If you are looking for innovative learning, don’t rely on a GPS

I recently spent a week in the Bay Area with a group of colleagues researching innovative learning. We visited half dozen schools, took in the Exploratorium, stopped by IDEO, the Stanford D School, Apple’s Executive Briefing Centre, and attended the Nueva Innovative Learning Conference. The learning was immense. Our pace was fast. The time was limited.
We saw great learning; we saw learning that we do better. After much reflection, I am confident we possess the same innovative spirit here. The question, how do we build upon it, to grow it, to innovate the innovators if you will? image by By Jean Marc Cote 

Common language

Innovation takes many forms and individually we all hold our own unique understanding of it. This is good, for diversity is a key to innovation.  Methods may vary, speed is relative and success is not a given. It is the learning during the process that we are after. We need to start with commonality by creating a “common language.” It will provide clarity, inspiration and direction. The definitions will need to be simple enough to grasp and apply, yet thick enough to ensure cohesion and fluidity. Any tweaks, augmentations, or additions made must be made known to all our innovators. Without consistency and communication, no organization, large or small, can maintain or scale innovation.

Growth mindset – rethinking risk

We need to focus on improvement instead getting it right. We need to work to promote learning as a whole process with multiple answers that lead to better questions. Students who understand this are more likely to work towards improvement.  Simply urging students to take a risk is not enough. Risk inherently implies danger or harm. We need to create a culture that distances ourselves from risk and embraces growth. Learners should not need to ask for permission to take action on a task or a project. Yes, assessment will need to be rethought, just remember take small steps but dream big.

Collisions of people

Diverse groups of learners solve problems better and faster than homogeneous ones. Traditionally educators are grouped by subject area, yet we need and exit our comfortable departmental bubbles. By engineering diversity while channeling accountability, we will see action and learning across the organization. Everyone has an idea, a suggestion, or a thought. Often it is never offered. Worse, those who do contribute are rarely empowered to action it. We need to create collaborative environments where people routinely share their ideas. We can build open offices, communal kitchens, team rooms, and cafes. Yet, this only gets us so far. Leaders, at all levels, will need to promote, model, and celebrate collision to build a growth mindset culture where our mantras are “what if” and “yes, and.”

Tasks & spaces – research

Innovation exists in our schools, no dispute. Let’s find it, look at it, ask lots of questions of it, and leave it alone. If it isn’t broke, why break it? There will be plenty of time to tweak or scale it later. It’s the data we want, specifically from the question, “how did these educators innovate with current tools and in their current space.” Educators are quick to champion innovation, especially if they had this tool, something extra in their room, or could access a Makerspace. We get it! You want stuff to innovate. Yet, we as educators cannot wait for the school to formally come up with a plan to change the tools or space available. Channel your inner MacGyver and start by changing tasks, being creative available materials, and leveraging the right tool for the task. If we do, every room becomes a Maker Space.

Showcase & celebrate

Showcasing hard work brings validation. With validation, new inspiration emerges, commitment can be renewed, and moments of reflection often come to light. Celebrating exam results got us this far. From here, we focus on the process of the learning. Successes and setbacks, they all need to come to light. Leaders, educators, and learners alike need to be apart of creating our growth mindset. Highlight it in class. Mention it at the water cooler. Entertain with it at school gatherings. Write about it on your blog, newsletters, or in your favorite medium, Yes, it is easier said than done. Yet it is crucial to success.

Seeing it through – chutzpah

Innovation was always around. We just conveniently ignored it. Our challenge is making and sustaining it. Yes, other challenges will emerge, yet how do we not ignore innovation again? We build it into our workflows. We continually come back to our common language for guidance. Its continued use and discussion keeps us moving forward. As learners change, new collisions of ideas will occur. Both educators and learners will depart and arrive, we need to be ready to receive them, guide them, encourage them, and even get out of their way. Tasks and spaces will continue to be questioned, tweaked, and at times completely scrapped. The conditions for innovation will never be ideal, yet they will always be optimal if you let it.

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job or opportunity

“Where does it say that on the job description?”  “Why don’t other people have to do this?”  “I didn’t sign up for this…” You can treat your job two ways.

One, it’s a list of tasks to get through each day. You perform a couple of A’s and a few B’s. Someone calls you with an urgent F and G, so you do them. People are grateful and you are content. The day goes by and you adeptly notch off several other tasks all corresponding to different letters of the alphabet. You accomplish much, yet you do not concern yourself with why F & G come up so often and always together? Why X only appears at the end of the month? You take them all in stride knowing that there will always be more, similar, and repeating tasks to tackle.

Two, it’s a list of tasks to question. You notice patterns, question procedures, and generally see tasks as opportunities. Curiosity demands you investigate F, G, and X. You research, collaborate, problem solve, and solutions appear. Familiar tasks disappear while new ones emerge. Your skills stay sharp, your learning is fluid, and your job is dynamic.

