Is Innovation in Your DNA?

The Innovator’s DNA (Christensen, Dyer, and Gregersen) offers an uncommon combination of pop corporate storytelling and research study results. Lessons learned from their analysis of innovative leadership practices may be applied to education settings.

In contrast to their own title, the authors find identify seven critical discovery skills that can be developed. They are not unchangeable qualities of innovators.

  1. Association
  2. Questioning
  3. Observing
  4. Experimenting
  5. Networking
  6. Challenging the Status Quo
  7. Risk Taking

Networking particularly offers new potential in an information age. Active participation in electronic networks increases one’s connectedness to professionals in other institutions, leading to more powerful professional development opportunities, school visits, and personal connections.

Interestingly, the authors find immersion in a foreign culture to be a common trait about innovative CEOs. Living in another country increased leaders’ abilities to connect disparate ideas and imagine new possibilities.

Associating—or the ability to make surprising connections across areas of knowledge, industries, even geographies—is an often-taken-for-granted skill among the innovators we studied. … Conceptually, as innovators increase the number of building-block ideas, they substantially increase the number of ways they might combine ideas to create something surprisingly new.

Christensen et al find that creativity is not a fixed trait. Rather, one can develop it through practice. In addition, behaviors precede changes in attitude. Frequently engaging in discovery skills leads to conceptual change. This is one model for how a leader can develop a culture of innovation in one’s school.

In independent school discussions, creativity and innovation are sometimes mentioned in the same breath. This may lead to a focus on the arts as the principal source of instruction for creativity in the school. The authors find that creativity alone does not necessarily lead to innovation. Innovative leaders desire to change the status quo and take strategic risks put creative ideas into practice. Schools should therefore see innovation as a school-wide initiative, perhaps led by an interdisciplinary team but certainly not based in just one discipline.

Why do institutions resist change? The authors fault the “status quo bias, the tendency to prefer an existing state of affairs to alternative ones.” Innovative leaders shun the status quo, whereas delivery-oriented leaders focus on execution and risk aversion. Certainly this is true in most schools, where administrators, teachers, parents, and students find comfort in long-held models of what education should look like.

In schools, aversion to failure may also have to do with the costs of mistakes. Failed classroom experiments affects kids’ learning. However, I would personally rather model bold experimentation and occasionally hit the jackpot with a transformative learning activity than consistently organize good but uninspiring lessons.

Though most of the book’s analysis applies equally well to education as to business, the book’s treatment of education itself leaves much to be desired. One paragraph alone describes The Met’s internship-based program, one of my favorite examples of reimagining school. Sir Ken Robinson earns a mention.

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