IMG_20170919_162613How might we cultivate, spread and scale a culture of innovation throughout our classrooms and schools to catalyze people for positive change? This is the powerful question that we’re exploring in my school district, Richland School District Two  in Columbia, SC. Coming to a common understanding about what a culture of innovation means has been essential in the development of our vision. An innovative school culture fosters community, encourages new ideas to solve complex issues and is the foundation for successful schools and ultimately for successful students. It’s easy to talk about creating a culture of innovation, but it’s harder to implement. And if trust in the culture is broken, it’s much harder to rebuild.

Many great resources are available to assist schools in reimagining culture and taking steps for a culture shift. Some of my favorite resources include the Johnson and Scholes Culture Web and *Gartner research on steps that lead to a culture of creativity.  We can also learn from companies like Intel and Google and how they create a climate for curiosity, agency, risk taking, and collaboration.  Based on my own experience and the research of others, here are six steps you can take this year to build a culture of innovation in your classroom and school.

Six Steps to Building a Culture of Innovation

  1. Change your perspective. Use design thinking techniques for observing and interviewing to get a sense of what is going on in your school or classroom. Observation gives you fuel for thought, but you need to follow up with interviews to find out more about what people are thinking and feeling. Shadow a student or colleague for a day to change your perspective and put yourself in someone else’s shoes. You can read more about this from my Intel Visionary friend and colleague Melissa Lim. In her post on the Intel IT Peer Network, Setting Goals for the New School Year, she talks about being a mindful listener and being aware of implicit biases.
  2. Activate others to use their talents. How we welcome our staff, learners and community sets the stage for how everyone engages in the school culture. Little steps like sending hand written invites to an event, setting up a room for collaboration and incorporating mixer activities can make a big difference in participation and engagement. In a typical meeting, 20% of the people take up 80% of the time. To create a culture of innovation, organize the structure of classes, workshops and design sessions so that 100% of the attendees are involved 100% of the time. Follow-up after events by sending out thank you notes and giving shout outs to participants. Remind people of next steps and provide ongoing support, check-ins, and road block removal.
  3. Create rituals and routines to foster innovation. Rituals are a way to bridge the gap between our desired beliefs and behaviors and the current state.  They can be used to create a group identity, raise team spirit, put people in a mindset to think creatively, or encourage collaboration. Ideas that can easily be incorporated include using design thinking methods in team meetings, providing exercise or mindfulness breaks, and celebrating new students and staff members through recognition programs. Think about your desired results and then design rituals to achieve those results.
  4. Position yourself as a learner. It’s easy to get into a routine of doing work that we know instead of reaching out to learn new content, methods or skills. Time constraints and daily work make it challenging for us to take on new growth opportunities but we need to model learning to be successful in creating a positive school culture. Step outside of your comfort zone and try something new to rewire your brain. We need to unlearn old habits to make way for new ways of working. In the video, The Backwards Brain Bicycle, Destin Sandlin, explores how difficult it is for us to unlearn habits and biases. Keeping ourselves challenged and in flow will help to develop a culture where risking taking and learning from failure is valued. Encourage practices like 20% time to provide students and others in your organization with time to work on their passions.
  5. Build a network of trust and collaboration. Building an innovative community is achieved by creating opportunities for others to have discussions and collaboration.  In The Power of Onlyness, Nilofer Merchant emphasizes that each person in a network brings their own unique contribution (onlyness) that becomes amplified by the onlyness of others. When people come together for a common cause, they can have a powerful influence on the naysayers. During a recent visit to Nashville, I was reminded of the power of networks while visiting RCA Studio B. This small room produced some of the most well known singers and musicians with over 1000 hits. By giving everyone a place to share their voice, we build trust which is an essential ingredient for a thriving, innovative community.
  6. Be a storyteller. To be successful with shifting to a culture of innovation, you need to share stories. Create opportunities for students and educators to share their ideas and tell their stories. Innovation events and activities promote collaboration and provide a way for people to share both their successes and their failures. As more stories are told, more people will be willing to try new approaches and share their experiences.

