The idea of innovation is popular in education right now. Moonshot thinking, often called 10X thinking, is making its way into education circles and everyone is jumping on board to come up with innovative ideas. Too often, the ideas never make it past a pilot phase because of the roadblocks that stem from systems that inhibit teachers and other staff members from scaling the idea across the organization. Over the years, I’ve watched ideas die as they’ve been taken into committee. The innovation journey is filled with pitfalls and requires hard work and dedication to get to results.

Another issue is that education as a whole hasn’t adopted a design thinking model that promotes the development of great ideas that can scale. Other industries that I’ve learned from have a process that they use to develop and nurture ideas as they scale across the organization. Eric Ries in The Lean Startup shares a process that entrepreneurs use to create successful businesses. Using a Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop, teams are able to rapidly build a minimally viable product, measure results and learn from the experience to continue to grow the product.

So how do we get beyond having pockets of innovation and excellence in our organizations? In Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less, Robert Sutton provides inside accounts and research from other industries that will help your organization nurture and scale innovations.

Below are a few tips that will help you achieve excellence:

  1. Reach out to other industries in your area and talk with them about how the innovation cycle works. I recently met with someone from the computer industry who works with the agile model of innovation. The agile model is a lean startup model with specific roles for team members that enable them to move quickly with innovations. With a project structure of design, tweek, repeat, launch, and improve, teams get to results faster.
  2. Focus on bringing together the right team members. Committees talk about what to do next. Teams get work done. Foster the idea of team work and allow teams to take ownership of their work. Too much oversight is the fastest way to kill an innovation. It’s also a good idea to mix teams and allow them to learn from each other.
  3. Give the gift of time to teams. Ideas like Google’s 20% time have taken off in many industries with positive results. Teams need to have time to work together, develop prototypes, and discuss results.
  4. Remove roadblocks for teams. In the agile model, this is the scrum master role. Excessive forms and procedures are often created because of a few people who did something wrong. Flip that model and give teams freedom to tackle work without having to ask for permission.
  5. Make a list of things that you should strategically abandon in your organization. You’ll free up time and develop a focus on what’s important.

Summer is a great time to catch up on reading and explore topics that will give you insights into how to do the hard work of innovation and successfully scale initiatives. Additional books that I recommend for summer reading include:

Insight Out: Get Ideas Out of Your Head and Into the World by Tina Seelig
Work Rules: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead by Laszlo Bock

Take time this summer to reflect on current initiatives and put a plan in place to take action and see your organization’s ideas scale.


When I began an exercise routine of swimming a few years ago, I had to push past my many excuses for not going to the pool in the morning. Excuses like bad weather and feeling tired kept me at home on many occasions when I should have been doing something to improve my physical condition. I finally worked through the challenges by coming up with a plan to ease into the new routine. With my final goal in mind, I made incremental changes and adjusted as needed to begin to see results. Today, I look back and realize starting the journey was most of the battle. I had to find the courage to take the early morning dive into the water and then immerse myself in the exercise.

Teachers who are trying to innovate in the classroom face the same challenge. They have to find the courage to take the plunge when they have a big idea that could bring about great results for students. At my pool, there are many danger signs including one that says, “No lifeguard on duty. Swim at your own risk.” The danger of jumping in and trying something is scary when you’re not sure that you have the support. Without that support system, you may be unable to take on new challenges that can benefit students.

The statistics on teacher retention are shocking. A study published by the Alliance for Excellent Education reports that between 40-50% of teachers quit within five years. Typical reasons cited for leaving include lack of administrative support and the feeling of isolation. Under these conditions, how can schools encourage innovation?

A recent discussion with colleagues unearthed some of the roadblocks that teachers face in a typical week including red tape and fear of failure. Below are some of the ideas that we discussed for removing those roadblocks.

  1. Provide teachers with more time to work in teams to discuss existing problems and develop innovative solutions. A teacher in our district innovation incubator has created a successful passion-based learning program and cites the extended planning time as essential to her team’s success.
  2. Establish of culture in which trying something new is celebrated and failure is viewed as a stepping stone to success. An innovation team in my district has been working to develop a mastery-based grading system. They tried several prototypes that didn’t work well but kept on making changes until they had a successful model.
  3. Take down boundaries by establishing a flat leadership model where all ideas and suggestions are valued. Allow teachers to “pitch” their ideas to leadership and then give them the autonomy to try new strategies. Encouraging cross-disciplinary teams is a powerful way to develop good ideas.
  4. Create a work environment that inspires creativity and collaboration. Several schools in my district have created central collaboration areas where everyone in the school can come to share ideas. Give them space to develop “project nests” where their work can be transparent to everyone in the school.
  5. School leaders need to be the safety net for teachers and protect them from adverse consequences. Most rules and regulations were created as a result of a few people doing something wrong. Cut through the red tape that often gets in the way of innovation and allocate seed funding, time and support for teams to put their ideas into action. You’ll be on the road to transformation before you know it!

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