What is the "fuel" of innovation?

Photo by Chris Rhoads on Unsplash

Photo by Chris Rhoads on Unsplash

For the first 15 years of my career, I was a full-time English teacher obsessed with designing more impactful, more engaging learning.

One year I offered an alternative Junior English curriculum that was 50% "classics" and 50% contemporary, non-canonical works.

Later I devised a class participation assessment to help students identify and practice behaviors like "connect my insight to something a classmate just said" or "ask an open-ended question that gets others talking."

One year I triple-team taught a class on The Wire to explore how narratives advance or inhibit social justice. And in my last year at Regis I triple-team taught the school's first-ever interdisciplinary senior seminar, "Brain / Mind / Soul."

Then, in July 2012, I became Head of School at Malvern Prep. At first I struggled to translate what had come naturally to me as a classroom teacher: learning innovation.

For quite some time, the demands of leading a major change initiative trapped me. I deepened that challenge by succumbing to the notion that if I just tried certain change management techniques then surely innovation would follow.

To be sure, change management and change leadership are scientific practices. Messy, but systematic.

But before you can lead change and innovation, a fire has to be ignited. And that fire needs constant fuel.

Would it shock you to learn that the core source of energy for innovation is not great ideas, dynamic personalities, or unlimited resources?

The most powerful fuel for innovation is, paradoxically, the one thing about an organization that almost never changes.

IDEO has studied innovation in over 100 companies, and they have learned that "projects and strategic solutions succeed 20.40% more often when leaders articulate the company's mission clearly, and then reliably practice what they preach."

Mission--your school's timeless, deep purpose--provides the essential fuel for your innovations.

At Malvern Prep, we eventually found our way forward by going back to our Augustinian roots. We decided that every teacher would complete three cycles of a Summer Institute. Every day we would start by discussing Augustinian educational philosophy and spirituality, and then connecting it to personal practices in the classroom.

It was inspiring to learn about Augustine's conviction that the purpose of learning about the truth (lower case t) was to get closer to understanding The Truth (i.e., God). Even more exciting for Malvern teachers was the recognition that Augustine advocated for an inquiry-based and experiential approach to learning, and that the best learning happens in community, or what today we might call teams--and he was writing about this stuff 1700 years ago!

Connecting with our Augustinian Mission led us to formulate an aspirational Vision: to form learners who are Augustinian in their hearts, Globally Literate in their minds, and Entrepreneurial in their actions.

From there, we began to design a Culture of team and entrepreneurship that would support that Vision.

Two days ago, the Social Entrepreneurship Teaching Team (led by Director of Social Entrepreneurship Jay Rogai) launched a collaboration with a Fortune 100 company. Malvern's Social Entrepreneurship students will work on design briefs crafted by that Fortune 100 company in an effort to solve some sticky human-centered problems. The Social Entrepreneurship Teaching Team could never have secured that partnership with this Fortune 100 partner if they hadn't fueled their fire with a deep commitment to Malvern's Mission.

Is your school's Mission providing enough fuel to advance your Vision and your Culture?

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p.s.: Take 45 seconds (truly less than one minute) to answer these 4 questions on your school's Mission, Vision, and Culture. I'll be sharing results as soon as I have collected a critical mass of responses.

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