A culture of innovation requires trust and resilience

"A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new” 
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Albert Einstein

Two quotes by Albert Einstein point to the importance of creating a culture within our schools (and organisations) that encourages experimentation, innovation, tinkering and indeed failure. If we are serious about embracing change, exploring new approaches, maximising the possibilities of new technologies, applying lessons from new research and truly seek to prepare our students for a new work order, we must become organisations that encourage learning from failure. 

There is an easy way to avoid mistakes and with the classroom remaining a largely private domain it is easily done. Rather than trying new ideas and sharing the results with your colleagues, maintain the status quo, hide any mistakes and avoid risky situations where your ideas might be challenged. Don’t volunteer for projects, don’t share new strategies and don’t ask for help when you are unsure of what to do. In many organisations, doing so will allow you to avoid critical feedback and ensure you many long and peaceful days. 

The danger in such an approach is that you are locking yourself away from any opportunity for growth and restricting the opportunities available to your students. By not sharing you limit the potential benefits of your innovative ideas to the students you teach and by not asking for help you limit the scope of possible solutions to those you might imagine. What hope will your students have of developing a growth mindset or desire to try new ideas if they never see their teacher doing the same. 

The alternative is to try new ideas, in public, while asking for help and seeking feedback. 

Often your ideas will be criticised. Sometimes they will be misunderstood. Sometimes people will be critical of you. Often your ideas will fail, or be blocked, or ignored. There will be times when you want to hide and there will be times when you want to give up. More importantly there will be times when your idea makes a genuine difference. There will be times when your idea meets the ideas of another and together they grow into something you had never imagined. Through the feedback you receive, from the critical comments, from the questions and by learning from your blunders you will find that your ideas can make a real difference. While it is true that the more ideas you share, the more criticism you face; it is also true that the more ideas you share, the more success you have. 

Being or becoming an innovator within an organisation requires a high-degree of resilience. The innovator must genuinely embrace the belief that ideas are better when they are shared. Innovators know and believe that the surest path to a truly innovative solution is to share that idea early in its development so that it might benefit from the wisdom of many minds. But for this to happen those receiving the idea must adopt a mindset of possibility. Too often our first response to a new idea is to find and share all the reasons why it won’t work or at least won’t work here. Rather than starting with “This won’t work because . . .” we need to flip our thinking and respond “This might work if we . . .”.

If schools and organisations wish to activate the innovators in their mix they must learn to celebrate the mistakes and missteps along the way. In biology the word ‘culture’ is used to describe a medium that promotes growth; a culture medium. When we embrace this idea and apply it to the culture of our schools we can see that the right culture creates the conditions necessary for growth. Innovation will only thrive in a culture where the individual feels safe to try new ideas. 

The challenge for schools in creating a culture that is accepting of failure is that the messaging of this is conveyed as much in the little things as in the public affirmations of a desire to innovate. The tone of an email, the subtle reprimand, the abrupt response to a question that shuts down the conversation are all factors which restrict innovation. Genuine encouragement of innovative ideas will see individuals and teams praised for the ideas that do not work as much as they are praised for the ones that do. 

I feel lucky to work an environment that encourages innovation and I have seen time and time again ideas that I have shared become better and stronger thanks to the input of many minds. Those who do not work in such an environment need to find ways to innovate within their context. Maybe innovations occurs within a small team. Maybe you share your ideas with a few trusted colleagues before sharing them with the whole school. Sometimes you need to try that new idea in private, gathering evidence of its utility as you do before you share it with a wider audience. Making connections with educators in other schools and other countries via social media can provide you with the support and sounding-board your ideas need. It may not be an easy path, and may often seem a lonely one, but your students deserve it, and so do you.

By Nigel Coutts