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Rethinking Innovation

I’ll acknowledge the “elephant on the screen” by confirming there’s a large hexagon pictured above. We’ll get to that in a second, but first I want to reflect on a concept I’m learning about called rapid prototyping.

I recently attended an impactful parenting seminar on creativity. During the seminar, Dave Zukor provided attendees a handout that contained a couple dozen plain circles. He gave attendees a minute to invent as many new ways to alter or enhance the circles as possible. This exercise was for the express purpose of demonstrating how quick and early failures can lead to greater creativity. Coincidentally, this is also a concept that Bob Johansen writes about in his book, Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World.

Johansen maintains that the ability to fail quickly early on eventually leads to greater success. Simply put, the best innovations are seldom the very first versions of anything we create. Rapid prototyping helps us learn from failure by abandoning less-viable ideas early on in the innovation process. This notion left me reflecting on the state of innovation in education.

How might we inject more purposeful prototyping in our leadership and learning?

In the classroom, we typically try and cultivate new and novel thinking by providing students the opportunity to practice creativity. We provide writing prompts and encourage students to compose imaginative endings. We distribute art supplies and ask students to invent new animals or other forms. The exact content area or project really doesn’t matter. The point is that we might be mistakenly leading students down a single path of “product completion.”

Students need the opportunity to explore many avenues before refining their work. This is where the hexagon comes in. You can print a copy of the hexagon above or quickly draw a blank hexagon on a sheet of scrap paper. Next, take no more than one minute to transform the hexagon into something different by adding details to it. You might choose to change it into a puffer fish by adding eyes and spiny fins; or you could color it red and convert it into a stop sign. You get the idea.

But one thing you also get is a single path of innovation. With a single hexagon there is no redo, refine, or design iteration to speak of. Just one project template and the goal of doing something creative. Don’t get me wrong. Generating a new idea and advancing it forward is not bad, but as I’m learning, when we introduce rapid prototyping to the process learning is amplified.

The next step below is a spin-off from the activity that Dave Zukor masterfully facilitated during the parenting seminar that I mentioned earlier. I participated in his session as well as the spin-off activity below, so I can personally speak to the impact of each activity.

Instead of taking a single hexagon and applying our best innovation to it, why not quickly sketch out a dozen or more ideas to transform a hexagon? Give this a try and you’ll see for yourself how differently you approach the task. The opportunity to design several different hexagons in a short amount of time is sure to produce some duds. However, you’ll also find that you begin to make connections and apply those to different iterations in a relatively short amount of time. (Imagine how the process might be enhanced by incorporating in some peer collaboration, reflection, and feedback!)

Most people think educational innovation involves new and novel approaches, and I’m inclined to agree. Whether we are looking to increase parent engagement, improve student achievement, or unleash the talent that already exists in our organizations; innovation can be a powerful catalyst.

The hexagon activity is an example of how schools might approach innovation to efficiently work through early failures together. I’d imagine that practicing this form of rapid prototyping with staff (using real leadership scenarios) would increase our ability to respond to students’ needs in a very nimble manner.

Rethinking innovation will require us to rethink how we seek out early failure, and more specifically how we nimbly work through it to create the schools students deserve. This needs to be more than a mantra; it needs to be something we model in practice.

**Some of you know that I love drawing, design thinking, and looking at things from different perspectives. Here’s how I approached the hexagon activity. (See if you can notice where I hid a stoplight in the picture below.) If you’re interested in a blank PDF just click HERE.



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