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Innovating as an Educational Leader
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Innovating as an Educational Leader

One of the things I appreciate about educational leaders is their capacity to find value in learning about systemic innovation outside of their own field. Our educational leaders have no choice but to monitor and draw connections between their work and accountability. But gone are the days where you can be one or the other and be safe. You can no longer choose to attend to accountability or choose innovation.

You do both or your system begins to crumble.

We must come to agreement that to be an effective educational leader today you must know how to achieve success in accountability AND success in innovating. The key for educational leaders is to define success within your overall vision (not just one reported measure).

Innovation can not be defined in terms of activities. Rather innovation must be demonstrated through outcomes and findings and progress towards a forward thinking vision. Innovators by nature go into a problem with a possible solution and learn much more than they intended to on the way. Behaviors typically associated with accountability are not innovative, but managerial in nature.

All around the country we, more often than not, see the top rated educational organizations showcasing small stories of innovative practice, without ever making a systematic commitment to innovate. These organizations rely on a few risk-takers to make it appear that the system as a whole is trying to innovative. But in reality those organizations are not changing. They are supporting the management and maintenance of accountability.

Can we get to the point where educational leaders know and fully believe that if they innovate to engage, empower, and provide agency to students everything else will be fine?

We need to move towards a cadre of leaders who understand, own, and support innovation as a process and as an equally important outcome for our schools.

What are the behaviors of educational leaders that support innovation?

We went through 30 articles from recent literature on what educational leadership can do to support innovation, all published between 2015 and 2018. We ran the conclusions and recommendations of those articles through text analytics software to identify action statements. We sought to identify behaviors of educational leaders that support innovation. What we found is telling.

  • 87% of articles suggested leaders need to create opportunities to share work and or network.
  • 72% of articles suggested leaders need to be comfortable with experimentation.
  • 78% of articles suggested leaders need to have a shared vision to ground innovation.
  • 62% of articles suggested leaders use time and space differently to support teachers and students.
  • 59% of articles suggested leaders need to have advanced ideas of educational data and derive meaning from more than accountability measures alone.
  • 92% of articles suggested leaders use technology for equitable access to communication and community dialogue.
  • 89% of articles suggested leaders need to align initiatives, priorities, vision, human capital, space, and budgets so that they are constantly moving towards the same priority (instead of inadvertently supporting competing priorities).

So how can we get started as innovative educational leaders?

As educational leaders we can lead towards innovation or provide a “hat-tip” to innovation. If you haven’t read Saul Kaplan’s Business Model Innovation Factory and you are an educational leader you’re missing out. Upon reviewing those 30 articles every single one of them was somehow tied to the messages in this book. Saul identifies three questions that guide “next stage” thinking of any organization including: How does your organization create value?; How does your organization deliver value?; and How does your organization capture value?

In those three simple (yet intriguing and complex questions) is the basis for innovation in education that can be facilitated by our leaders. We need to wonder: If our educational leaders focused on answering those questions what would our schools and systems of learning look like? If our educational leaders focused on answering those questions, how would the role of leaders change and reshape as progress is made?

There is so much to learn outside of education that can be directly applied and learned. To me, Saul’s book is a good start at learning from “outside.” He presents a clear, understandable picture of what the consequences may be if we ignore technology and innovations, simply leaving them out of our models of “doing business” for too long.

These words have more relevance to education than ever before.

Here are my other walk aways from Saul’s book that are relevant to innovation and the key role of our educational leaders.

  • Leaders need to find their voice and share that voice with others.
  • Leaders need to find their tribe, their people who can support, encourage, enlighten, and challenge them.
  • Leaders need to expand their network well beyond local and state level exemplars.
  • Leaders need one line that is understood by everyone that communicates a strong and clear value proposition.
  • Leaders need to deliver the value they promised.
  • Leaders need to create organizational structures and models that alignwith their value proposition (if you are about a team, create teams; if you are about innovation, innovate; if you are about data, create data that tells your full story; if you are about goals, create, communicate, and measure progress towards those goals).
  • Leaders in the 21st Century need to look for quality team members not 20th Century role-fillers.
  • Leaders in the 21st Century need to model what it is that they seek to produce (if you are seeking academic excellence have the best content experts, if you are seeking soft-skills support, train, and expect those soft skills in everyone around you, etc.).

Dream big leaders. Our kids deserve an educational system that is relevant to their lives. Our teachers deserve a work climate that is like that of their peers who are applauded for risk and leadership. Our communities deserve to see their schools practicing the values, skills, and attitudes of the most successful organizations that encircle them in the private sector.

Leading is not easy. But leading towards accountability is simply no longer enough. Answer Saul’s questions. Think about how you use your voice, network, deliver value, align all effort, build teams, and model 21st Century practices. Think about how you show that you support experimentation and encourage everyone to learn from those experiments equitably. Think about how you use technology to leverage, share, communicate, and drive innovation. Question the alignment between your vision and every single practice. Be an educational leader that facilitates innovation; not just one that expects it to magically appear.

Get it done leaders and if you can’t jump in, ask for our help. Our kids deserve it.