Innovate.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Innovation-Isms, Andrew Style

On Friday, January 29th, three of us had the privilege of being invited to attend Quicken Loan's onboarding of new employees, known as "Isms in Action Day". With approximately 1,100 people in a beautiful riverfront room in Cobo Center, we experienced founder and chairman Dan Gilbert's day-long messaging of culture, expectations, and innovation through the use of 19 short anchor phrases.

[For more directly on the "isms," click here]
It was interesting to use our educational lens around those concepts and notice applicability to our work. For example, one of the isms is "Every client. Every time. No exceptions. No excuses." This one was easy for us -- if we insert "student" or "learner" for client, it fits perfectly. Just as Quicken Loans does not rest on its 90% client satisfaction rating, we cannot rest on a high level of proficiency for most of our students -- every means every, and all means all.

What much of this spurred me to ultimately think about is that I have been living with an educational innovation guru for almost 20 years, and I only just realized it. Don't get me wrong. I always knew he was special, but his innovation genius? That is a revelation to me.

Meet my son, Andrew. He is a master Lego builder, a proud student at Grand Rapids Community College, and in the beginning stages of learning how to drive. Andrew also has autism, a neurodevelopment disorder. It does not define who Andrew is, but it does impact his social communication and interaction.One of the things we have discovered is Andrew's text messages and conversations tend to be a bit deeper and last longer than verbal ones.
[For more on autism spectrum disorders, click here]

It struck me this morning that just like Dan Gilbert, Andrew has given me a set of innovation-isms. And, because they are in text messages, I have a record of them. Take a look, side-by-side with Dan Gilbert:

“Ignore the noise.”
Don’t allow naysayers or a setback to stop you from pressing forward and winning.
“Quick, we'll need sombrero hats and rattles for our spring break trip.” Followed by “We’ll be wearing sombreros when we check-in.”
Do not worry about the opinions of others. If you believe in it, do it. Who cares what it looks like, especially if it’s fun.

“Responding with a sense of urgency is the ante to play.”
Urgency is your inner compulsion and drive to get things done in a timely, yet thoughtful, manner. Take care of things NOW.
“News Flash: Captain Toad's Treasure Tracker is available now.
We have to stay on top of new research and developments in education, and we have to be able to separate the merely shiny objects from the meaningful ones.
“It’s not about WHO is right; it’s about WHAT is right.”
There is no place for arrogance. Who is right or who is wrong means nothing. What is the right decision or best outcome for the issue at hand?
"Don't thank me. I'm good to be appreciated."
Every choice, every decision, every innovation has to be about what is best to enhance learning for our kids. It is not about us.
“We’ll figure it out.”
“You have to take the roast out of the oven.”
Creating something new is messy, and that’s an advantage. Trust the process and the people.
“Don't worry, I'm really sure everything's under control now."
Even if you can’t see every detail, start. Start small if you have to, but start. Learning is messy and exhilarating.

I could go on, but you get the idea. As we continue to build our culture to support innovation that enhances student learning, I'm going to keep both the Quicken-isms and the Andrew-isms in mind. I will also keep this picture in the forefront:

It gives all of us permission to innovate. Who knew Star Wars went so well with some of the greatest architectural wonders on earth? As Andrew would tell you, "you have to think outside of the book."

Join the conversation...
What "isms" guide your innovative thinking and action?

Thanks for reading,

P.S. Life is short. Always wear the sombrero.