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Why Innovation Fails

As much as we talk about innovation in international schools today, we know there is plenty of apprehension to engage in innovation. Apprehension tends to centre on the notion of risk, and, given that boards tend to be conservative by nature, it is hardly a surprise that we’re not seeing more innovation.

Innovation is a buzz-word, admittedly. People think they’re cool when they use it, when they criticise schools (and other organisations and industries) for not being innovative. The truth is, though, that innovation is deeply challenging. Although we frequently hear a choir of folks sing the praises of failure, it should be pointed out, as Ben Slater of consultancy Bow & Arrow (London) does in the most recent issue of London Business School Review (2.2015), that “[i]nnovation is a complete and utter basket case in business […]. There is no other discipline […] that has a higher failure rate than innovation […]. It is incredibly hard. There are multiple pain points where innovation can fail […].”

Whilst that citation may seem to buttress any resistance to innovation, I submit it here as an important part of the framework of the question “Why Innovate?” It is — or should be — part of establishing an appropriate frame when a school decides to become serious about innovation, moving from talking about it to doing it.

In the aforementioned issue, Slater provides some very helpful parameters when it comes to identifying pitfalls in innovation, and considering how to overcome them. I list them here, translated into terminology that applies to schools.

1. No personal ownership by the Director/Headteacher. A teacher can indeed undertake something rather innovative, but it will only go so far if the Director does not invest her/his time, resources, and energy into a given project. Make sure that the Director is personally involved.

2. Under-investment. Slater makes it plain: “Innovation is really expensive. It’s expensive to develop a strategy, a proposition, a plan with the team — and it’s even more expensive to implement it with high levels of capital and operational expenditure. If it doesn’t have the level of investment required, then it won’t succeed.” An excellent suggestion is to put aside (but remember) the potential opportunity in terms of scale (and/or revenue), focus on the product/service, launch something that you feel comfortable iterating from that nascent model through a growth phase. This is a way to stage investment as well as gain proof of concept along the way, which tends to create buy-in and strengthens the likelihood of appropriate investment for the duration.

3. Lack of alignment of the right stakeholders in the community. Not simply confined to board members and the Director/Headteacher, alignment includes anyone in the community who will/may have some level of interest in the project’s successful outcome. It is equally important to include those naysayer stakeholders so that, as barriers fall, they can share their conversion with others who may benefit from the innovation. In other words, seek diversity of opinion quite intentionally. It’s also a great way to keep one’s humility.

4. Products/Services that just aren’t feasible. Depending on what a school is looking to accomplish/attain with innovation, this pitfall cannot be ignored. If the school’s goal is to create an alternative revenue stream, then an idea that cannot produce revenue is really a non-starter and should receive no funding. If, however, the school’s goal is to innovate in order to enhance a programme through an increased perception of its value, then the investment needs to be proportionate to the anticipated outcome — the impact to the value proposition of the school. First things first, when identifying the feasibility of the product or service, be sure to take a full audit of those areas/functions of the school that could be involved in the pursuit of the innovation, in order to understand what is and is not possible. Include the results of such an audit in the process that is used when contemplating whether to engage in innovation.

5. Poor execution. Those two words are powerful enough by themselves. Don’t leave execution until after you’ve thought through the entire idea and obtained appropriate investment; it needs to be integral to the entire planning process. The execution phase needs to be done in such a way that it stands out (as opposed to the current way of “how we do school”), cuts through the current/standard operational realities, and, ultimately, results in some level of emotional difference to those it is designed to impact.

6. No process. Here can be a major pitfall for a school, especially if there’s a history of not having established processes for things other than innovation. It can be easy to give in to the siren call of innovation, but innovation should be methodical (example: design-thinking is not namby-pamby, it has a decided method to it). It’s tempting to go from brainstorming (which also is done less than effectively in too many places, not just schools) directly to investment and pursuit of production. Innovation requires a fair amount of rigour and detail. Schools need to work out the exact area of opportunity, the exact audience, how big that audience is, and especially what the problem is that the school is solving. That last point is perhaps the greatest one.

If schools heed these six possible points of failure, they will be on their way to establishing a more rigorous process and increasing their likelihood of favourable results with innovation. Identifying the possible pain points ahead of time can save valuable time down the track.

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