Daily Archives: November 11, 2012

How NYC Schools are Systematizing Innovation

Some people think innovation is about research and development or designing new and better products.   If I hear one more reference to the iPhone as an example of what innovation is, I think I will be sick.

Innovation has to do with making anything better. . . products, services, business processes, organizational strategies, the ways we lead, and the ways we do work.  The need for innovation and the tools that promote it are universal and can be applied in for or nonprofit, public or private sector, mission based of customer driven organizations.

I came across an article recently by Tom Vander Ark in Education Week, called Innovation Hub and Change Management Model. It describes a pretty interesting approach to guiding innovation throughout the largest school district in the United States.  Here are some learning points – a manifesto for leading innovation and change.

Create a Resource Center to Enable Change

The point here is that there is a body of knowledge that makes innovation happen more easily.   Before you push your people to do so, put in place the resource center to help them.

One idea in New York was to create the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation which they call the iZone.  It was created in 2010 as a community change management initiative.    The iZone is a place, (a physical space), a group of people (whose sole job is innovation thinking, planning and execution) and a network of external partners (knowledge resources to be leveraged).   They are working with organizations like Google, Harvard EdLabs, The Center for Secondary School Redesign, the Discovery Channel and many others.

The iZone is a resource hub to provide expertise to help local schools design curriculum for the knowledge age by applying technology smartly, redefining teaching roles, leveraging external real-world environments to support practical experiences and personalizing learning.

Have a Unifying Point of View

While it may seem empowering to simply tell people to “go forth and innovate,”  in practice it is much more effective when you focus your innovation efforts.

iZone started with a bold philosophical paradigm-shifting idea–to change schools from a classroom focused learning system to an individualized student-centered approach.

This is a radical change from the industrial age concept of processing students through a learning process in production-line fashion,  in batches based on their chronological age (as if that were the most relevant way to batch-process them).  Putting students at the center of the process is a stark departure from decades of tradition leaving many teachers feeling unsettled.   How do you redesign schools and curriculum from the bottom up when your work day is already jam-packed with tasks?

Make Innovation Voluntary

It is great to have the C-suite be in favor of innovative change, and to see them trying to drive it.  However, most of us react to top-down directives negatively.  Find some initial willing “guinea pigs” to be the first living case examples.  Once they achieve some initial successes, momentum will build.   From then on, make participation in innovation initiatives voluntary. (The door to change can only be opened from the inside).

In the case of NYC, they start by inviting schools to join the iZone (giving them access to these support resources), but in order to do so the school MUST AGREE to subscribe to the philosophy of personalized, student-centered learning as a way of being!  Office of Innovation director Stacey Gillett describes it this way:  “the iZone [is] a community of schools committed to personalization innovation.”

This is huge.   To participate, the school and all its connected stakeholders must first go through a process of imagining what they want to make different and then make the emotional leap to accept the philosophical perspective of the iZone.  So by the time they join, they are ready to learn and to work.

Use a Process

It is not sufficient to simply ask people to change, and then cheer them on.   Most of us  need help.

As you know from our prior articles, we think Innovation initiatives are greatly aided by having a deliberate process to guide it.  We at Xavier Leadership Center teach Lean, Creative Problem Solving and Design thinking as three specific methodologies.

Here is the process invented by iZone (see this Vimeo detailing the process.) In this case they planned six focused conferences spread out between February and June.  These participants came to learn core concepts and to share ideas.   Then they went back to their home schools to apply what they learned.   With each succeeding conference, they were pushed along the design thinking process.

  • Forming a design team
  • Informing the team (collecting information, engaging stakeholders)
  • Defining their problem(s)
  • Developing an idea for a new learning model
  • Prototyping it
  • Refining it
  • Implementing it

Have A Deadline 

Yes, innovation is an organic process that never ends.   We create ideas, implement them, learn from our successes and mistakes, and make ongoing improvements.   However, that doesn’t mean we should launch innovation initiatives without a purpose or deadline.   People work better when they can see a concrete endpoint to our initial efforts.

The iZone school community created a 1-year deadline for them to invent a new learning model.   Feb–June were allocated to learning, defining, designing and prototyping.  The summer months were created for planning implementation at the start of the upcoming school year.   Having a deadline helps us stay on track.

Choose Some Specific Initiatives

Leading an innovative change program is a blend of empowering people at lowest levels to invent solutions that best meet their needs.  No one other than them knows their issues and problems better.  In addition, however, there should be an overarching “strategic” plan that aligns the lower level activities around the overall goals and direction of the entire organization.  Empowering teams builds engagement, and connecting them to organizational strategic intent makes it powerful.    In the case of NYC schools, while each schools programs might look different on the ground, they are ALL required to be connected to this framework:

  • Next Generation Curriculum and Assessment
  • Personalized Learning Plans and Progress Tracking
  • New Student and Staff Roles
  • Flexible and Real-world learning environments

Flexible, focused, and aligned.
Decide how to Measure Success

We are not fans of innovation for its own sake.  We need to define up front what success looks like to us in sufficient detail so that we would recognize it if we actually succeeded.

In the case of the iZone schools who engaged in the Feb-June sequence of planning, they all defined measurable outcomes they believed would be impacted though the implementation of their new learning model.  Start with the end in mind.   Pick your goals and define how to measure them. Be as  multi-dimensional as you can.   (Look, for example not only at student achievement, but how about measuring teacher, community and student engagement as well?)

Here is a statement of mission for iZone:

“The iZone aims to increase student achievement in K-12, college and career by supporting innovative educational models that will best meet the needs, motivations and strengths of each student.”

It helps to have a clear understanding of purpose when deciding what to measure.

So how innovative is your organization?   We can all take a lesson from iZone and the suggested steps listed above.  The only mistake is not to start.

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