Suggestions to Unleash Innovation

Erik EllefsenInnovationLeave a Comment

This past year, I’ve had the opportunity to start the Digical Education* podcast where I’ve recorded conversations with twenty-eight educators, innovators, or leaders. This opportunity has allowed me to ask questions about policy and practice in education that will allow us to be more successful in our work.

Through these conversations, I’ve developed the following suggestions that might help us unleash meaningful and longer lasting innovation in our profession and schools.

Stop the Blame: Having been in education for over twenty years I think I have heard just about everything there is to blame, the litany of issues to blame include culture, families, poverty, bad teachers, lack of resources, federal or state policy, generational changes, or technology amongst others. My point is not to diminish the challenges that we face every day in our world, but that what I have learned from innovators is that they see these same issues yet have a deep desire to fix them or make a significant difference on life in the present and in the future.


See the Opportunities: The more I meet innovators like Ryan Hoch, Andrew Neumann, Bill Latham, and Jake Neuberg, the more I’m convinced that the solution was rarely the intention, but rather that people like them see a need, an opportunity, or a better way of being, doing, or living. I’ve not visited with an innovator or a thriving school that sees the challenges before the opportunity, but rather these people and places see the opportunity and adjust to the challenges that come their way.

Stop using bad analogies: Living in Northern California, I constantly hear analogies about Billy Beane and Moneyball, Steve Jobs and Apple or wineskins and winemaking. However, when I’m with tech, baseball, or wine innovators I never hear them use analogies other than the love of their profession and a desire to make new discoveries. Generally, I’ve found that they are more interested in their own opportunities, but that they know the necessity of staying at the forefront of very competitive markets.


Focus on your story, listen to the stories of others: In my conversations with leaders, I’ve come to notice that they love to share their stories including what went well, what didn’t, how they implemented change, and why their work matters. Likewise, they love to share about where they are going, what they are wondering about, and who they hope to become, which is what makes these conversations so fascinating.

However, they also love to hear the stories of others and are surprisingly supportive of other innovative leaders and organizations. I think they learn from each other, but there is actually a deep interest that these people display in others and their work.


Stop Seeking Superman, Silver bullets, or the Model: Personally, I have worked in public and private, secular and religious, middle and high, urban and suburban, rich and poor, and diverse and homogenous schools; likewise, I have visited over 100 schools and 300 colleges in the past ten years in my work. Through this experience, I have seen successful schools do things in distinctive ways and those professionals have embraced their opportunity and the difficult work they have been given. There isn’t one leader, one thing, or one way of doing education that will work everywhere or solve all of our problems.

Gather Talent and Do the Work Together: I constantly watch innovators, and each has a people/talent philosophy and the best way to accumulate it. In the complexity of these philosophies, I’ve found these leaders are always hunting for new talent as well as untapped potential in their own people.

Likewise, everyone who spends time with me will know that I love to talk about Jon Eckert’s research on Collective Leadership as a way to build professional capacity that will allow teachers and administrators to do the hard work together to build great schools that meet the needs and opportunities within each community. Over the past year, we’ve had a series of conversations on how Collective Leadership can enliven the hard work we get to do within our profession.

 Stop Leading Innovation: We often tell ourselves the lessons of history and innovation as if the outcomes were inevitable; likewise, we focus on the leader who implemented the disruption. This betrays what I’ve found to be more accurate when it comes to innovation, which is that innovation is never inevitable and these disruptions were usually part of a significant group effort levels down from upper management. Harvard Business Review consistently notes the difficulty to innovate for large organizations.

More importantly,…

Activate and Cultivate: Something that I’ve come to learn and appreciate is how innovative leaders act as catalysts to the people who work with them. This became more apparent to me through the research that Tom Arnett of the Christiansen Institute did entitled, The teacher’s quest for progress: How school leaders can motivate instructional innovation. Through this research, Arnett and his team found that there are different types of motivating questions teachers ask themselves in their jobs.

The goal according to Arnett is to discover ways to activate professionals and cultivate innovation in their distinct approach to the “job” if an innovation is going to take rook in a significant way.

To close for those that sometimes get overwhelmed or even annoyed by the constant talk of innovation, I recently read an NAIS article where the author sums up innovation in schools by stating:

Schools do change, of course, but far more slowly and incrementally than most corporations. In reality, it would be awful if this weren’t so, if schools were easily malleable rather than agencies of continuity. The content, processes, and traditions of schooling link the generations of our society. They give shape and meaning not just to our children’s lives but to our own.

*No, “Digical” is not spelled incorrectly, and for those interested in where I got my podcast name from can read this blog I wrote in 2015.


  • Erik Ellefsen

    Erik Ellefsen is a CACE Senior Fellow and the Director of Networks and Improvement at the Baylor University’s Center for School Leadership. He also serves as Senior Fellow for Cardus, hosts Digital Education (a podcast providing engaging conversations with some of the most innovative education leaders), and is a leading collaborator and author of the Mindshift and Future Ready projects.

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