Three innovation questions left unanswered

Blogger’s Note: Excuse the rough feel of this post, y’all.  I’m running late this morning but I wanted to do some transparent reflection before heading back to #educon.  Hopefully something here will spark your thinking too.

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So I’m here in Philly this weekend for #educon — one of the highlights of my professional year — and I left last night’s panel discussion on sustaining innovation with a TON of unanswered questions.  Here’s just a few that are roiling through my mind right now:

Can innovation happen without remarkable leadership?

I’ve spent the past month reading I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee #59.

One message that comes across loud and clear in the book is that Larry Page and Sergey Brin were the driving force behind Google. Their choices and attitudes and ideas and beliefs permeated through every decision and action and organizational direction in the early days of Google.

That made Google much more than just another startup company in Silicion Valley to Larry and Sergey.  Instead, it was literally an extension of their core beliefs — about the role companies should play in the world, about the ways that workplaces should be structured, about what “don’t be evil” looks like in action.

Don’t you think that’s true for The Science Leadership Academy too?  Don’t you think that in some ways, the remarkableness of SLA is an extension of their remarkable principal Chris Lehmann?

So the question for me is what happens to SLA after Chris is gone?

Isn’t it possible that SLA’s next principal will be a well-intentioned guy or gal who unintentionally squelches what SLA has become?

The sad truth is that there just aren’t a ton of Chris Lehmanns out there, so can we really believe that SLA will remain the inspiring place that it is today under the stewardship of someone else?

And if not, shouldn’t school districts spend more time and money on principal professional development programs to find and to feed and to grow their most innovative leaders?

What role does accountability play in either encouraging or hampering innovation?

At one point in last night’s conversation, every panelist preached about the important role of failure in the life of an innovator.  Successes were just the tip of their professional icebergs, argued robotics genius CJ Taylor.  Failures are adorable added Alex Gilliam — the founder of Public Workshop.

Their thinking lined up nicely with Steven Johnson’s work on the evolutionary nature of sustainable change.  Growth doesn’t depend on out of the box thinking.  Instead, it depends on a willingness to think at the edges of your box — even if that thinking results in failures because you are pushing your intellectual comfort zone.

But I couldn’t help thinking about the impact that consequences have on our willingness to push ourselves to the point where failure is a possibility.  Aren’t we more likely to stand squarely in the center of our boxes if we know that failure will lead to embarrassment or professional and personal ridicule?

And if so, how do today’s grading — and cudgel-based school accountability — programs stifle innovation in our schools?  More importantly, is there anything that we can do to foster innovation even when we remain shackled by these practices?

Is innovation even possible in large organizations?

When they were asked to define innovation last night, the panelists used words and phrases like “nimble” and “ready to react and respond.”  A sense of action shaped their perceptions of innovation — and that resonates with me.

But as a guy who works in one of the 20 largest school systems in America, that also has me worried because there’s nothing nimble about my district — and while I think our leaders have a commitment to innovation, I worry that it will never happen simply because we’re so huge.

Is it possible that small schools and districts have greater innovation potential than large schools and districts?  And if so, why the heck are we still building 2,000 student schools and cobbling together 100,000+ student school districts?

More importantly, why are we so fixated on standardizing everything in education?  Wouldn’t we be better off if we looked at schools as innovation incubators — an idea that Clayton Christensen pushes for in Disrupting Class — and encouraged as much diversity within the local context as possible?

Finally, what the heck are we thinking when we put our faith in the federal government’s ability to successfully encourage innovation in schools?  Are we REALLY convinced that centralizing educational choice at the national level is going to make us MORE nimble and responsive and innovative as a system?

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Related Radical Reads:

Innovation Interview Questions

Innovation and Intellectual Collisions

Teaching Innovation with the Curiosity Box

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