The future is not about what is required, but what is possible. Thinking about possibilities stimulates creativity. We ask, we push, we analyse, and we act. Curiosity should be encouraged at all levels. Be proactive, question authority, and never settle for your routine. Yes, we will always need people to get things done, yet we need more people who can push their brains beyond what’s required.

Will you still have a job if you solve all the tasks? Yes, it just might be some place else. There will always be new tasks, problems, and opportunities to tackle. While both scary and exciting, the future needs proactive problem solvers. It needs hungry people who can work in teams. And, it especially needs risk takes who are not afraid to fail. Those who are happy with the status quo, need not apply.

Image by dgray_xplane @ CC
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hiring people, two ways

You can write a detailed job description and then wait for the right person to apply. This is our list of skills we need. You will do X and Y, posses Z years experience, and here’s a smidgen about us. It’s very one sided. Plus, you’ve said a lot about your company, its bureaucracy, and its ability to take risks. No doubt, someone out there with those exact skills is waiting to jump through your hoops. It’s a time-honored method of hiring that’s worked for decades, more or less.

Or you can treat a job description more like a set of guidelines, not spend to much time perfecting them, emphasis it’s a partnership, and sell some of the future. Why would anyone want to come work with you? You are looking for potential, not just someone with X, Y, and Z. This person will help shape the company’s future, and yours too, if you let it. S/he should be more than the sum of the skills on a job description.

You are looking for a person who wants to learn, not someone who simply can learn. Ask, how did they get these skills and knowledge? Acquisition is important resource. Talk about how they transfer of skills; assemble knowledge, and their research methods. If someone can do X, then it’s probably they can do Y with the right coaching. No, maybe you don’t want to coach them right now, but you don’t want to hire someone just because they can do Y and nobody else can?

You want talented people, those with multiple talents, doubly so. You want those who can step up when needed and preferably lead. At least, look for leadership potential. You want people who know people. How to talk, how to listen, and more importantly how to schmooze! And be ready that someone might be better than you at his or her particular talent.

Remember, it’s a partnership. If you want talented people, your company needs to be heading somewhere. Have your “why follow me” pitch ready. Yes, their five-year plan is important, but so is yours. Most likely, they are already in a position, so why would they jump ship? The people you want are not sitting surfing the web employed reading your job description. If they are, tread carefully. If people emphasis money over opportunity, say no. You are hiring people for who they will become, not for that set of skills you encapsulated for the good of the bureaucracy on a document.


Image by juhansonin @ Creative Commons

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Tofu, invention, moving on, and rebounding

I frequented this small place in Beijing, which served inventive dishes. Their egg white wrapped tofu and walnut prawns both supplied visual texture and firm mouth feel. They served other dishes too; yet, one day the two dish were gone. They explained it “we don’t make those anymore.” I sampled the menu, yet found nothing particularly as inventive. So, I stopped going.

Restaurants can do okay on average food for a while, if they compensate with a terrific staff. Toss in a great wine list and, yes people will come back. They may be between chefs? Maybe the chef’s is amidst a personal crisis. Or maybe its owner is off starting her/his new restaurant? The point, people notice when something is off or does not work right. They will go with the flow, eat there, or continue to pay/work, as long as something else offsets it, convenience, staff, or price.

When something starts to slip, inventive dishes, an attention to detail, or great attitudes, people move on both physically and mentally. Physical movement rebounds are less challenging. Staff can coached to step up. New customers can be wooed with inventive recipes. Positive attitudes when facing challenges go a long way and build confidence. When people mentally move on, their mentality changes. Gone is the inventive spirit. Little gets celebrated. Challenges go unsolved or worse unaddressed. You hear, “we do it this way” all to often. When this mentality becomes part of your culture, rebounding is more challenging. So, why not just channel your energy to create a vibrant and dynamic culture that manages transitions well in order to sustain itself in the first place?

Image by dgray_xplane @ creative commons

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Change – something happening there

Change is not an email from leadership. It is a process that pushes limits, brings joy to some and frustrates others. It moves slowly. Leaders talk about it, often forgetting to model it. As time passes, vision can get cloudy and ownership questions can arise. And yet, change, or at least our ability to, is pivotal to the success of our connected future.

Vision: someone wants it. A person or a group see it, play with it, and are willing to work for it. Slowly actions influence more individuals and they want it too. Some appear to be excited by change yet lean back. Others reinterpret it or worse, misunderstand it. Bureaucrats fear it, unless its new bureaucracy. Keep your vision simple, clear, and always at the ready.

changeasaqualityLeadership: it’s about people. Good leaders add value, empower, and know when to get out of the way. They listen, observe, and reinforce the motivation to change. Great ones model it. Their persistence and their ability to challenge themselves inspire us. They make the rounds and visit the trenches. We trust them because we know they have not lost touch.

