Four Things You Can Do To Be A Better Leader of Innovation

Define Innovation

If you want to be a better leader of innovative practices in your school or classroom you must commit to a definition of innovation that is practical and measurable.  Far too often what is meant by “innovation” is left unspoken.  Don’t leave the definition unspoken with your staff or students.  Personally, I have adopted the definition proposed by Sal Kaplan of Business Innovation Factory.  Kaplan writes, “Innovation is a better way to deliver value.  It's not an innovation until it delivers value or helps someone solve a problem in the real world.  It's important to differentiate invention from innovation. Too many conflate the two."  This definition was designed for “innovation” in general, but certainly applies to education.  If you prefer to construct a definition as a collaborative activity with your staff or students, here are two methods to achieve that end. 

Collaborative Definition Development – Tell your staff you want them to develop a definition of “innovation” and you are going to build this definition together.  First, ask individual members to write their own definition (a few minutes).  Second, ask individuals to find a partner and write a new definition together based on concepts from their own definitions.  Third, ask pairs of teachers to create groups of four and write a new definition based on concepts in their definition.  Continue to bringing groups together until you have written a single definition of “innovation”. 

Student Existing Definitions for Key Ideas - Pass out a list of definitions of “innovation” (you can use this list here).  Ask individuals to review the list and underline key concepts that seem important to defining “innovation”.  Underline key words in each definition.  Talk to a partner for 3 minutes.  Answer – what ideas seem to be key to something being an “innovation”?  Based on the conversations can you write a definition that captures the key concepts?  I recommend including the concept of having positive impact on outcomes.  For example, we would not consider a new medical practice “innovative” if it did not improve health outcomes for patients. 

Frame Problems

To successfully lead innovation in your school or classroom it is imperative that you stayed focused on the problem you want to solve.  While this might seem like stating the obvious, it is surprising how often solutions in search of problems are labeled “innovative”.  Several years ago, I attended a session on using Minecraft as a teaching tool.  The session was filled with interesting ideas of how the software could be integrated into the classroom environment to teach certain concepts and loads of pictures with big smiles on their faces.  What was a missing was a discussion of what problem using Minecraft solved and why it was seen as the most viable solution.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was likely that while the students had likely enjoyed this Minecraft approach, it was possible that it was less effective as a teaching tool.  Nobody really knew, because it didn’t start with a problem worth solving, it started with a solution in search of a problem. 

Even when you have identified a problem worth solving, slow down and don’t let your staff or students jump to a solution.  It seems natural to want to immediately move on to solutions, but I encourage you to fight that urge.  Instead, ask your staff and students to dig into to the problem.  What is the root cause(s)?  What cause(s) might we have some control over?  Are the consequences of not addressing the problem severe? 

Once you have thought about the questions above ask your staff or students to reframe the problem as a “How Might We…(HMW)” question.   HMW questions make you immediately more innovative because they are inviting and open-ended (more on this topic here).   

Empower People

The recent history of education reform and improvement can be aptly described as “Buy and Buy-in”.  We identify a problem (e.g. reading scores are low), we buy a solution (e.g. a new curriculum), and we work to get buy-in from staff (e.g. including staff on committees and lots of professional development).  This process is well-intentioned and works well in some circumstances, but it also dis-empowers the people closest to the problem (principals, teacher, and students).  Instead of deepening understanding of the problem, developing potential solutions, and testing ideas, teachers end up being utilized as technicians that implement, not professionals that develop solutions. 

Staff and students should be encouraged to develop solutions to problems and test those solutions in their school and classroom at a small scale.  As a leader you job is not to find the right solution, but to provide the structure for staff and students to test ideas.  Ensure that problems are well-framed, that solutions are thought out, and that tests collect tangible evidence that increases understanding of the viability of the solution. 

Here are some tips:

  • Challenge status quo. Get comfortable with asking, “why does it have to be like this?”

  • Ask your staff if they feel empowered to solve problems. 

  • Provide tangible permission to staff to take on problems (e.g. a budget, time to focus on problem, invitation to engage in problem-solving discussions). 

Start Small

At the end of last year, I saw this headline in the Washington Post stating that a large one-to-one laptop program in Baltimore had not resulted in outcomes for students.  It cost $147M!  Of course, there is some back and forth in the article about possible outcomes and barriers, but for the most part it was acknowledged that the investment had not yielded student achievement gains (which was the goal).  By starting small before scaling to the entire district, Baltimore leaders could have identified barriers to effective implementation.  More importantly, Baltimore leaders would have noticed that the program was unlikely to result in gains for students.  This would have been difficult for the people who believed this was the answer, because it was, after all, a good idea that someone firmly believed in.


The last tangible thing you can do as a leader of innovation is to stop saying “good idea”.  Stop rewarding people for “good ideas”.  This may seem odd, but the truth is that we are awash in “good ideas”.  What we really need is ideas we can test.  So, instead of asking people for their ideas about how to solve a problem, ask them for their “testable solutions”.  When people pitch solutions ask them, “okay, what is the lowest cost and lowest effort test we could run to see if that might be a work to learn whether this might solve or problem?”  With this tiny little switch you are encouraging people to think about the assumptions built into their theory of change and inviting them to design rough tests of those assumptions.  Mind you, these tests do not need to be perfect.  These tests should be quick and target learning more about how the solution will work. 

Here are my suggestions for starting small. 

  • Stop! Do not reward “good” ideas. Reward and celebrate when people propose a way to test an idea. 

  • Use prototypes to learn.  Sketches, mock-ups, fake sites, physical prototypes.  Advanced problem-solving teams expect to see prototypes in meetings.

  • Celebrate failure!  You learned something.    

Leading is less about “innovative” yourself.  It is less about ensuring that your teachers and students adopt your approach to teaching and learning.  Leading innovation is focusing on problems, empowering the people around you to solve them, and engaging in small tests to learn what might work.  Unfortunately, leading innovation requires more discipline and methodically incremental approaches that flashes of brilliance.  Fortunately, all of us are capable of leading innovation if we do just a few things differently.