The Art of Balancing Execution & Innovation

Execution is doing things consistently well. Innovation is meeting needs in new ways. Most school systems aren’t very good at either.
Execution requires process management.  Innovation requires change management.  They both require goal clarity, dedicated capacity, and a commitment to data.
There are good books out on both topics.  Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, by Larry Bossidy, Ram Charan, and Charles Burck. Amazon says, “The authors describe the building blocks–leaders with the right behaviors, a culture that rewards execution, and a reliable system for having the right people in the right jobs–that need to be in place to manage the three core business processes of people, strategy, and operations.”
Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, by Steven Johnson is a reminder that “Being right keeps you in place, being wrong forces us to explore.”  Johnson explores seven strategies including slow hunches and accidents that may unlock innovation.
The so called ‘human capital’ agenda in education is based on the ‘great teacher in every classroom’ theory of improvement.  The assumption is that talent and training will yield consistent quality instruction.  It’s an execution agenda: culture building, smart hiring, orientation, support systems, professional development, best practice sharing, and data-driven evaluation.
Focus on the execution agenda will improve results to the extent possible within the confines of the existing school model.  Heroic effort may push results beyond expectations, but an execution focus leaves the basic parameters unchanged and, as a result, bounds the upper limit of improvement.
Taking an innovation approach to achieve better results may include piloting new delivery strategies, strategies that extended the day and year, incentives that boost motivation, and innovative staffing strategies.  Innovation is inherently disruptive.  It breaks boundaries.  It is unpredictable.  There is a chance for significantly better results.  There is also a chance for failure.
American schools would benefit from improved execution, particularly those that serve low income students.  But there is an upper bound to improvement.  Our schools, particularly our secondary schools, are obsolete.  They teach groups not individuals, they are time bound, lockstep and partitioned.  To students, they are irrelevant and boring.  Creating engaging student-centered competency-based schools requires an innovation agenda.
The back to school question for school and system leaders is, “What’s the right mixture of execution and innovation for our community?”  Execution is doing things well; innovation is doing the right things.  Execution makes things consistent, innovation makes things different with the potential of being dramatically better.  Improved execution will boost results in the short run; innovation is a long-term play. They both require political capital, but the more disruptive the bigger the withdrawal.
Every school needs an execution agenda to improve the quality of instruction around an adopted curriculum.  Every school needs a change agenda—a phased approach to a more student centered, standards-based, competency-focused environment.  Finding the right balance is the art of leadership and the product of dialog.
[posted first on Huffington Post]

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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