What does real innovation look like in schools and how do we know we are not just stirring up a bunch of cool, but unrealistic, new ideas? Rita Gunther McGrath, responding to a piece in the Wall Street Journal, admonishes us that lots of companies talk about their focus on innovation but empirical data suggest that not many are successful.
Thinking of stuff is not innovation. Tinkering with stuff is not innovation. Even inventing stuff is not innovation. Innovation instead, when it’s done right, make us go “wow, of course, why didn’t I think of that?” It creates complete experiences that we want to engage in. It eliminates inconveniences and hassles and improves our overall experiences. At its most dramatic, it creates entire categories of offerings, so new that we find it hard to name them at first.
I have been writing and talking about the need for schools to focus on value, and innovation is nothing if it does not create value. So here is my best example of value-rich innovation I helped to create at our school. The point I am going to emphasize is that if I had stopped pushing the envelope at the “great idea” stage, we would have had a good new program but not a major value-creating innovation.
A decade ago a couple of teachers and I wanted to start a global program at our school. It did not get legs until about five years ago. At that point we looked at several models for how to create overseas experiences for your students. We asked a lot of questions about the essential outcomes we wanted to create. We tested, probed, experimented, tweaked. We decided these would not be tourist trips. We want to engage with foreign cultures as much as possible, and you do that by getting close to people. We decided we would incorporate a component of service, of giving back, but that the main take-away for our students should be “we received more than we could possibly give, just by being here and sharing with you.”
I pushed the envelope the furthest. Long story short: every year I lead a two-week trip to the Philippines. The students stay in villages where the shower is a bucket of water and bed may be the floor. We go back to the same villages each year and have created long-term sustainable partnerships. We have established our own NGO in support of schools, day care centers, an orphanage, and a home for abused girls. We sent immediate relief supplies when the area was hit by a typhoon last year. Demand for the trip is huge every year.
Last year I had two teachers with a combined 40+ years experience with me. Both said the trip was the single most authentic educational experience of their careers.
Guess what is talked about at every one of our admissions events now? Our global trips, and how they really differentiate us from other schools. Guess which trip is used as the model of what we can accomplish in terms of student experience? Our Philippines trip. We created value that has translated into admissions demand for the school, and admissions demand is our lifeblood. We did it by taking risks, pushing at the margins, creating a relationship that never existed. It is a lot of the things that Ms. McGrath says mark real innovation: “it creates complete experiences that we (the client) want to engage in”.
I am really proud of what we have done; we created something with real value out of nothing but an idea. Real innovation takes time and involves risk, but the payout is worth it. If you want to spend 30 minutes sharing this experience with our students and some great Filipino educators and village folks, watch the movie I made. It’s a little long because listening to students talk about this “most authentic educational experience” takes a bit of time. Enjoy!