What is the hard work of innovation in school?

Innovation is like genius: one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration. It’s hard work.

Tendayi Viki’s Forbes article Innovation is Management describes the slog that’s required to really innovate. Ideation, prototyping and other ‘frothy’ parts of the innovation process are often what people expect from an innovation or design thinking workshop, despite the fact it’s not what they need. They want some fun, even though they really need to do some hard work.

And pretty much every workshop on design thinking I’ve ever observed, spied on Twitter or attended as a participant has achieved little more than yet another table load of crap made from craft materials, and walls plastered in post-it notes that will end up in the bin, not in the plans for a new product or service. And there’ll be some happy campers, high on the sugar hit of their “innovation experience with design thinking”. This is, of course, complete nonsense.

My team’s workshops and big projects are certainly fun, but that’s more down to the humour and genial types we hire. The fact is, the important parts of innovation and design thinking are the same kind of fun you get climbing a mountain — it’s hellish hard work, sometimes boring and tedious, and the reward of a view comes at a point where you’re only halfway through the journey. Yep — you’ve still got to get down. So what does this mean in terms of a school undertaking an innovation journey?

Innovation and design thinking journeys are like a mountain climb: mostly hard work, quite boring at points, and you really have to seek out the interesting points on the way. But the result halfway through — the view — is worth it. Just ask Catriona, aged 9.

Schools undertaking innovation journeys frequently get it wrong before they’ve even started. I don’t know a school leader who doesn’t want innovation and innovative staff. What does this innovation need?

Curiosity is the fuel of innovation. Inspiration is the fuel rod.

But it’s hard to get inspired by the jargon-filled tabular contents of curriculum documents, the mercifully infrequent PowerPoint presentations from the boss with the latest “vision for 21st century learning” or the prescriptive dictatorship of the latest assessment rubric. And “Impact” was never intended for use in the plural, unless you’re writing the screenplay for Independence Day XI. It’s like climbing a particularly boring mountain, and being denied the view at the top due to the cloud coverage of uncertainty, given the curricular documentation, without any doubt, will already have changed.

The combined weight of curriculum, assessment and general busyness, often mandated from ‘on high’ to the Lemming pedagogues on the ground, is stifling. The right of a teacher to get inspired, tap into their curiosity, turn on their creative mojo and find their ‘white space’ to think is squeezed to the extremity of the school year: the summer vacation. Why? Because Leadership in schools is so busy problem-solving with their instruments of schooling that they’re not finding the real challenges teachers and students would love to get their teeth stuck into. As my colleague Hamish put it:

Problem-solving is the work of managers. Problem-finding is what great leaders do with their teams. Having found a problem to which they don’t know the answer, a great leader can inspire anyone to join them on the quest to solve it. This is the base of innovative moonshot thinking:

The hardest part of innovation is in the immersion around the potential problem. Research, understanding the pain of a user, really getting to know your customers, users, students, parents, teachers… whoever. Being prepared to ditch the problem you thought you were solving when you discover what the problem actually is. Sometimes it’s the haystack you need to find, not the needle.

Rather than ‘launch’ big new ideas to their teaching teams and parents, leaders need to learn how to involve more people, earlier, in seeking out the right kinds of challenge to solve. They might also consider how they set up their budgets differnetly, to give the kind of ‘incremental investment’ provided to startups in accelerator programmes. How much is in your school’s ‘slush fund’ for innovative activities that could become major projects?

Here’s some time to spend seeking out the problem.
Here’s some more time to test whether that’s really the problem, by speaking to some customers.
Here’s a day to develop ideas and some initial prototypes of your solutions to the problem.
Now you’re ready to spin this out — how many people do you need, how much more cash, any external expertise?

This is prototyping culture, not just prototyping. Rather than a distinct activity that is presumed to take place at a fixed point of time in some fixed, linear or cyclical design process, it is a cultural thing, something that takes time and trust to develop, and the skill to weigh up what’s required to get a minimum version of your problem or idea ready to show. It takes a cultural shift in the eyes of your school community, to accept ideas that are ‘good enough’, not perfect, and to realise their job is to provide kind, specific, useful feedback — not to fire off emails because they don’t like “the new initiative”.

Thanks to Chantelle Love for the original link to Viki’s piece.

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