5 Characteristics of an Innovative Organization

As the year has wrapped up for most North American schools, I look back at my year and realize how blessed I am to not only be able to travel the world and share my experience with others, but also the opportunity to still work with Parkland School Division on a part-time basis.  I think that this allows me to still “do the work” in schools while also having the ability to share it with others as well.  The balance that this has created to both see other organizations and share my work, and vice-versa, has been immeasurable for my learning.

From what I have learned about Parkland School Division, I believe it is a world-class organization, that is not just talking about newer opportunities for learning for our students, but is creating powerful learning environments for our entire community.  We still teach the curriculum and we still have to “follow the rules”, but we try to be innovative within the parameters that are provided.  The content that we have to teach is often decided for us, but the way that we teach, and more importantly our students learn, is where the magic truly happens.

So how did this happen?  Well to be honest, we still have a lot of work to do, but that will always be the case.  We are a “learning organization” which, by the nature of the term alone, means that we are focused on continuous growth as a district.  It is not only that we have leaders that model themselves as learners, but it is done as at the organizational level as a whole.  This growth as a group has led to the development of individuals.

Looking back, here are five things that have really stuck out to me this year and have helped us to grow.

1.  Promotion and modelling of risk-taking.

The term “risk-taking” is one of those “buzzwords” that drives many people crazy.  An “innovative environment” will always promote this, but it does not mean that it is happening.  It is only when the leaders of organization model the risk-taking that they talk about, does it happen en masse in schools.  I have watched our superintendent Tim Monds, try many different things in his own learning that have been displayed openly to others in Parkland School Division.  It started with things such as using Twitter, more focus on cloud tools such as Evernote and Google Apps for Education, and more recently, sharing his monthly message through YouTube videos.   His understanding and willingness to try different ways of learn and sharing has trickled down to others.  You can see that more educators are trying different things, and then implementing their learning with their students.

It is not only that our leaders have jumped in and shared their learning, but they have flattened the organization and learned from others as well.  I will see many of our superintendents attend events such as “Innovation Week” to see what is happening in our schools, so that they can either share their learning with others, or act as connectors.  It would be easy to “lead from above”, but it is more important to get involved and “lead by example”.  This is something I have seen often from our administrators at every level.

2.  Competitive-Collaboration.

Collaboration is talked a lot about in schools as an “essential trait”, but there are many people that thrive off the notion of competition.  To me, it is not one or the other, but a combination of both that really push our organization forward.  “Competitive-Collaboration” is something that I believe will really push us to the next level.

For example, if we are looking at other school divisions around the world and we see some really amazing things going on, we want those same opportunities for our students.  To build a “world-class organization”, you have to look at what is happening outside your organization, not just locally.  Because of this drive, we have implemented a lot of what we have learned from others, and remixed it to make it applicable to our own students.  The other element of this notion is that we are more than willing to share what we have learned with others as if our works helps kids, no matter where they live, that is to everyone’s benefit.  The more we share, the more others become opening to sharing with us. The balance of being able to both push and help each other will get us to become a better organization a lot quicker.

3.  Proud of where we are, but know we have a way to go.

Parkland School Division has been a place that has spent a lot of time recognizing what both are students and educators have done while giving them an opportunity to showcase this to others around the world (ie. 184 Days of Learning).  With that being said, our schools continuously push to get to the next level.  When you get to a point where you think you have arrived, that is usually when you become irrelevant, and become the school equivalent of “Blockbuster Video”.

Many organizations simply take the word “innovation” and used it to replace the word “technology” but innovation and technology are not necessarily synonymous.  A telephone would be a technology yet would not be considered “innovative” as this point in time, yet at one point it was a great example.  Innovation, in short, means “different and better”; it is not innovative if it does not have these two elements.  The notion of “innovative thinking” is one that we have focused on, and I have seen that our teachers are continuously questioning their own practice and trying to do things both different and better.

We can always appreciate our growth as both individuals and an organization, but we cannot simply pat ourselves on the back and quit doing the work.  When you serve kids, our focus needs to be to get better every day.

4. The focus on sharing.

One of my favourite videos is Dean Shareski’s “Moral Imperative”, where he talks about the need for teachers to share.  This is a video that many of our staff have watched, and have learned a great deal from, and the willingness to share has helped ideas to go “viral”.  Whether it is a focus on inclusion, health and wellness, technology, Identity Day, or almost anything, you will find it shared through blogs and twitter, so that these ideas are not kep in isolation within a classroom or a school, or even as a district.

Scott Johnston, a great friend, thinker, leader, and new Associate Superintendent, talked about the importance that we move to a place see themselves as not only part of a school, but that we are all a part of Parkland School Division.  When we see every kid in every school as one of our own, “sharing” becomes vital to our success.

5. Relationships, relationships, relationships.

No matter what we have learned about, what new initiative or technology there is, a focus on relationships has been the cornerstone and foundation of what has happened in Parkland School Division.  Without a strong focus on relationships first, nothing else happens.  Our “bosses” have focused on this from day one, and it is rare that any conversation that we have not start off checking in on individuals “personally”.   I have always been asked about my family, and I have always felt comfortable sharing because Parkland, in many aspects, has become like a family to me.

When I first came to the school division, this focus on relationships was something that was new to me and I didn’t really understand.  Now I could not understand how we could get anything done without it.  I am more apt to go the extra mile for someone when I know that my leaders care about me personally, then if they didn’t.  When the top levels model this, it (again) trickles down to every level.  The mind and body can not do much when the heart is not there.  This focus on relationships has helped me to focus on always serving the “whole person” as opposed to just focusing on my “job”.

As people get some time to rest up and head into another school year, I look back and realize how proud I am to be part of an organization that is more than just about “school” but about growth and development of people.  It is written in our “vision”:

Parkland School Division is a place where exploration, creativity and imagination make learning exciting and where all learners aspire to reach their dreams.

If you notice the term “learners” is in place of where many organizations use the term “students”.  To me, this vision and focus on the notion of “learners” says that we are all in this together, and we get better as a whole when we do whatever we can help ourselves and each other grow as individuals.

3 comments for “5 Characteristics of an Innovative Organization

  1. August 1, 2014 at 4:12 pm

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  2. August 1, 2014 at 10:48 pm

    George, I cannot agree with you more that an innovative organization or school requires the members of that organization to take risk and to allow their students to take risk without fear. Teachers and students do not need to be afraid of failing at something if they are willing to put their best effort forward. I am a huge fan of Ron Berger who encourages multiple drafts of school work to be completed. I encourage our teachers to even take pride and publish the drafts along the way. I am constantly going back and forth to my work even after it has been published to see what I could have done better.

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