Invest in Innovators, Not Innovation

“What is your plan for innovation?” this is the question I was asked a lot when I was working as the Director of Innovation and Strategic Partnerships for the Los Altos School District.  I guess it’s a fair question, but we didn’t have an “innovation plan” per se we had a plan to create more innovators. Innovation within an organization happens when you invest in people, providing them with the tools they need and creating a culture that supports innovative thinking and behaviors.   


Unfortunately, this is where I see so many well-intentioned leaders go wrong.  They want more innovative schools and more innovative experiences for their students, so they focus on implementing more innovative programs—project-based learning, a new iPad deployment or even design thinking projects just to name a few.  They heavily invest in products and training and then wonder why a few months down the road they aren’t seeing the results they hoped to see. I would contend that they entered the change process at the wrong point. Jumping straight to behavioral changes may feel that you are embracing a strong bias to action, but these efforts will likely not yield the results without first focusing on the mindsets of every adult in your school or organization.  Mindshift work is hard and it’s certainly not sexy but it is what leads to behavior change and in many cases is what leads to innovation.

So, how do you invest in your future innovators?  Here are 3 suggestions that I have found successful:

  • The Power of the Possible:  Continually share examples of teachers, schools, and districts that are approaching their work differently.  As educators, we are the only profession where our internship started at the age of 5! It isn’t easy for even the most well-intentioned teacher to unwind all of their beliefs and practices without seeing a different way.  Need inspiration? Check out Edutopia or Education Reimagined stories of what is possible.  Share these stories any way you can! And then keep sharing!

  • Create Short R&D Cycles:  Empower teachers who do want to try something new with students.  Work to create a culture where risk is minimized and testing out new ideas is celebrated.  Have any discretionary money? Create a mini-grant, where a teacher can apply for money to support a new idea with the caveat that they share their learning with a broader team.  

  • Invest in Learning: Don’t limit learning opportunities for adults to professional development days or staff meetings. Flood your team with opportunities to learn.  Sure you may not be able to require their participation, but at the very least you can create awareness of opportunities. Why not do a whole staff book read?  Need a suggestion? I may be biased, but Design Thinking for School Leaders is a great place to start.  Or send a few teachers to a conference, there are some great ones around the corner—Learning & The Brain (Educating with Empathy), ASCDEmpower19 or SXSWedu.

I’d love to hear how you are investing in your team!