Building – and sustaining – innovation

Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash

With nearly 45 years of experience working in education, I find myself reflecting on exactly what it is I have achieved in that time. With each of my own kids now pursuing their own life ambitions, and now my eldest grand-kids at the age where they’re thinking about the ways they might contribute to society – there are often times we find ourselves discussing exactly what’s important in life. Generally we arrive back at the same place – we all want to have ‘made a difference’ in some way.

I didn’t really think of doing anything but becoming a teacher when I was young. There was something that appealed to me about the opportunities that teachers have to make a difference – remembering particularly some special teachers I’d had who made a difference for me.

From the start of my career I relished the freedom and opportunity I had to do different things, try different approaches. I was always the one who was first to embrace the new technology as it arrived (which led to a stint as an Ed Tech lecturer some years later), and was constantly trying different layouts in my classroom and using the outdoors as a learning environment (which explains my interest in MLE/ILE configurations later on).

In my educational career I’ve been blessed to have had the guidance and support of some extremely good leaders, who have given me permission to ‘stretch’ and try new ideas. I’ve never been satisfied with simply accepting the status quo – especially when the status quo isn’t working.

I’ve had the privilege of being involved in some wonderfully ground-breaking initiatives in my career which, on reflection, have allowed me to pursue my passion for ensuring our approach to education is future-focused and addressing areas of inequity caused by the present systems and structures that constrain us. As I reflect back I can think of…

  • POLO – (the Primary Open Learning Option – CHCH College of Education, started 1995) – a distance education initial teacher education programme providing opportunities for people to complete their initial teacher education regardless of where they live in NZ. Included here were some highly successful regional initiatives in Pangaru, Rotorua, Tairawhiti and Te Araroa.
  • Technology curriculum PD – (1996-7) – a distance ed professional learning programme to introduce the new technology curriculum in the mid 1990s – quite radical in its time!
  • The Virtual Learning Network – started with CASAtech in 1994, and growing to include schools across New Zealand as a way of providing access to a breadth of curriculum for students, particularly in rural and remote parts of New Zealand.
  • The Global Classroom (CHCH College of Education, started in 1993) – a distance ed course for teachers introducing them to the ways telecommunications technologies could be used to expand the concept of the classroom to create authentic learning experiences at a global level (another 1990s project – started pre-WWW!)
  • GlobalNet2000 – an online millennium project supported by the Christchurch City Council. Established in 1999 to run through 2000, involving schools and students in NZ and internationally.
  • South Learning Centre – 1999, reconceptualising the role and structure of a community library with a learning centre included in the design – together with a cafe, meeting rooms and other features making it more of a community hub than simply a place for books.
  • GCSN – the Greater Christchurch Schools Network – established to support schools as they connected to the city’s ultra-fast broadband, but playing an important role in post-earthquake Christchurch, with a particular focus on closing the digital divide.
  • EIT teacher ed programme – in 2011 I was contracted by the Eastern Institute of Technology (EIT) to lead the development of a differently designed initial teacher education programme in the Hawkes Bay region, based on a partnership model between schools, EIT and the candidate teachers. It has become one of the most effective models of initial teacher education we currently have in NZ, based on graduation and retention data.
  • CORE Education – (started 2003) – a not-for-profit professional services organisation, with a national presence and responsible for some significant developments in the NZ education system, including the ICTPD cluster programme, Early Years ICT PD and the annual ULearn conference. I stepped back from my role there in 2018 and started FutureMakers.

I’m not sharing this in an effort to claim personal recognition, and I’m certainly not claiming that all of these things were my idea only, or that I was the only person responsible. Each was the result of a team effort. It’s simply that they are all examples of innovations in education that I have been very closely associated with at the start-up stage.

As I reflect back now, I have had the opportunity to see the cycles of innovation that are written about by so many others, and what makes some things sustainable, while others work for only a short period of time. Here are some of the things I have noted:

