Innovation and entrepreneurship are terms that are easily bandied about nowadays. Schools are no exception. I have just completed a Stanford Certificate in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. While the course was pitched at Silicon Valley start-ups and businesses, it was a fantastic learning experience from the perspective of leading innovation in schools. Here are my key takeaways
How to Find Inspiration
To get a good idea you need lots of ideas. It is the job of an innovator to fill the funnel. Useful techniques include:
Creativity is doing new things with old things. Creative people live and thrive at the intersection. Creativity plus implementation = innovation. There is a difference between managing routine work (where you can’t allow failure) versus innovative/creative work (where it has to be safe to fail for rapid learning).
Managers overestimate their value. The best managers manage by getting out of the way. Innovative managers devote less attention, don’t require people to ask for permission, and don’t enforce rules consistently. “After you plant a seed in the ground, you don’t dig it up every week to see how it’s doing” (3M’s William Coyne). The best bosses protect their people from harm, intrusions, distractions, indignities, idiots, and idiocy.
Use ignorance to spark innovation. Blend experts and novices. Don’t hire in your own image. (Abraham Lincoln placed three of his harshest critics in his cabinet after winning the 1860 election).
Fight as if you are right, listen as if you are wrong. Strong opinions, weakly held. Leaders should model arguing in public.
The best diagnostic question = What happens when people fail? There is no innovation or learning without failure. Do you forgive and remember? Failure sucks but instructs.
Being a boss is like being a high-status primate: the animals under you in the pecking order observe everything you do and they know much more about you than you know about them. Studies of baboons show that a member looks at the alpha male every 20 or 30 seconds. What effect do you have on the people around you? After they interact with you, do they have more or less energy?
Leading Collaborative Teams
Diversity is a key driver for innovation. You will only get breakthrough innovations if you are crossing boundaries. However, conflict is almost inevitable. Personality conflict is almost always bad, while task conflict can help explore differences. Keep task conflict separate from affective conflict. Ensure conflict is about ideas, not people. The optimum conflict management style is collaboration; deeply understanding other people’s interests and integrating them. This takes active leadership and patience. Leaders can help subgroups come together by pulling out common identities. The leader’s behaviour is the key to psychological safety. Seek and support boundary spanners – people who have a broader worldview, sensitivity, empathy, multiple perspectives, and are attuned to difference. Trust is built through site visits and getting people together.
Strategy Driven Innovation
When we are confronted with pervasive change, extreme uncertainty about the future, and blurred timing and paths, it is difficult to plan, but reacting is insufficient. The two key strategic questions are: Where do you want to go? How do you want to get there? It is useful to think of strategy in terms of time frames. In the short-term it needs to be simple. Figure out what will move the needles, choose a bottleneck, and craft simple rules. This provides some structure but not so much structure that you can’t move. It is like jazz music, structured chaos. Having a small number of rules works because it lets you capture opportunities flexibly, make better and faster decisions, and they are easy to remember and communicate. In the short-term, strategy = simple rules. Mid-term strategy is about genetic evolution. Blend the old and the new for faster, cheaper, less risky innovation. Leverage the past. Biology is the science of growth and change. Long-term strategy is about probing the future. Use a wide variety of low-cost probes. It is about experimenting and searching. Pivot from failure to failure. Lose small, cheap, early. It is about your identity not your vision. For example, Dropbox’s identity was around the slogan “It just works”. Everything they did fit this identity. It’s about learning. When there is more uncertainty, use more probes.
Culture is about mindset. It is about Caring (colleagues and customers), Sharing (ideas, resources, credit), and Daring (taking risks). People operations are the foundation. People are the heart and soul of the organisation. Build processes that create and foster culture to stay true to your organisation’s vision. Ideas are killed by community, not the boss. Being indifferent to your colleagues is taboo. Spend time defining the sacred and the taboo.
The most important thing is finding people. They are the source of new ideas, new DNA, new variations. Hire for intellectual ability and firepower. Fluid intelligence (adaptability) vs crystalline intelligence (subject matter expertise). Hire for conscientiousness (people who do the right thing, go above and beyond), curiosity, and being helpful.
Simplify as much as you can. Get rid of meetings, posers thrive in meetings.
Provide real-time feedback – check-ins, feed-forward, radical candour (Radical Candor shows that bosses must ask for and embrace criticism), continuous feedback, project-based feedback. Use the help muscle, it is not about judging.
Scaling Excellence Through Innovation
Excellence is building an organisation where people do the right thing even when nobody is looking. It requires patience and grit. It is about tools, not incentives. Use the brake, not just the accelerator. When CEO Paul Anderson took over BHP in 1998 he asked the top 80 people to each write him a two page memo: Who are you? What are you responsible for? What issues do you believe are most pressing? What would you do if you were me? He completely turned the company around and later said, “Mostly, I just did what they told me to do.”
Spread a mindset. Create a picture. People have to know what to do without checking with the boss. The principles of scaling are to: name the problem, name the enemy, create a story. Focus on the urgent and make it Sesame Street simple to defeat cognitive load. Excessive cognitive load undermines the ability of people to do what they know and believe they should.
Build felt accountability. Tug of obligation and commitment. Help employees see their impact on the organisation’s purpose. A fantastic example of felt accountability is the Ordinary Heroes of the Taj who saw the guest as God.
Connect and cascade excellence. Repeated exposure to different people is the key. To spread excellence, you have to have excellence to spread. Be patient, create excellence first. Spread slowly. Where are you really getting things humming? Conduct pre-mortems. This plan failed. Why?
The Power of Stories to Fuel Innovation.
Stories create community. Stories help people acculturate. Stories help people care. Stories hold attention. Stories beat data. Stories drive culture. Stories live in small moments and can be told briefly. We should seek to provoke, not preach. We should invest in signature stories that can scale. And we should create and curate stories worth sharing. Signature stories help people make the jump to where you are going. Stories are a mindset. We should develop a rich bank of stories.
How do you seek different perspectives and actively work to build diverse teams?
What happens when people fail in your school?
Do you have more energy after interacting with your manager/leader?
Does your boss take the time to deeply understand everyone’s interests and ensure that they are integrated?
What are your school’s simple rules?
How is your school blending the old and the new?
How is your school probing the future?
What is sacred and what is taboo at your school?
How many meetings do you have to attend?
What sort of real-time feedback do you provide/receive?
Does your boss ask for and embrace criticism?
Do people know what to do at your school without checking with the boss?
Do you feel felt accountability to your school?
What stories do you use to fuel innovation?