Saturday, October 16, 2010

True Innovation Begins with School Leaders Exploring the Edges of the Adjacent Possible

Over the past few days I have been reading Steven Johnson’s new book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation and in it he describes some common characteristics of environments that allow for innovation. In the first chapter, he focuses on what he calls the “adjacent possible.” In the book he states, “Innovative environments are better at helping inhabitants explore the adjacent possible, because they expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts---mechanical or conceptual---and they encourage novel ways of recombining those.” What exactly is the “adjacent possible? According to Johnson, the adjacent possible is “a kind of shadow future, hovering at the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.” In other words, innovation becomes more possible in those environments where those who work there have the freedom to explore possibilities.

How many times do we sacrifice access to the adjacent possible in our schools by strictly adhering to policy, rules, and regulations? How many times do we as administrators (and I am speaking to myself here) inhibit true innovation for the sake of a rule, policy or even political expediency? According to Johnson, “environments that block or limit new combinations---by punishing experimentation, by obscuring certain branches of possibility, by making the current state so satisfying that no one bothers exploring the edges--will on average, generate and circulate fewer innovations than environments that encourage exploration.”

It would seem to me that the challenge for reforming of our schools falls clearly in the hands of school leaders and policy-makers who control the rules and policy that govern how we conduct our business. If we want true innovation and reform, school leaders need to create conditions conducive to allowing individuals to explore those edges of possibility. What does that look like in practical terms? Perhaps here’s some principles of innovation for school leaders:

  • Seriously question the need for each policy, rule, regulation. Does it limit exploration and experimentation? Does it keep those within the schools from exploring what is truly possible? For example. does the current cell phone policy inhibit exploration of innovative possibilities for use of these devices?
  • Never sacrifice innovation for political expediency. How many times have school leaders created limits in the form of school policy that was perhaps politically popular but damaged the possibility for future innovation? Perhaps school leaders need to come down on the side of true innovation in those cases, even in the face of political sanction.
  • Make experimentation and “exploration of the adjacent possible” the norm. True school leaders are out exploring this “adjacent possible” themselves. They are not waiting for mandates from central offices or even state government entities. They lead their teachers in exploring the possible. Teachers who have leaders “out there” are more likely to be at the edges exploring and experimenting too.

It would seem to me that reform and innovation begins with the school leadership. School leader who truly want reform are at the edges of the adjacent possible themselves, not waiting for permission from the powers that be.

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