Stewardship: of the people. Someone must carry the vision. Leaders get busy. Stewards step up, volunteer, and jump in because they care. They’re in the trenches daily working to affect change. They speak up, work through challenges, consul, and celebrate with us. Not everyone gets change right away, yet with empowered stewardship change runs smoother.

Learning: leaning in and owning. Learning along the way is crucial to the success. People ask questions, generate ideas, and arrive at aha moments. When they talk, listen. If they need latitude, give it to them. It’s frustrating and fabulous all at once. Champion and celebrate moments along the way. If someone lets you down, flag it. Then, reflect, refine, and move forward together. If we can’t shift gears, redouble efforts, and leverage just in time resources, where’s the learning?

Support: undervalued yet essential. Leaders come and go. Stewards have other jobs too. Those who are getting it done, get frustrated. Build and identify your support network early. Revisit its effectiveness often and build multiple forms of support. We all learn differently. Email is great for some, videos are better for others, and some only change when there is one on one handholding. Without support, change does not happen.

We all see change a little differently and that’s OK. Just keep it simple, do your part, step up when needed, ask questions, learn what you can, and take time to reflect. And remember no matter how great change sounds, we can only affect so much at one time.

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Is your email a disposable asset?

It stands always ready, takes seconds to write, requires no effort to deliver, reaches one or thousands nimbly, and yet there’s no guarantee you will ever see it again. Sound great, expect for that last part.

disposabledefinitionYou rely upon a timely return with the information required. Yet, as the world gets busier, this becomes a bigger reliance. Once you hit send, you are on someone else’s time. They too need to get work done, reshuffle priorities regularly, and get too many emails. Why increase this reliance by sending someone a disposable asset?

You have two options, one depend less on email or two invest in improving the return of your asset. –pause to reflect– OK, option two it is. 

Are you giving or asking for something?

If you are asking for something, think of the other person. Make the email clear and as concise as possible. If you can’t say what you need in one or two lines, then people are going to need more time to think about it. More time equals a higher chance of a delay or being ignored.  If you are giving something away, fantastic! Givers are not so concerned about a reply. Plus, giving increases your email karma. Still, clarity is key!

Do you have a prior relationship with that person?

Family aside, if you didn’t email someone at your work, would he/she ever think about you or miss you? If no, see notes on clear and concise above; else, consider a more direct method of communication. Yes, it is more time consuming, yet relationship building pays riches over time.  When someone unknown emails you, do you jump to reply? To stay competitive today, we must produce. Being busy isn’t enough! If you depend on email, your relationships need to be dynamic.

Is there another way? 

Maybe the answer to your email query already exists online. Check meeting notes, prior emails, FAQ pages, or even the addressee’s social media. Take action by harvesting data or information where you can and don’t wait for it to come to you already assembled. 21st Century tools, plus human brain, and an ability to act means maybe you could work at Google.

Maybe email really works for you? Yet, ask yourself the following. Are your emails clear and concise? Does email interfere with work you need to do? Do you answer emails as they come in? If you answered yes twice, I suggest you rethink your email usage. Disposable assets don’t really help you get work done!

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Avoidance, too hard, someone else, too busy, & shredded carrots

Whatever you are thinking about, just go after it. Maybe it takes a lot of time, so what? The head often influences judgments regarding time. Don’t over think it. Break it into steps, create a timeline, get going, focus & keep at it, mix it up, let it marinate, and declare a finish line, then celebrate. Step #1, get carrots.

Note: the focus & keep at it step is really important! 

Develop a timeline! No, you may never be “done,” yet you need a finish line.  Always allow additional time for unforeseen complications. Planning is good, but over planning is bad. Step #2, peel carrots!

Get going! Don’t stop and hold meetings to talk about the decision. If you must meet, meet to support the decision. Do not let people criticize the decision and tell you how they never thought it was a good idea. Step #3, shed carrots!

Focus & keep at it! In order words, commit to the decision. You came this far, so follow through. You will need to push yourself. If others are involved, you will need to spend time keeping them focused. Step #4, prepare the marinade.

Mix it up! You will need to set yourself up for success! A poor craftsman blames his tools, so get the tools you need. Weather it is a Cuisinart food processor or people you trust, utilize them. The right tools make the mix better, aid with scalability, and lead to sustainability.  And remember, investing does not always mean money. Step #5, mix!

Let it marinate! Leave it alone and walk away if you hit a challenge. Life is a blend of choices. Sometimes you need to let those choices rest. Step #6, marinate.
Declare a finish line! You can’t finish what you don’t start. Hoping and wishing are not strategies. Yes, you can definitely over plan. And don’t stop to talk about creativity or second-guess yourself. Get it done. Step #7, celebrate!

cool celebration photo coming eventually

Shredded Carrot Salad
4 large carrots
2 Tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
2 Tablespoons of brown sugar
Marinate overnight or for at least six hours

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