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Making room for innovation

One of my favorite books on leadership is The Future of Management by Gary Hamel. If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to do so. You can read my book review but the essential premise is that current management models, which are centered on control and efficiency, are extremely ill-suited for an era in which adaptability and creativity drive organizational success. This has major ramifications for how we think about leading schools and preparing school administrators, of course.


Like many other thinkers these days, Hamel also has created a web site, the Management Innovation eXchange, or MIX, where he and others can share ideas and have deeper, ongoing conversations about the reinvention of leadership and management. Although MIX sometimes employs buzz phrases that require deciphering, in general the MIX blog and other resources on the site leave me thinking for days at a time about critical leadership and innovation issues.

One such post was a recent one by Polly LaBarre which pertained to the concept of ‘FedEx days.’ These are days in which employees are given the opportunity to hack on their internal environment, workday processes, organizational outcomes, etc. to try and improve the lives of themselves and others. The key is that they have to ‘ship’ their ideas - e.g., present a prototype - within 24 hours. That’s where the name ‘FedEx day’ comes from. The idea of FedEx days wasn’t what has had me thinking ever since, however. Instead, it was this quote:

Innovation isn't about structuring a process to lead to an outcome so much as it's about creating space -- both elbow room, the space to roam free of bureaucratic rules and red tape, and head room, the freedom to see differently, think wildly, and aim higher. The leaders who generate more creative energy and innovation are always wrestling with the question: How do we design in more slack? Or, how do we cultivate an environment and support work that enlists people as drivers of their own destiny and inventors of the company's future?

The disconnects between LaBarre’s quote and our present schooling reality are brutal. In our current climate, societal and political trust in schools and educators are on the decline. Educators face increasingly stringent demands to standardize what used to be a profession and to try and make error-proof what is by definition an enterprise fraught with uncertainty. Unsurprisingly, as the recent MetLife survey results show, teacher job satisfaction is plummeting rapidly and educators’ willingness to leave the profession is 70% higher than it was just three years ago.

This is the environment in which school leaders must somehow find ways to create the elbow and head room that employees need to be adaptive and creative. We are not going to transition our schools and classrooms to technology-suffused, globally-interconnected learning environments that emphasise higher-order thinking skills without a great deal of risk taking and experimentation. And yet the policy and rhetorical climates right now emphasize exactly the opposite. I’m pretty sure that most teachers these days don’t feel that they are ‘drivers of their own destiny’ and ‘inventors of the [organization’s] future.’

As school leaders, in an era of ever-tightening restrictions and expectations and mandates, how are we making room for innovation? [and, as parents, community members, citizens, and professors of educational leadership, how are we helping them do so?]

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