Atmosphere of Innovation: What’s Your 20% Project?

You don’t want to be the one who can’t breathe in this atmosphere of innovation.
I’ve had the great opportunity to work with some impressive leaders who always encouraged innovation and creativity. One went on to lead the 18th Airborne Corp, another became the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, another went straight from principal to superintendent, and others went on to start, resurrect, and transform state-level virtual schools. I’m lucky indeed.
I’ve had some painful assignments, as well. Do you know what they call the guy who graduates last at West Point? “Sir.”
So I’ve had the opportunity to work with and for a broad range of leadership. I put educational leaders into three types:
ASAP Leaders: These leaders think teachers are there to support their front office mission. No one quite knows what that mission is, even though the school does have a (complicated) mission statement posted (that is not measurable). Inboxes are filled everyday with “ASAP” messages that are typically sent the day after an ever-changing deadline. The principal routinely buys flashy new jackets for his closest staff to wear at Friday’s games.
Supportive Leaders: These leaders have their entire staff working to make life better and easier for teachers. This is a teacher-first organization, and teachers love working there. These leaders react well to a crisis and changing demands. Their support is unwavering.
Transformational Leaders: This is a small group. They look to the future and see the potential for a better world, and they are intent in transforming the staff, teachers, and students so that they can fully participate in the future world. Working for them is dynamic, not static.
Transformational leaders are rare. They have special qualities, and if they somehow end up in education, the private sector tends to steal them away. Transformational leaders demand three game-changing practices in the workplace:

  • Innovate: make changes in something established by introducing something new.
  • Create: bring into existence or cause something to happen due to one’s actions.
  • Produce: make or manufacture from raw material.

Transformation is inevitable when those conditions are present. Here’s the big kicker: transformational leaders will let people innovate in a silo. That’s right, a silo. I know that’s like throwing a wrench into the wheel of the team concept, but the more innovative an idea that a person has, the less likely that someone can help the innovator. In fact, outside help often dilutes the innovative idea. The donkey is horse by committee, right?

To advance an innovative culture in districts or schools, leaders should take a look at Google’s “20% Project.”  Google allows employees to use 20% of their work time to pursue their own innovative ideas, as long as it’s Google related. That seems like a tremendous chunk of valuable time. What have the results been? Pretty impressive. Google’s 20% Project has brought us Gmail, Google News, Google Earth, Google Talk, and AdSense. It turns out that “labors of love” are pursued with passion and pride.
Google didn’t invent this way of thinking, though. 3M launched its “15 Percent Program” back in 1948. Outside-the-box thinking was not the norm at that time. 3M had to be an exciting, dynamic place to work. One of their early successes with this was the invention of the Post-it Note. These initiatives at Google and 3M extend to all employees, not just the researchers and techies. The next Gmail or Post-It idea could come from anywhere. There are plenty of potential innovators who start in the “mail room” to get a foot in the door, and each department is capable of having transformational change, as well.
There are a number of reasons why this is important. At the district level, we have increasing demands and shrinking budgets. You can watch civilization burn or you can innovate your way out of this mess. On the school level, we need to model the innovative and creative spirits for our students. They will soon hit a workforce and have to compete with people from around the world who can innovate, create, and produce. Old fashioned content mastery is no longer enough. Let me take you back again to this article in Education Week:

What matters today, however, is not how much our students know, but what they can do with what they know . . . . Because opportunities for learning are ubiquitous and accessible on every Internet-connected device, students who know more than others no longer have a competitive advantage.

Businesses that do not support creativity and innovation cannot compete with those that do. Creativity and innovation are not just switches that we turn on when we need them. They are behaviors that need to be cultivated. We need to instill these ideas at an early age in students. Project based learning is a good first step, and modeling that behavior would be refreshing.
Word to the wise, don’t blow your chance when you’re given the opportunity to create and innovate. You must be able to add value to your organization on your own. The job market demands it. If your next Powerpoint is about the work that everyone ELSE in your organization is doing . . . beware! Be on the innovator side of that “innovate or die” equation.
What should you do for your 20% project? Take Hemingway’s advice to writers: Never sit down and think about what to write about. Instead, sit down and write what you thought about.
That’s pretty heavy. Ruminate on that for a moment. Thinking is in your head. It’s not at the keyboard or drawing board. We’ve been conditioned to forget that. So get away from the machines for a moment. Ask yourself, why did I get in this line of work? What were my dreams? I know at some point I was going to change the world. How do I get that spirit back? Action plans, lunch counts, TPS reports are not my raison d’être. When you catch that spark, when you rediscover that initial drive that brought you to education, you might weep for a moment when you see how far you’ve strayed.
It’s not too late to kickstart that dream.
Once you become a creator, innovator or producer, you can then leave your mark. There’s nothing like that feeling. You will be a different person. The sheer pleasure you take in your project . . . the control that you have over your own project . . . will be more inspiring to others than the actual project.
If a district or school is going to implement a 20% (or 10% or 15%) Project, they should promote it, too. Set time aside at the district or school level to let the innovators promote their projects. 3M accomplishes this Science Fair Style:

Once a year, about 200 employees from dozens of divisions make cardboard posters describing their 15 percent time project as if they were presenting volcano models at a middle school science fair. They stand up their poster, then hang out next to it, awaiting feedback, suggestions, and potential co-collaborators.

Innovation, creation, and production all require long incubation periods. If you want to do this in your district, you need to give it time, allow room for failure, celebrate the good ideas, and implement the plans whenever possible. Tech or curriculum’s first response shouldn’t be “it can’t be done.” It should be a priority for departments to help innovate. If you’re restricted by regulations, see which ones are state level and which ones are district or school level. See how you can rework the local ones to open up innovation.
Out of money for innovation?  Don’t give up. First of all, encourage innovation that relies on free resources where available. Next become familiar with Kickstarter and DonorsChoose.
So let’s hear about your 20% Projects! Either one you started or ones that you’ve participated in.

Adam Renfro

Adam was a classroom English teacher for ten years and began teaching online in 1998. He now works for the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the 2nd largest virtual school in the nation. Adam has blogged for Getting Smart since September of 2011.

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