I have to confess I have always been a little sceptical of those leaders who describe themselves as ‘innovative’. Why? Because its rather like someone loudly proclaiming themselves to be ‘humble’.
I have seen leaders who cloak their low boredom threshold in being ‘innovative’, who live in an adrenalin rush, layering their school with initiative after initiative – many imported from elsewhere and failing to take root in a new context. I have seen how confusion can quickly settle into wearisome cynicism amongst those they lead.
These leaders have equated ‘innovation’ with ‘initiative’ and as a result exhaust themselves and their teams and don’t lever out the benefits their (sometimes misguided) hard work should be producing.
On the other hand, gladly, I see many leaders who although they wouldn’t describe themselves as innovative are in fact building a culture of purposeful innovation. They strive for continuous improvement, they are highly curious about how they can improve their practice and the practice of others, they ask great questions and are restless in their pursuit of even better outcomes for those they serve.
If these are the ‘quietly innovative’ then what are they doing?
- They find more ways to say ‘yes’ than to say ‘no’ – particularly if the ‘yes’, is also a ‘yes and…’ so seeks the refinement of an idea and encourages the mining of more evidence about what works.
- They think carefully about the questions they ask and check this out at the end of the day – ‘did I ask more questions than provide answers?’ Did I help myself and others to think more deeply? Am I systematically developing a culture of curiosity and enquiry? How can my questions move from those that sound like judgement ‘why did you …?’ to those that sound like enquiry ‘I’m curious to learn more about / tell me how you decided etc etc’.These leaders practice what Einstein calls ‘a holy curiosity’.
- They engage others in problem solving particularly those who are most affected by the problem. For those leaders who genuinely want to shed new light, this means involving young people and families as ‘expert witnesses’ in examining an issue and understanding why things are as they are and how we might address them. They know that if we are to genuinely tackle an issue we first of all have to understand it deeply. Too often, rushed for time, we tackle symptoms but not causes.
- They focus on ‘what do we know?’ and also attend to ‘what don’t we know?’ For example they may know what the data is telling them, but they also want to know what it isn’t telling them. They ask ‘what are the unknowns in our knowledge and how do we go about addressing this gap?’
- They create elegant simplicity – they are focused and they are grounded. They have presence. They watch, they ask questions, and they listen. They create a climate in which thoughts and ideas can grow and blossom and be respectfully and professionally challenged and reworked.
- They create environments in which teachers can teach each other and create new practice together. These teachers are learning to innovate using approaches such as ‘joint practice development’. In relation to pedagogy they ask ‘what do we already know, what is already known in the world of research, and what new practice can we create together’. This is innovation.
- They know that changes in classroom practice will come about if the practice they are creating together is evidence-based, simple, focused and designed to do one thing and where time for review and fine- tuning with feedback from peers is built in. This is the work that the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is supporting with their focus on ‘informed innovation’ and ‘evidence of promise’.
- They are networked, they are linked and they look outward. I strongly believe that the enemy of improvement is isolation and gone are the days when any one school or leader can ‘go it alone’. As leaders if we are not open to ideas and challenge from others be it another leader, another school, chain or alliance then our capacity for continuous improvement will be limited.
Finally these ‘quiet innovators’ know that change takes place through a thousand personal ‘light bulb moments’ and with their commitment to leadership as a life times practice. They know innovation starts (and ends) with themselves. They model quiet innovation and so build a culture in which others can do similar.
I leave you with these questions as a guide to becoming quietly and personally ‘innovative’:
- Where am I stuck in feeling confident doing the ‘wrong thing well’ and can start feeling comfortable doing the ‘right thing badly.’
- What is the conversation I am not yet having that I need to have?
- What are the questions that won’t go away and who do I need to share them with?
- Who do I trust to give me feedback on a regular basis and who am I giving feedback to, regularly, openly and honestly?
- What small changes to how I lead could have a disproportionate effect on myself and others? Can I practice just one each week and share it with another principal?
- What it is that brings me alive at work? How can I make sure more of my week is defined by this?
Maggie has extensive experience of strategic leadership, and the leadership of change in schools and localities. She was a senior leader at the National College for School Leadership serving as the Director for leadership development, research and succession planning.