The Innovator’s Mindset
by George Couros
Change almost never fails because it’s too early.
It almost always fails because it’s too late.
“Innovation” is a word that is used often in education, but often without much thought of what it truly means for educators and learning. In my work with CPCO, we have focused on the idea of innovation being more about “mindset” than “skill set,” and with change being the only constant in our world, and happening at a pace more rapidly than ever before, leaders need to not only be comfortable with change, they have to embrace it. Through this process, leadership will also be essential in creating the conditions where meaningful change is embraced by those that we serve.
In this extract from my book, The Innovator’s Mindset; Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity, I discuss why “growth” can no longer be optional in our schools.
A historic tour of a Blockbuster store offers visitors a glimpse into the hardships of people who lived in the era of video stores. In a revealing video on YouTube, reporters from The Onion interview period actors who explain that people once travelled great distances (sometimes six miles each way!) to rent and return movies. These poor souls lived in terror of never knowing if the movie they wanted would even be available!
The Onion’s video, of course, is a satirical look at a company that tried to continue operating as if the Internet didn’t exist. It was only a few years ago that video-rental stores, like Blockbuster, were the best way for people to watch movies in the comfort of their own home. In some places around the world, these stores still exist. But in the western world, cheaper and more convenient options (no travel required) have put most neighbourhood video stores out of business.
The Internet completely changed the movie rental industry. Companies that took advantage of new technology, like Netflix with its DVD-by-mail and online streaming options, are thriving. Meanwhile companies that refuse to let go of outdated business models, like Blockbuster, experience a slow, painful death.
Blockbuster had the opportunity to buy Netflix a few times, but declined1. And by the time it attempted to start its own DVD-by-mail program, the company had lost its place as an in an industry leader. The hard lesson that Blockbuster and its fellow neighbourhood movie rental businesses failed to heed is this: innovate or die.
“Innovation” is a common term in many educational circles today. But what does it actually mean – especially in the terms of education?
In my book, The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity, I define innovation as: a way of thinking that creates something new and better. Innovation can come from either “invention” (something totally new), or “iteration” (a change on something that already exists), but if it does not meet the idea of “new and better,” it is not innovative. That means that change for the sake of change is never good enough. Neither is using innovation as a buzzword, as many organizations do, to appear current or relevant.
Note, too, that I say innovation is a way of thinking. It is a way of considering concepts, processes and potential outcomes; it is not a thing, task or even, technology. As Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk, explains in his TEDx talk, The New Rules of Innovation, “Innovation is the process by which we change the world … It’s the practical application of ideas and technologies to make new and better things.”2
So, although many organizations approach innovation as if the word is synonymous with technology, it isn’t. Technology can be crucial in the development of innovative organizations, but innovation is less about tools, like computers, tablets, social media and the Internet, and more about how we use these things.
Another word that is often used interchangeably with innovation is transformation, which is really more about dramatically altering the work educators do. Although I can see why some administrators are calling for transformation, the truth is innovation – in our thinking as individuals and organizations – is within easy reach; no dramatic shifts required. Katie Martin, Director of Professional Learning at the University of San Diego Mobile Technology Learning Centre, eloquently explains the importance of leadership in developing an innovative mindset:3
There is no substitute for a teacher who designs authentic, participatory, and relevant learning experiences for her unique population of students. The role of the teacher is to inspire learning and develop skills and mindsets of learners. A teacher, as designer and facilitator, should continually evolve with resources, experiences and the support of a community. It is becoming increasingly clear that we don’t necessarily need to transform the role of teachers, rather create a culture that inspires and empowers teachers to innovate in the pursuit of providing optimal learning experiences for their students.
Establishing an innovative culture doesn’t require transformation. However, it does require leaders who will develop and sustain systems that support “optimal learning experiences” and who value the process of creating and refining ideas.
A Constant Opportunity for Growth
One of John Maxwell’s famous quotes is, “Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.” In many respects, that sentiment is true. We choose whether or not we will grow, change or innovate. But in schools, where we focus on our students as the future, growth can no longer be simply an option.
Change is an opportunity to do something amazing. Perhaps, the great thing we can do is make growth mandatory – for ourselves as educators, as well as for our students. That is how we can truly serve our children.
Education cannot become the new Blockbuster, where we refuse to embrace the new, in hopes that the old ways will suffice. In a world that constantly changes, if our focus is to only maintain what’s already been done, we are bound to become worse. The innovator’s mindset is necessary for all of us, if schools are to move forward.
1 “Epic Fail: How Blockbuster Could Have Owned Netflix”, November 12, 2013.
2 Bass, Carl. “The New Rules of Innovation”, February, 2012.
3 Martin, Katie. “Creating a Culture of Innovation versus Transformation”, June 10, 2015.
Bio: George Couros is a leading educator in the area of innovative leadership, teaching and learning. He has worked with all levels of school—from K to Grade 12— as a teacher and technology facilitator, school and district administrator. He is the author of the book “The Innovator’s Mindset; Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity”. He is a sought-after speaker on the topic of innovative student learning and engagement, and has worked with schools and organizations around the globe. George is also the creator of Connected Principals.com, an initiative that brings together educators and leaders from around the world to create powerful learning opportunities for students.
Although George is a leader in the area of innovation, his focus is always on the development of leadership and people, and what is best for learners. His belief that meaningful change happens when you first connect to people’s hearts is modelled in his writing and speaking.
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