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Persistent Innovation


The noun innovation or the adjective innovative have become commonplace in school mission statements, marketing materials, talking points at in-person and virtual events, and more. This ubiquitous use of the terms has done no favours to the education sector, obscuring the reality of what’s really needed, which is persistent innovation. Persistent: over and over again. Wade Roush, a freelance science and technology writer and columnist at Scientific American, wrote recently in Rotman Management (winter 2023) about simple principles that persistent innovators follow. He refers to them as ‘rules,’ but their nature is clearly not rule-based; hence we’ll refer to them as principles.

Principle 1: Build an innovation culture that will outlast the founding leader

In his study of rare organisations that seem to keep innovating again and again, Roush wondered whether they had a great leader, or whether they had created a self-sustaining culture of innovation. Roush concluded that “the answer is circular—all persistently innovative [organisations] have a baked-in system for encouraging innovation, but in every case, a founder created that culture and faithful successors kept it going.” An organisation can have a talent in its ranks, and it benefits from a leader to can continue to coax innovations out of that talent pool. Balance is paramount. Capability to innovate + leadership in innovation are both necessary, in terms of sustainability of innovation within an organisation. However, that leadership element cannot be reliant on one individual; it needs to be transmissible to successors.

Principle 2: Organise around competencies, not products or markets

There is no single way to organise a school, or even a division within a school, when it comes to designing a school for persistent innovation. One could restructure away from disciplines/departments, or one could organise by disciplines/departments, or some other approach. What does matter, however, is a key competence: the ability of people (your talent) to translate your context and your expertise into services or projects (etc.) that capture—are reliant on—your ecosystem. From the perspective of the leadership development pipeline for future heads of school, there’s a role here for division heads and department chairs (or similar structures you may already have in place): provide time, space, and resources for your talent, who has deep expertise and broad mastery of their areas, to collaborate in finding small organic molecules, if you will, that will interrupt extant networks of gene interactions that lead to a product/service (etc.) that you don’t find favourable, currently. That intersection of time, space, and resources is a way to reward the competences you seek.

Principle 3: Create protected spaces for innovation

Often when we think of ‘protected spaces,’ we think about physical space, such as a building. Enter innovation labs, maker spaces, and so forth. We need to recognise, however, that ‘spaces’ are just as likely liminal and virtual. A ‘Future Lab’ can be a non-physical, intangible asset that is, from a functional perspective, any way (virtual or in-person) that people can gather and work on furthering ideas. Schools can create the narrative and tell the story of the ‘Future Lab,’ making it seem and feel as if it were some physical, tangible lab space, when, in fact, isn’t. Does that make it less of a ‘protected space,’ though? Schools do this already, to a certain degree, with things such as Institutes. 

Principle 4: Think inside the box

Related to something mentioned earlier: think about things that capture—and are reliant on—your ecosystem. Lego, for instance, went through a trying period where it experimented with a number of new products and went seriously off-brand; it took a new leader to kill off the products that weren’t authentic to the brand, so that the brand could recover. Schools need to make things (ideas, services, products, projects, etc.), and they also need to believe that those things are going to change lives, creating a certain desired impact that adds to the value proposition of the school. What the school makes (creates) and believes needs to be in alignment; to make only (without believing in it) is not a hallmark of persistent innovation.

So…how are you designed?

Much of this, then, comes down to design. How is your school designed, when it comes to the practice of innovation? Is resilience (of your talent, of your leadership) also part of the design of your school? How might you design for that, if you’re just now contemplating the journey? How might you course-correct, if you believe your design to be out of balance?

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