Thursday, June 28, 2012

Are you "All in!" for Innovation?

"How was ISTE?"

I think that this will be the most commonly asked question that will be asked of each of us who attended the mind-blowing stimulus rush known as ISTE in San Diego this past week.  But for any new people to this conference (myself included), I am wondering if some of the more common answers will be:

"I'll have to get back to you.", or

"I don't really know, actually."

For me, the International Symposium on Tech Education was a dazzling array of creativity, commercialism, chaos, conversation, collaboration, connectedness, comedy, and yes, karaoke packed into three and a half days.  To try and put into words what I learned for someone who has never been to ISTE is difficult, and I know that it will take several days for me to unpack my notes and thoughts into some cogent semblance of a summary. I know that I did find an odd sense of kinship with the 15000 people who were there to find new and innovative ways to make learning come alive in their own educational situation.  But as I sit here on the plane home, my thoughts are still vacillating somewhere in between apps and appies.

In one of our many conversations on the trip, Blake Buemann (our Learning Coach, follow him on Twitter @edubuemann -- he's got it going on) and I started discussing innovation. We were both astounded at the amazing ideas, presentations, apps, and structures that had been put in place by educators who were, well, just like us.  Normal people.  Of course they were passionate, dynamic, and tech savvy--those were givens.  But in each of the stories that they told, we repeatedly heard a distinct commonality: each of them was required to take a significant set of risks.  And perhaps moreover, they were given the license and the support to take those risks by those in leadership positions.

Everyone wants innovation.  They want their organization to be a lexicon in the education world.  They want their districts to be on the leading edge.  They want their schools to be frontrunners, their classrooms to be exemplary, and their teachers to be pioneers.  And ultimately, they want their students to be the benefactors of a rich and meaningful learning environment that empowers the students to themselves become future innovators.

But ask yourself, how much do you REALLY want innovation?  As a leader in your classroom, school or district, do your actions support innovation?  Ultimately, are you willing to take the risks that are REQUIRED for innovation?

I would contend that as much as people SAY they want innovation, their actions dictate that what they want is innovation...........without risk.  Or at least with very minimal risk.

Unfortunately, the simple truth is that there is NO SUCH THING as innovation without risk.  And sometimes a lot of risk.

Linking these two points together, one can draw the conclusion that as much as we SAY we want innovation, we may not want it as much as we think.

In my opinion, if we want innovation, we need to be well aware that we may be faced with:

1.      Financial Risk- While not absolute, innovation rarely comes for free.  Are we prepared to put in the required infrastructure, staffing, training and equipment that this innovation requires, especially if we want to make it scalable.

2.      Logistical Risk- Sometimes an innovation requires us to look at the frameworks that exist in our schools and change them.  But sometimes, when we innovate, we are not sure what we need to change them TO, we just know that we can't do things the way we did them before.  Plain and simple, this means that it could get messy in a big hurry.  Are we willing to breathe through the hiccups, expect and embrace the chaos, and not revert back to what we know doesn't work well when the going gets tough?  Are we willing to adapt on the fly, admit that it didn't go so well, but keep moving towrds are target? Are we willing to develop the emotional body armour that will protect us from those who want to (and will) say "I told you it wouldn't work!"?

3.      Emotional Risk- Innovation could mean that we may be doing something that we have done before, but differently. It could mean that we need to do something completely new altogether.  Or perhaps even more challenging, an innovation may force us to STOP doing something. Are we prepared for the emotional response that WILL come back at us, without fail?  Are we willing to ride out the huge ups and downs that will inevitably happen? Are we willing to walk in a zig zag down the hallway so that the arrows don't hit the target on our backs?

While I am sure that there are many others, I think about these risks and the support that I need to provide to people that want to innovate to meet the mission of our school. Yes, financial.  Yes, logistical.  Yes, emotional.  But the most important support that I can give is not bringing my saw to the end of the plank.

Innovators need to know that their leaders have their back.  As a school leader, I cannot put an innovative staff member in a position where they feel like they are walking the plank; I can't be the Captain standing on the ship with my saw at the ready to cut the plank from underneath them when the sharks are circling.  Once I have committed to the idea of the innovation, I need to throw my chips on the table and say "I'm all in!".

So how do we get more leaders to throw their chips on the table when it may appear that they have an unsuited 8 and 2 in their poker hand (a lousy set of cards in Texas Hold 'Em, for those who are not familiar)?

As a school leader, I think there are a few ways that an innovator can help me to say "I'm all in!":
1. Come with a clear vision of what will be achieved by the innovation and how it fits in with our vision of improving learning.
2. Come with the rationale and research that shows that the desired result of the innovation is something that is going to benefit learning.
3. Come with an idea of who needs to be involved, who might be assets, where the potholes might be, where adversity may come from, what the contingencies could be if things go sideways, what the check points are, and what the indicators and measurements will be of progress and success so that our progress can be informed. This will not be a complete list, and it will change constantly, but you should have a good idea.
4. Come prepared for as many questions as it takes for me to develop an understanding of what it is that we are going to be doing, and don't be offended by my questions.  If I have questions, others will too.  I need to understand so that when I get asked why I am supporting this, I can clearly articulate my position.
5. Come with passion and conviction, and with a track record of persevering in the face of adversity. Come in with a motor that doesn't stop running for your project. If I'm in for a penny, I want you to be in for a pound.
6.  When things are going well, tell me.  When things are not going well, tell me.  It's ok, I am a partner in this as well, and if we need to change direction, I need to know about it.  Be honest.  If we are going in the wrong direction, let's stop riding a horse that is laying dead on the ground.  We pick up and retool what we are doing.  If it was important enough to start, we need to see it through as far as we can. There is no failure unless we quit.

At ISTE, I saw many innovative people who were willing to take risks to make things better for their own learning situation and, in many ways, all of our learning situations.  It is a fallacy to believe that innovation happens without risk.  Innovation always involves risk, but risks can be mimized by doing the appropriate planning and having the support of from leaders. Not so much planning that it stifles the creative process, but more than enough to make sure that leaders are "All in!" for innovation.

My plane is about to land!  Yawn.


  1. Well stated. prepared for the pushback that is rooted in fear of inadequacy, failure, or lack of time. I know...I've felt it since I got back.

  2. Great article. Makes me realize the biggest barrier to innovation is absolutely risk. Not to mention three huge risks. Trac-7 is currently creating online technical education featuring mobile labs for hands-on training. Changing the complete framework of tech ed is very risky, but a risk well worth the reward. "I'm all in!"

  3. Great thinking! I would agree that a clear and compelling vision and a willingness to take risks are key ingredients in fostering innovation. Right after vision, I would add action. I have found that teachers are more willing to take risks when they see me out there on the end of the plank testin how spring it is. I also think that we need to continue to connect administrators and leaders to learning networks that will provide them with the knowledge, tools, and confidence to get out on the plank and, perhaps, take a dip in the shark infested waters.


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