  • Vision – One of the things that is common across all of the things on my list is the concept of the vision that inspired them – how the vision was articulated and became owned by the wider group of people coming to be involved. Most of the things on my list required a significant shift in behaviour and establishing new ways of working. This doesn’t happen by chance, and requires a coherent vision as the centre-piece of action to galvanise the passion and commitment of others.
  • Leadership – Don Hanna, co-author of the book ‘leadership for 21st century learning‘ defines a leader as someone who has vision, is able to articulate that vision and who inspires the trust of others to follow that vision. Again, that is a characteristic I note in the majority of these projects. Each involved a courageous shift in behaviours and the people who became involved did so because of the trust they had in the leadership. Further, the project could only grow when there was a team working together on it, and where that team could grow as the project grew, with a sense of distributed leadership that allowed the project to remain responsive and agile.
  • Culture – when there is a purposeful and collaboratively owned vision, together with a set of guiding values/principles, the culture that develops within the group becomes a powerful enabler in confronting and addressing the changes that may occur within the environment in which the organisation operates. A strong culture provides the ‘glue’ that gives confidence to those working in the group in the face of change, and a shared ownership in terms of what is being achieved – it provides ‘skin in the game’ for everyone. Looking back however, I note that, as powerful as it is, the culture of an organisation can be crushed if it is not continually being fed by the leadership as they reinforce the vision and values in they ways they operate.
  • Sustainability – it is of immense satisfaction to me that most of the projects listed above continued for a good number of years and were successful in meeting their objectives. Some, like the Technology Curriculum PD and GlobalNet were always intended to be for a fixed period of time, while others, such as the GCSN and EIT Teacher Ed programme have become self-sustaining even as key people and leadership within them changes. The key here seems to involve the commitment to the establishment vision and guiding principles, the ongoing support for the culture that sustains this. Some appear to have a life-cyle that sees them end – like the POLO programme which ran for more than 20 years before being closed down. Others, like the South Learning Centre and the Virtual Learning Network have morphed over time to reflect changes in the environment, resourcing levels and the vision of those in leadership.

So what are the negatives? Here are just three key things that negatively impact the ability to sustain innovation based on my reflections of these projects:

  • The vision vanishes – a good vision sets point on the horizon to aim for. It isn’t a fixed state or achievable goal, but rather a spot on the horizon that we set our trajectory towards. As circumstances change and people come and go eyes can shift from the horizon to the things that demand immediate attention, particularly as the project grows and more is required to ‘keep the wheels’ oiled. This often results in more attention being placed on introducing systems and processes that enable this to happen – but that can be a problem if the implementation of those things displaces the focus on vision as the key driver at the senior leadership level. If that happens, it’s not long before the success of the project becomes measured in terms of chargeable hours, production of widgets and contracts completed etc. Decisions about where to focus energy become based purely on financial return rather than alignment with values and whether the vision is being realised. When that happens the project becomes terminal.
  • The culture is crushed – management consultant Peter Druker is famously quoted for saying ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. This doesn’t mean that strategy is unimportant – rather that a powerful and empowering culture was a surer route to organisational success. Organisational culture develops as a result of the buy-in of participants to the vision of the organisation and the leadership provided to pursue it. Johnson and Scholes’ cultural web provides a useful way of understanding the dimensions involved in understanding organisational culture. The critical thing to understand here is that each of these things needs to be ‘fed’ and kept alive for the culture to flourish. Neglect them, or worse, override them by introducing changes that run counter to the cultural mores, and the culture is crushed.
  • The leadership loses touch – last on my list, and sadly, often the case, is where the leadership loses touch with the vision and mission of the organisation – and with the people in it. It becomes just another job, with the need to focus on process, systems and structures etc. This is a frequently told story in start-up culture, where the founders are replaced by leaders who adopt more traditional leadership and management approaches. This is no better illustrated than in the experience of Jim Clark, renowned Silicon Valley entrepreneur and founder of three billion dollar companies. The first of these, Silicon Graphics, rose to fame in the 1980s and had a stranglehold on the computer industry because of the processing chip they produced which was, at that time, unrivalled for speed and performance. As the company grew it was suggested to Clark that he created a management team to look after the leadership of the company, to allow him more time to stay focused on what he was good at – innovating. Being such a successful company the management team could enjoy the benefits of high profitability based on their position in the market. When Clark repeatedly came to them with insights about the rise of competitors in their niche in the market and insisting on changes that needed to be made, they refused to listen and eventually fired him from his own company. Within two years Silicon Graphics had lost so much market share it ended up reincorporating as a different entity in 1990 and by the end of the 90s filed for bankruptcy after a series of failed ventures.
    Not only is it essential that leaders exhibit the right leadership styles and relationships with staff etc. – they cannot afford to lose touch with the essence of what makes the organisation successful in the first place – as framed in its vision, values and culture.

One thought on “Building – and sustaining – innovation

  1. Kia ora Derek, I definitely have to agree with you – vision, values, and culture are the cornerstones of effective organisations who make a difference. In essence an organisation is a collective of people working together towards a common goal, and in my time working with you I definitely knew our vision, lived our values, and embraced our culture. Toku toa, he toa rangatira.

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