Have you noticed how some people always seem to have new ideas, a creative twist on a process, or novel strategy to address a long-standing challenge? They move beyond traditional approaches and prolonged practices to find better ways to do what needs to be done. We might think that these people have a natural talent or special set of skills. However, in most cases, their ideas and creativity come from a simple but important set of actions that any of us can adopt and employ in our personal and professional lives. The innovation may be a new way to introduce a skill or teach a concept, a way to motivate and engage learners that builds ownership for learning, or a different way to leverage technology to assist learning. The application can be varied, but the general steps are often similar.
Let’s explore how we can use these steps to discover opportunities and guide our efforts to innovate. The process of innovating may or may not have a clear beginning. Sometimes the need for change is clear. At other times, we may have a feeling that there is a better approach, but we need time to think and reflect. This realization is followed by intentional steps, and leads to an idea, strategy, or approach to test and build on. The process might be thought of as including four phases: orientation, exploration, innovation, and iteration.
The first phase, orientation, is as much a mindset as it is a strategy. When our thinking is oriented toward wonder and curiosity, we are less likely to accept what is or has been without question. We are more prone to ask, “why not” and “what could be” than “why” and “what should be.” This orientation, or mindset, stimulates our imagination. We become more open and motivated to learn and discover. This phase is crucial. Unless we are curious, skeptical, and questioning, we can easily ignore opportunities to create and craft something new and better.
The second phase, exploration, grows directly out of an orientation of curiosity and wonder. Our questions move beyond “could there be a better way” to “how can I find a better way?” We begin to interrogate why things are as they are. We investigate options and approaches others have tried to understand what has been learned and how what is known might lead to creating something new. Often, this phase leads to searching outside of our discipline, or even education, to see if there are ideas and approaches worth adapting and applying in our context. Sometimes adjacent fields of work have already solved a similar dilemma and may present a model with which to work. As this phase unfolds, we begin to form our own ideas and approaches worth trying.
The third phase, innovation, moves us from questioning and exploring to design and formulation. We use what we learned during the exploration phase to imagine, tinker, and create. This phase calls for courage and willingness to risk. We cannot expect that our early efforts will be perfect. In fact, if everything works perfectly on the first attempt, we might ask ourselves whether we really are stretching and creating something new. Our goal needs to be to craft an idea worth investing time and energy to. Perfection can come later.
The fourth phase, iteration, builds on the previous three phases. As noted earlier, rarely does a new strategy or approach work perfectly at first. The iteration phase invites us to observe how the innovation is working. We might test different versions of the approach. What we learn can lead to adjustments that improve on our idea and lead to even better outcomes. If we are working with a team, we might have team members try the innovation with different groups of students and collect data on results. The goal is to keep asking questions and finding ways to make the innovation ever more effective and useful, regardless of who is using it, where it is used, and with whom.
Innovation is not magic, but it depends on the magic of curiosity and wonder. The more we allow ourselves to question, imagine, and dream, the more likely we will uncover an idea or concept worth exploring and creating.
It is also true that times of challenge and disruption often present the best opportunities to innovate. Now may be the right time to take a risk and develop the idea and create the strategy you have been thinking about.