The next steps is to get started! Bring together a team, establish a common vision for a culture of innovation and brainstorm ideas that you can prototype and test. I look forward to hearing how these approaches work for you!

References and Suggested Reading:


We’ve all been there before. Running out to pick up pizza for a school party or to keep people energized as they work long hours. I can’t begin to count the number of pizzas that I’ve purchased in my career as an educator for events like yearbook work sessions and after-school department meetings. And let’s be real. Pizza is easy. It’s cheap. No plates are needed and most people are happy to grab a slice and get back to work.

But the easy way isn’t always the best way. I recall returning to work from a conference a few years ago. There was cold, leftover pizza in the workroom refrigerator. I asked about the pizza and discovered that it was delivered to me from a business partner. Days old pizza is not so good. The partner didn’t think beyond the easy way to determine what might be a better method to show appreciation for our team.

This discussion with colleagues about pizza led to a conversation about partnerships and the importance of engaging with partners in a meaningful way. Partnerships are a two-way street, and I hope that schools as well as organizations that partner with schools will benefit from this post. Partnerships cover a wide spectrum from a classroom teacher connecting with a business partner for mentoring to a school district engaging with a partner for a variety of services including consulting, professional development, or products. With so many businesses and organizations offering services, we must be careful to engage with the right partners. We don’t have money or time for everything and can’t afford to be burned by failing initiatives.

Here is my eight slice pizza with tips to guide you as you engage with partner organizations and businesses:


  1. Research – Do your background research by looking at credible sources and calling other schools that have used the product or service. Talk with people beyond those who are recommended by the potential partner. Testimonials on a website are great but they don’t tell the whole story.

  2. Customer Success – Does the organization or business have a customer success representative who is assigned to work with you? Organizations that don’t invest in someone to make others successful are setting themselves up for failure. I recall a recent conversation when I called a customer service center about repairs needed to my home Internet access. I was very frustrated with the response time but the support person on the phone with me never once got mad. He continued to talk calmly and worked with me on a solution. If your organization is receiving services from an business and you provide feedback, they should welcome feedback and work with you on solving the problem.

  3. Ongoing Support – The beginning of a partnership is a lot like a honeymoon. You and the partner will spend a lot of time together and you get used to this support. What happens after the honeymoon? The partner will move on to find new clients. Will they continue to check in with you and provide ongoing support? Will the cost go up over time? Ask support questions before you enter into an agreement.

  4. Agreements – Is there a partnership agreement that clearly spells out what services or products you’ll receive? If you’re receiving a discount on a software product, what are the expectations from you in return? If a partnership fails, what are the loose ends that you’ll be left to tie up? How will the partner help you with the transition beyond the awkward breakup?

  5. Privacy – If you’re using an online platform provided by the partner, are there clearly defined privacy statements about ownership of data and how that data will be used? In the age of analytics, all businesses are collecting data about customers. Take some time to discuss the privacy policy with others and include your attorney if there are questions about the policy. If the partnership ends, does the business still have access to your student or teacher data and can they continue to use that data?

  6. Total Cost of Ownership – Beyond financial costs, what is the cost that your school will pay for implementing a product or service? How many hours will people devote to the project and is it sustainable in the long run? Ask what it’s worth to you and always be clear with the partner about your goals for the partnership.

  7. Outcomes – What is your vision for the partnership? Doe your definition of success align with that of the partner? Metrics and funding are important, but the bottom line is that you achieve the desired outcomes for your partnership.

  8. Opportunities – Most important, what opportunities will be opened up for your school and the teachers and students who engage with the partner? Will the product or service benefit your organization? Will professional development and consulting services empower participants with skills and tools to improve learning?

Good partnerships are about telling each other’s stories, celebrating successes, and supporting each other when things aren’t going well. Our success as a customer means their success as a partner organization. Let’s go beyond the pizza party to form partnerships that bring value to students and teachers in our schools.

D. Teuber



November 2017
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