12 Tips for Being an Educational Innovator

As I’m reviewing my notes for a presentation tomorrow, I thought I would put together this summary of my ideas for the rest of the world as well. I have the opportunity to speak to a small group of higher education leaders, the 2015 Thrivent Fellows. I’ve been asked to speak about educational innovation and entrepreneurship, a topic that occupies many of the posts on this blog. As such, the following ideas are far from new. Since I blog to think, reflect, refine and connect, you can expect to see common ideas in this post/list. Nonetheless, perhaps the repackaging will resonate in ways that other articles did not. So, here are my twelve tips for becoming an educational innovator. entrepreneur

1. Start with why. In a talk last year at the Education Innovation Summit, Steve Case said, “You really need to believe that you are on to something important.” Educational innovation has to be about more than money, the joy of scaling something, or or simply measuring increasing the number of students, products, or clients. If you want to innovate with soul, then that means starting with a deep and compelling why. Why do you want to innovate in a particular area? Don’t skip or cut corners on this piece. It really makes a difference for you, your health and well-being, the people around you, and the people who will hopefully benefit from your innovation.

2. Get informed about the possibilities and innovate from depth. I’ve mentioned this in many other articles, but I see many learning organizations stifled by the simple fact that they are unaware of wonderfully promising possibilities that can help with their mission. Take the time to explore and learn about these possibilities. You don’t have to like, embrace, or use what you learn. Just get informed.

3. As part of this, start building your personal learning network. If you want to explore innovation in a particular idea, add 10-20 people, communities and resources to your personal learning network that will feed and inspire your work in this area. Of course, be a good digital citizen and be more than a taker. Give, share and assist those in your network as well.

4. Challenge the can’t. Remember that common example of the elephant with a chain around his foot? After an elephant comes to believe that the chain is tied to a stake, he stops trying to fight it. Eventually, he will remain in a set area by simply putting a chain around the foot that is not connected to anything. I know nothing about elephants and if this actually works, but I see the equivalent in learning organizations all the time. We are restrained by things that we think are not possible. Challenge those things. Be courageous enough to at least engage in some thought experiments about whether certain assumed “essentials” are really valuable and supporting the mission.

5. Put current practices and traditions in perspective with historical inquiry. History often reveals seemingly central traditions in our educational institutions as far less historical than we once thought. This is true about everything from letter grades to core curriculum, schools schedules to what we now consider fundamental requirements of all students. Dive into the history a bit. It will give you a longer view of things and help to realize that even our most historic institutions have experienced significant changes over time.

6. Understand the load bearing walls. Remove a load bearing wall in a house without reinforcing it first, and the house might fall on top of you. The same is true about changes in our institutions. Find out what polices and practices are holding up the roof of the place, and be sure to take precautions if your innovation will challenge one of those areas.

7. Look for problems in the world. Get inspired by one of them. Innovate to help. This goes back to the why. Great innovations address important problems. Keep this in mind as you consider education innovations. As Neil Postman often asked, “What is the problem to which this is the solution?” If it isn’t a significant problem, then why waste your time innovating in that area? If it is, then you have some powerful fuel for your own persistence and motivation.

8. Find and generate new ideas and perspectives. I love to use the SCAMPER model (Google it for many examples). I am also a fan of the book ThinkerToys, which gives many tips for brainstorming and creative thinking. Give yourself time to play, brainstorm and generate possibilities. Do this alone and with others.

9. Beware of confusing scale with innovation or the entrepreneurial spirit. While big gets more attention, if you have an innovation that addresses and important problem, don’t worry about scale. If it helps a dozen people in great need, go for it. Of course, don’t be naive about the fiscal realities as well. An institution is rarely going to make huge investments in an innovation that is small-scale but has a huge budget.

10. As the book says, “Nail it, then scale it.” This is in contrast to #9. If your goal is to scale something, start by doing what Jim Collins calls firing bullets before cannonballs. Test the idea, need, market, etc. with smaller innovations. Once you build confidence and evidence that it is a great need, a great solution, and in demand; then you can move to larger investments of time, energy and money.

11. Innovate with humility. I do not believe that arrogance or hubris is a prerequisite to innovation. You can do it with humility. Start by recognizing that you could be wrong, you will and do make mistakes (sometimes big ones), and that there are often others out there who might be able to do this work as well or better than you. This doesn’t mean you abandon it, but it does provide what I consider to be a healthy perspective. The night of his arrest, Jesus washed the disciples feet. He explained that he was establishing a different model of leadership, seeing leadership as an opportunity to serve others, not control them. I suggest pursuing educational innovation in the same spirit.

12. “If we don’t do it, who will?” This was said by a friend and mentor, Dr. Ross Stueber. He said it when I described a project I was working on, and I wondered if it was worth it. His simple question put it all in perspective, and it gives me a way to focus my efforts. Why not invest your life in the ares where others are less likely to act. Do what might not get done if you do not act.

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