Leading Innovative Change Series – Excellence Lies Within

I wanted to try my hand at writing a series of blog posts on “Leading Innovative Change.” As I am looking at writing a book on the same topic, I thought I would put some ideas out there and hopefully learn from others on these topics. I also want to give these ideas away for free. These posts are for anyone in education, but are mostly focused on school administrators. In all of these, the idea that administrators openly model their learning will only accelerate a culture of innovation and risk-taking.  You can read the first two posts in the series:

1. Learning First, Technology Second
2. A New Staff Experience

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Sander van Dijk

“It takes far less energy to move from first-rate performance to excellence than it does to move from incompetence to mediocrity.” Peter Drucker

Years ago as a teacher, I wanted to start a blog as I had just recently heard about them and wanted to see how they would work in the classroom.  When I approached my principal about starting one, his response was that although he knew that I would be comfortable doing it, it would make others on staff feel uncomfortable if it was a success.  I asked him if he was joking, and he looked at me seriously to let me know he wasn’t.

Later in the year, when we had some new technology in the school that was used for a specific program, I had asked if I could use it with students to try out, promising that once I figured it out, I would teach other staff.  Again, I was told that the technology was too expensive and it had a specific purpose to the school.  Myself and my students were not a part of the plan.

At the end of the year, when I applied for a few leadership positions, I was told that I did not exhibit leadership within my current role.

Pretty tough when you are not allowed.

Unfortunately I am not the only educator that has this type of story.  Many educators are trying to create powerful learning opportunities for students with what they excel at, but often because of fear of the unknown, they are quickly thwarted and asked to draw within the lines.

New Beginning

As I obtained a new position as the “Educational Technology Coordinator” in another school district, I was asked to help integrate opportunities for technology in learning with other teachers in my new school.  As my principal at the time did not really know much about technology, she did understand that it was a crucial element of students being successful in our world so she decided to hire me to lead the process.

When I first received the schedule, I was scheduled for forty minute blocks with each class during the week.  I would sometimes get two in a row with a classroom, but my time was spread equally within the school amongst each teacher.  This was a new position for me, but something about the schedule did not seem right.  Being new to the school, I did not want to “rock the boat”, but in my conversations with the principal, I knew that she had always focused on “what is best for kids”.  I approached her and said that I thought the schedule was not going to really work as we should be able to go deeper into the learning that we could do with technology, as opposed to having shorts amounts of exposure.  I explained to her that it would be more beneficial if we focused on projects as opposed to “lessons”.  She looked at me and said, “I hired you as the expert in this area. You do whatever you think is best.”

You have two administrators with two very different approaches.  One saying, I am not comfortable with the unknown and the other saying, “go for it”.  Would you area do you think people are most likely to excel?

Culture of Risk Taking

What my one principal that trusted and believed in my ability exemplified was that she wanted a culture of risk taking. She wanted people to try new things with the vision of “doing what is best for kids” always out in the forefront, and if we could do something different that was better for our students, that we needed to explore that.  What she embodied though was that she was willing to take risks in own practice as well.  This is a crucial element of leadership.

People will not feel comfortable taking risks in an organization unless leaders do not share the things that we are trying to do to get better ourselves.  My principal modelled this by creating environments where she did not micromanage and pushed people to think outside of the box and never pushing for “perfection”, but for better ideas.  Learning is messy and we have to be comfortable with that.

Once people see  leaders take risks, they are more likely to try their own ideas and push what is happening in their own situations.  Giving people license to take risks, will more likely lead to some amazing things.

“if you want innovation, it’s critical that people are able to work on ideas that are unapproved and generally thought to be stupid. The real value of “20%” is not the time, but rather the “license” it gives to work on things that “aren’t important.”
Jonathan Fields

Fit jobs to people, not the other way around

We are often looking for the best person to fit a position, yet what we should be looking for is the best person. That simple.  When you see one position in a district or school create amazing results, what you often see is that exact same position replicated over and over again in other organizations yet there is often a lack of results.  Why is this?  Well because the position does not create results, it is the culture and the person.  Simply having an “Chief Innovation Officer” does not create innovative learning environments.

The most effective approach is often finding the best person and perhaps giving them a position with duties that are “to be determined”.  This gives that person some leeway into what they are trying to do to make a better environment and helps to build upon their strengths, as opposed to something different.  It is hard to say to someone, “go be innovative, but within these parameters.”  We have to find out where people excel and build upon that.

Staff development led by staff

With many new administrators walking into schools with “guns a blazing” trying to implement new ideas, it is important that you work from a “strength-based” model, as opposed to focus on deficits.  Relationships are the most important element of school, and by starting a conversation with, “here is where we need to do work”, you quickly build a culture where people are wondering if they are valued.  My best advice is to sit back, wait a bit, and know where people are strong.  If you can’t identify a strength in someone, it is often the fault of the administrator, not the teacher.

Working with a new staff and understanding some initiatives that we had happening in our division, I proposed to my new staff that we could lead the professional development within our own school.  We did not need “outside experts” because we had the expertise within our own building.  I suggested three initiatives that we should undertake within a year (they actually gave me a fourth) and that each initiative will be led by a team created within the school.  The only thing that I asked was that each educator joined a team that was to lead in an area that they were strong at or had an interest in, as opposed to an area that they felt they needed a large amount of growth.  I wanted them to follow their passions, as opposed to something they had no interest in.  The other thing that I asked was that they, as the experts in the area, developed the goals for the school.  If they were the experts, they should understand what success looks like, and be able to set the goals for the school.  As the principal I oversaw the plan (I was also on one of the teams which is crucial), but I believed that there is more of an accountability when the measures of success were led by my staff, not defined by administration.

Giving time to my staff to explore their strengths, each group came up with many different ways to implement learning throughout the year and led our own PD.  The more interested they were in the topic, the better the learning would be for the entire staff, but they also started to see each other as “experts”, not only colleagues.  Having this focus on that we each have strengths that contribute to the vision of the school helps to move us from “pockets” of innovation to a “culture” of it.  Wouldn’t anyone want to be in a school where we recognized that everyone has value?


By focusing on strengths first, and building from that as opposed to a “deficit” model, we create an environment where people feel a purpose towards the entire school, as opposed to only their own classroom.  This is where the shift from “classroom” teacher to “school teacher” happens.  The freedom to take risks in the way that we do things is essential, and that freedom starts from administrators modelling that they are willing to take some risks as well.  It is really easy to say, “do this”, but it is more important to say, “let’s do this together”.

When we look at change, we have to realize everything we need is often already within our own organization.  We just have to figure out how to unleash this talent. Isn’t this the culture we want in our classrooms?  It has to be modelled from the top and the way that we view every individual part of our organization.

“Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.” Tom Peters

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