10 Ways to Infuse A Spirit of Innovation & Entrepreneurship in Your Learning Organization

In Bold, Peter Diamandis and Stven Kolter wrote, “If you don’t disrupt yourself someone else will.” I don’t treat this as an absolute, but it is a proverbial truth. The eduction space is one of tremendous innovation and entrepreneurship today. This doesn’t mean abandoning every practice or tradition, and given that education is a collective social good, it doesn’t even mean that every learning organization needs to be deeply innovative and entrepreneurial. There is plenty of room for different types of learning organizations in the K-12 and higher education, and also in the massive education space beyond these formal organizations. With that said, if you aspire to be an innovative and entrepreneurial organization, it probably means making a few changes. Following are ten tips. They are not a recipe for innovation. There are plenty of ways to nurture a culture of innovation. However, in my work with various learning organizations and education companies, paying attention to these ten tips is a great start. Each one is not something you just do and check off a list. Each one takes time, organizational and individual soul-searching, persistence, a thick skin, and a fervent commitment to the task.

1. Celebrate innovation and entrepreneurship.

I’m not talking about just saying it. I mean really celebrate it. Lift it up. Encourage it and back up your encouragement with the resources for people to do it. The top people in the organization need to be behind it. They don’t always need to lead it, but they do not to celebrate it. This means giving people the space to innovative because entrepreneurs and innovators wither with micro-management. They need support, encouragement, celebration, and empowerment.

2. Hire or raise up people who are passionate about being deeply informed about the possibilities.

C. E. M. Joad wrote that, “The height of originality is skill in concealing origins.” Ideation and innovation are both fueled by a deep and broad sense of the possibilities. There is a certain breed of person that craves exploring and discovering the possibilities. Sometimes they just seem obsessed with discovering diverse sources, models, examples, and frameworks. They read, observe, connect… They are building this deep well of insights from which they can pull when they begin to innovate. These are valuable people to have around if you want a culture of innovation. When it comes to the education space, we are talking about finding people who are not just interested in replicating and imitating what other organizations do. Look for people who can keep the mission of your organization in focus, but they explore the world for ideas, some of which might have an interesting application in your organization.

3. Match your entrepreneurs, innovators and edupreneurs with people who love being part of innovation but are great at making things happen and attending to the details.

If you add detail people who are intimidated, overwhelmed or even defensive about innovation; that will not work out. However, if you can match your innovators with these “get it done and done well” people, watch out! They can be a powerful combination. Sometimes it is the same person, but often (even most often) it is not.

4. Include system thinkers.

When you start to innovate, all sorts of things can be affected. It is extremely valuable to have people who understand all parts of the operation instead of just an organization full of specialists. If you find an innovator who is also a systems thinker, grab them and empower them. These systems thinkers don’t just think about how one thing impacts another in the organization. These people get under the hood. They want to know all aspects of the operation. They don’t just play or dabble. They dig deep, while not mistaking their digging for full-scale expertise. They can be critical resources in understanding what will work and what will not, or how to work toward conditions where something new can work. Oftentimes, the organization obsessed with specialists and tidy divisions of labor miss the wisdom of these system thinkers with disastrous results. These people see things that others just don’t get, and if they have a track record of using their capacity for systems thinking to get things done well, trust them with it.

5. Embrace wonderfully lopsided people, giving them freedom to grow their strengths…while helping to minimize or manage their limitations.

Especially in some education organizations, there can be this idolatry of the well-rounded person..the employee equivalent of the student who got straight “As” in all subjects, played multiple sports, and was loved by everyone. If you only look for those people, you are going to miss out on some world-class talent. Some of the best people in the world in various domains are what I call “wonderfully lopsided.” They have a huge strength. They build on it and use it to do extraordinary things. They also have gaps and limitations. You can focus on those limitations or you can embrace the whole person and then help them manage the limitations while letting them do amazing things in the organization with their strengths. Keep pushing them back to working on their weaknesses and you risk preventing them from creating their next masterpiece.

6. Create spaces for freedom, experimentation and exploration.

This means freedom from something. That something is often the standard way of doing things, the expected way of doing things, standard practice and policy, and sometimes even the “acceptable” way of doing things. Let them experiment. Learning organizations often don’t do this well because they cut their teeth on a culture of earning and a fixed mindset. Experiments have uncertain results, which is why they are called experiments. If you want innovation, then you need to have a tolerance and celebration of experimentation. This doesn’t have to mean multi-million dollar experiments. You can manage risks at reasonable and tolerable level, and that will vary depending upon your organizational culture. Without experimentation you will probably not get much world-class innovation.  Sometimes it takes months or years to benefit from these experiments but if you have the resources and patience, they can pay huge dividends.

7. Remove fear and uncertainty associated with top-down power moves and changing the rules in the middle of the game.

Fear can be a motivator, but threats, top-down power plays and top-down changes behind closed doors will kill the motivation and energy of most innovators and entrepreneurs. If you are committed to running your organization this way, you will lose some of your top talent. You’ll keep the rule followers. You’ll keep the people who are happy just following directives from above. You’ll lose your innovators and entrepreneurs almost every time. Imagine playing a game of chess and someone jumps in and starts pulling some of your pieces off the board, forcing you to play without them. Then they start changing the rules of the game on you. That sort of unpredictability will squash the spirit of innovative people and teams.

8. Ignore the “Equal Treatment” mindset of some organizations.

This is a difficult one for some people to handle, but the “equal treatment” myth is just that. Treating all people and units the same is not equal because they don’t all need the same things. In addition, your organization will need to invest in promising ideas and people who are working on the next innovation. Find ways to fund, support and empower those people. The more you can do to help the rest of the organization see the wisdom and importance of this, the better. This often means giving some freedom and flexibility to do things that might not usually be done, that might not fit in the standard policies and practices. There is a careful line to draw here. Some things are non-negotiable, but be flexible with the rest.

8. Don’t expect the innovators and entrepreneurs to color within the lines.

This relates to #7, but if you want to embrace a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, this means realizing that these people often don’t color within the lines. That can be a challenge because coloring between the lines was pretty much invented in schools.

9. Sift everything through the mission and vision, but be open to interesting twists and improvisations around the mission and vision.

This is where we draw the lines with the  non-negotiables. The mission, vision, values and goals that are core to the organization need to be standard for all people. Even (especially) the innovators need to respect, embrace, and innovate around these. At the same time, they might put fascinating and surprising twists on what that mission looks like, especially if we allow them the freedom from some of the traditional trappings while holding them to sifting everything through these core elements.

10. Partner, network, connect, beg, borrow, and steal (in the flattering, not illegal sense); but beware of disengaged outsourcing.

Outsourcing part of your operation can be an effective strategy at times, but stay deeply engaged. Learn all you can. You want to build intellectual capital for the future. Even with that (and as I and others have written or said many times before), some of the best people in the world are not in your organization. So, partner, connect, and network with those people. At minimum, try to learn from the best people, organizations, and innovations in the world.