Tuesday, July 10, 2012

21st Century School Leader’s Guide to Creative and Innovative Schools

“Innovation? We don’t want no stinking innovation,” would perhaps accurately describe many of our educational institutions, including K-12 public education organizations. We’ve all worked in those schools and districts where rules, policies, processes, and procedures mattered more than the people. These same schools literally fight to preserve “the way we do things” to the point of exterminating any thoughts of doing things differently. Then we wonder why our particular schools or districts fail to be innovative.

According to Ken Segall in Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success, “When process is king, ideas will never be.” Segall’s assertion is that Apple’s success is based on a company culture where creativity is recognized as vital to the organization. While I recognize the limitations of forcing business thinking on a for-purpose organization like public schools, it does not stop me from asking the question, “Why can’t we create schools where people and ideas matter more than rules, policies and procedures?”

According to Segall, the problem most companies face is that “their processes have become so institutionalized, they’re incapable of altering their own behavior---even if the benefits of the change are staring them right in the face.” As a 20-plus year veteran educator, I can't count how many times have I run head-on into policy, procedures, and rules when wanting to try something innovative and new. These “institutionalized ways of doing things” were thrown into my face by well-meaning administrators and colleagues, but the effects were, “You’re out of line to suggest such things, so get with the program."

Over the course of my career, this “institutionalized-barrier to innovation and ideas” has manifested itself many times, and over the course of years, if you're like me, you eventually become tired of fighting the system, so you just do what you're told, how you’re told to do it. You then pass this same institutionalized-thinking to your students with the admonition that we're told to do it this way, so get used to it. In the end, nothing is changed, because the school culture is one where innovation and new ideas are quickly stifled.

But things do not have to be that way. As Ken Segall states:
“You can build an organization that recognizes the needs of creativity. You can become a steward of creative thinking and become its greatest advocate. You can become skilled in recognizing when a process is more likely to kill a good idea than it is to promote it.”
There is hope that 21st century school leaders can foster in their schools and districts the kinds of cultures that value and cultivate creativity and new ideas. Our schools can become the kinds of institutions that make creativity and innovation a priority, which is vital to their survival as 21st century institutions.

What then can we do as school leaders today to perhaps begin to shape our schools and districts into cultures where ideas and innovation really matter more than rules, policies, processes and procedures? Perhaps here's some starting points for answers to that question.
  • Audit your school culture with your entire staff and see where your school or district lies within the continuum of institutionalized creativity and innovation. Use surveys, informal conversations with all stakeholders, and intense self reflection as your tools to find out if “Your school is one where processes and procedures matter more than creativity and new ideas." This is an attempt at honest reflection and data gathering, but keep it simple. It will start the conversation about how your school and district really values creativity and innovation. Schools that have heavily institutionalized barriers to creativity and innovation will find those barriers rather quickly, but they will be harder to modify or dismantle. Those schools that have more subtle blocks to creativity and innovation will have a more difficult time finding those issues, but might have a stronger basis to start with. Simple, honest, self-reflection is the starting point of finding whether your school or district stifles creativity or innovation or whether it values it.
  • Once the institutionalized barriers to innovation and creativity have been identified, look for ways to change, modify, work-around, or remove those barriers. I am not speaking of violating policies or breaking laws. As a school leader in 21st century schools or districts, we must become skilled at dealing effectively with those things within, and without, our organizations that prevent innovative and creative thinking. Sometimes, changing a policy or procedure is as simple as re-writing it. Other times, we may have to fight before school boards, legislatures, and politicians to change those onerous regulations that are major stumbling blocks to innovations. Other times, we can find ways around these barriers that allow for the creativity and innovation we seek without breaking the law or violating policy. School leaders have to have to courage to challenge the status quo, and of course the graciousness to realize when they’ve lost, and determine to fight the battle again on another day. Those barriers preventing teachers from being creative need to be dealt with, and courageous 21st century school leaders do just that.
  • Become the caretaker of innovation and creativity in your school or district. This means keeping an eye out for innovative solutions and ideas. It means recognizing those when they happen and making sure those innovations and creative ideas are carefully cultivated and protected. It means being ever vigilant that creativity and innovation are valued within your school organization and that institutionalized practice does not hinder these things.
It has been pointed out many times that schools and school districts are notoriously resistant to change. Creativity and innovation are often not valued and many schools and school districts actively stifle those things. It is important that 21st century school leaders do not find themselves on the side that protects rules, policies, and procedures at the expense of people and ideas. True 21st century leadership begins when there's a willingness and courage enough to be advocates for innovation and creativity.


  1. These are smart, practical suggestions to build a school culture that welcomes innovation. I especially like your call for school leaders to be the caretakers of innovation and creativity.
    I hope you'll take a look at my new book (Bringing Innovation to School) for some more ideas from educators who share your philosophy.
    Suzie Boss

    1. I will take a look at your book. Thanks for pointing it out.