5 Ingredients To Craft A Culture of Innovation

August 16, 2018 | by Keara Duggan

As school and school system leaders implement blended and personalized learning, they often look to make a shift, not only to their instructional models, but also to their organizational culture. As a part of an education consulting team, I’m often hired to support schools and districts to make the shift to blended and personalized learning, which includes building leadership capacity, aligning initiatives, engaging students and staff, and restructuring professional development. In this work, the underlying (often unspoken) need that most teams want to address is improving their culture. Leaders strive to know how to make schools and districts more effective, engaged, fun, collaborative, creative, and innovative so that they can make transformative and lasting change.

In response to these requests, I’ve spent the past three years exploring, thinking, researching, and talking about what it takes to create a culture of innovation. As I travel across the country, I share these tips with school and district leaders. Many leaders find these tips useful and express gratitude for a new framework for thinking about culture and innovation. However, just as many leaders continue to find it difficult to know where to start. I often hear: How do I take 10 ideas and know which is the right one for my organization? How can I assess what we need and where to start? How do I know which lever of change to pull?

Our partner school and district leaders aren’t alone in feeling this way. In Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends survey, 88 percent of their 10,000 respondents believe that building an organization of the future (an organization that is flexible and innovative) is an ‘important or very important issue.’ Yet only 11 percent of respondents believe they understand how to build an organization of the future. The five ingredients framework below is meant to help all of those who aim to build flexible, innovative, collaborative organizations, but aren’t sure where to focus their efforts.

Before we dive into the framework, I think it’s important to define what we mean when we say “culture,” a phrase that shows up in almost every 21st-century leadership article. I like Jim Whitehurst’s simple definition in The Harvard Business Review: “An organizational culture is defined by how people inside the organization interact with each other. Culture is learned behavior…We create our organizational culture by the actions we take; not the other way around.”

A recipe for stronger culture

Changing culture has a lot of parallels to cooking food. For experienced leaders who understand how to develop a culture of innovation, the five ingredients below are staples (like salt, pepper, and olive oil) that they use almost without thinking to meet the needs of their teams and organization. However, for many leaders, knowing when and how to use each ingredient can be confusing. Having a recipe to follow, or at least to reference, is helpful to get started. The Christensen Institute has shown how educators implementing blended learning often feel the same way as they move from novice to expert blended-learning designers.

In the below framework I share five ingredients that are essential for creating a culture of innovation. For each ingredient, I describe what the successful use of ingredient looks like you, when you might need more of the ingredient, and ways to add more of the ingredient.

Just as great chefs understand when a dish needs salt (if you follow Top Chef as closely as I do, you’ll know a few grains of salt can make a huge difference!), great leaders diagnose when their teams need more agency, curiosity, or trust. If you pay attention to the five ingredients above— notice when they’re missing or need to be reinforced, and take action to develop them—you will be able to create a culture where your teams are more effective, engaged, and innovative. Stronger teams are key factors to supporting the effective implementation of blended and personalized learning.

For more tips on creating a culture of innovation, see the BLU’s design process.

Keara Duggan is a Partner at Education Elements who focuses on how to build and scale a culture of innovation in large systems, how to create national communities of collaboration, and how to keep laughing when pursuing daunting, large-scale changes. She collaborated with Alexis Gonzales-Black and Anthony Kim to design the website and toolkit for The NEW School Rules: 6 Practices for Responsive and Thriving Schools.

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