Wineskins, Wolves, and Innovation

jarmoluk / Pixabay
jarmoluk / Pixabay

Matthew 9:17 – “Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved” (English Standard Version).

At first blush, the Biblical principle in Matthew 9:17 doesn’t appear to relate to leadership. After all, Jesus is speaking in this passage to John’s disciples who are wondering why they, and the Pharisees, are fasting and Jesus’ disciples are not. Yet, in his response, Jesus points out that radical change, revolutionary change, cannot be contained in the old system. Fresh ideas, truly transformative ideas, must be fermented in a new identity, a new system.

As I reflect on this passage, I am left with several impressions on leadership and our work in Christian education. From my experience, leaders desiring change focus on the new idea rather than the system in which the idea will reside. We vet the idea, innovation, program, or technology only to find that the culture in which the fresh vision will exist is unable or unwilling to contain it.

Recently, I came across a video about the wolves in Yellowstone National Park. The video, about Trophic Cascade, shows how one small change can literally cascade through an ecosystem. As I have reflected on this video, on innovation, and on Jesus’ words in Matthew 9:17, I have been convicted that I have often thought incorrectly about the innovation process and innovation in general. Educational innovation is not something like a technology or an idea, it is a process that changes behavior. It has a cascading effect within the organization. It is an innovation cascade.

New Systems?

A literal reading of Matthew 9:17 in the context of leadership would lead us to believe that every new idea needs a new system. While there are many ideas that do, indeed, need a new system, the general idea of creating completely new systems in an educational setting is simply not feasible. Most of us, at least those of us that work in existing schools, do not have the luxury of starting a brand new school. Likewise, we do not truly have the ability to create independent offshoots of our current organizations. Beginning new is simply not an option for most of us.

How then do we understand Jesus’ words? He said, “New wine in old skins leads to destruction.” Those of us who have lived through innovative change have experienced failure. We have seen what happens when a good idea does not mature throughout an organization and have witnessed the inherent “destruction” that follows. How can we create “new systems” within existing organizations without dismantling the existing organization? This, for me, is the fundamental question and hindrance to successful organizational innovation and change.

Innovation Cascade

The solution can be found in the wolves. Seriously, if we look at the example of the wolves in Yellowstone National Park, we can glean some insight into how to effectively innovate within organizations. Perhaps, as I am about to assert, we make the process far too complicated and we focus on the wrong catalysts for innovation. When you watch the video, you will be struck by the depth of the “trophic cascade.” The re-introduction of the wolves literally changed the behavior of the rivers. How would wolves do that? Not directly of course, but they began a “chain reaction” of events that eventually changed the behavior of the rivers.

In schools, we often grope for levers of change. Most of us, if we are honest, want the students to learn effectively and efficiently. We want them to be prepared for the future and to be able to continually learn throughout life. These are noble goals. They are, however, a little like changing the behavior of rivers. How do we do that?

In our efforts, we try to change faculty. We attempt to alter their behavior and pedagogy. I have found that this rarely works as we suppose. We try to change learning environments. This, too, has limited effect. We try systemic change. We adjust the schedule, for example. This too, has little overall effect. We try to add technology. Many have done this with little to no change. So what is the wolf? What is the change that will lead to an innovation cascade?

New Wineskins

The first change that is necessary to produce an innovation cascade is new wineskins. We have already discussed our inability to completely start from scratch. This is impractical for most of us and unrealistic. However, we do have the ability to begin a dialogue within our organizations about innovation. The new wineskin for innovation must be a cultural shift in expectation and behavior. This must begin with the leadership, including the board and head of school. The innovation cascade must flow downward through the organization.

In today’s leadership culture, any suggestion of “top down” brings shivers to most people. We are becoming averse to this concept. I am not suggesting that top down leadership is the answer. I am, however, suggesting that an innovation cascade cannot flow upward through the organizational ecosystem. Like a trophic cascade, it must flow downward through the ecosystem.

Someone is bound to interject at this point, suggesting that innovation does not always or primarily come from the top of an organization. There are many, many innovations that flow from the bottom of an organization. This is true. However, those innovations only take root in the fertile soil of an organizational culture that is prepared for them. To borrow from the metaphor in Matthew 9:17, the new wine is being placed in old wineskins and it will not end well. Usually one of two outcomes is realized. One, the innovation dies before it properly starts because the leadership culture is not receptive to the innovation. Or, two, the innovation continues in relative isolation and has no impact on the organization. In other words, there is no cascading effect.

The first goal of an educational leader is to provide a fertile environment for innovation and change. We do not need to add anything or do anything special. We simply need to be willing to permit the environment to change. We need to stop inhibiting the ecosystem from shifting. We need to provide new wineskins.

The Wolf . . . and The River

After leaders have prepared the educational ecosystem for change, the next step, in keeping with the metaphor from the video, is identifying the wolf. What is that innovation that will start an innovation cascade? The answer to that specific question, of course, depends on your specific educational ecosystem. Introducing the wolf into another landscape, like the Florida Everglades, would not have the same effect as it did in Yellowstone. You need to know and understand your school’s climate and culture.

One way to identify your school’s wolf is to engage constituents in a listening tour. A listening tour is a focused and intentional opportunity to gain a pulse on your community. In short, leaders give the floor to various members of the community and ask them to share dreams or answer a question (For example: Where are we strong as an organization and where could we improve?). The main goal of the listening tour is to listen. Leaders should refrain from commenting and simply listen by taking active notes. At the end of each meeting, leaders should transcribe the notes and send them to the group. This provides the group the opportunity to edit as needed and it shows that the leader actively engaged in listening. Once all constituents are heard, the leadership, after qualitative analysis for themes, produces a report for the community.

While the listening tour concept seems simple, few organizations I know engage in such a behavior. Leaders need to engage the community to truly understand the educational ecosystem. If we don’t, we will continue to shoot from the hip, at best guessing about the needs of our community. In so doing, we either perpetuate or reinforce the old wineskins within our community. True listening and understanding provide the opportunity for leaders to introduce new wineskins and, importantly, to have a better ability to identify the “wolf” that will cause an innovation cascade within the organization.

Our charge as educational leaders is to seek the “wolf” innovations, those innovations that cascade through the organization and lead to deeper change. When we introduce the “wolf” into our community, we are introducing an innovation cascade that will ultimately alter every aspect of the learning ecosystem, potentially leading to innovations that we could never have dreamed about when we introduced the “wolf” in the first place. As I write this article, I am about to change leadership positions and begin a new leadership journey. My number one goal as I enter my new community is to gain an understanding of the educational ecosystem and to conduct as much research as I can to identify the “wolf” that will lead to an innovation cascade.

I consistently remind myself that the wolf did not directly change the behavior of the river. Yet, the river changed because of the wolf. As educational leaders, it might be time for us to stop trying to change “the river” and focus on introducing wolves that will, ultimately, change the behavior of “the river.”

One comment

  1. Mauricio says:

    Great article. I hadn’t seen the wolf and river video but I’ll watch it now.
    It really spoke to me to find the wolf even if it doesn’t directly shift the river, although eventually it will.

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