Two Roads to Innovation

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Paro_for_Peace

I have been really trying to study the notion of “innovation” and how we create an innovative culture.  From what I am seeing, two make an innovative “mindset” a culture, there are many factors, but there are two ways that those factors need to be delivered that are on opposite sides of the spectrum.  One is through mass collaboration, and the other through individual connection.  With one of those areas lacking, that culture will either never happen or it will take a significant amount of time.  Through the “School Admin Virtual Mentor Program” (#SAVMP), I am trying to create something that shows both sides of that spectrum.  The ideas for the program though have been inspired by many different things (Stephen Covey’s ideas, open networks, MOOCs, etc.), yet have come together in one space:

“The history of cultural progress is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time.” Steven Johnson

How do (and how should) these big ideas come together?

Mass Collaboration

Sitting with George Siemens yesterday (who basically blew my mind for three hours in a car ride), I listened as he shared two major ideas.

The first one talked about the notion of mass groups.  He shared the idea if that you put 100 people in a room, that you learning could increase exponentially.  With different expertise in the room, each person will bring different strengths and knowledge that they can share with the larger group.  Although each of us knows a sliver of information compared to the knowledge of the room, by sharing, our knowledge goes up exponentially.

Think of this analogy to help further the idea.

Most people know that a program such as Microsoft Word, although seemingly simple, is under-utilized.  If we use it to only 10% of it’s capacity on our own, that 10% is unlikely to grow.  What happens if you share YOUR 10% with others, and it is different from the 10% that they know?  Although we will not all know totally different things, there will be elements that we each bring to each other that will raise our learning exponentially.

The use of social networks works much this way.  Groups that I have been in such as Connected Principals, have brought each person’s 10% to the forefront and it has opened up ideas, for myself, that I would have not had on my own.  Now I do because I was willing to create and be a part of the network.  Although with Weinberger’s idea that the “smartest person in the room, is the room”, there are two important elements that we overlook.  First, we have to be able to “create the room” for those “hunches” to come together, and secondly, we have to be in the room.  If you do neither, you are more likely to be stuck with your 10%.

In my own school district, there are 22 principals and although that is a network in itself, it is not certain that you will connect with all 21 others in that position, nor is there necessarily a space that we can connect on a consistent basis.  Through things such as hashtags, blogs, google plus communities, we give an opportunity to learn from that group of 22, but also the opportunity to open it up to the world.  While closed groups tend to shrink, and sometimes die, open groups usually expand and grow as do many of the individuals within them.  How we tap into those “individuals” is just as important on the road to an innovative culture.

Individual Connection

The second idea that George shared with me was the notion of “Reed’s Law” which talks about the idea of smaller networks being developed that push a larger group.

As we continuously look at the power of networks to improve our learning and the system within our schools, we also have to look at how we tap into the strengths of individual.  With mass networks or groups, many of our quiet educators may get lost in the mix because they are not as “out there” as others, yet have much to share.  This is where the idea of starting from each individual’s “point a” and moving to their “point b” is crucial.  As we look at the #SAVMP program, the mass network is able to share ideas to a large group, but the small mentor-mentee connection is able to build relationships in a much more personal environment.  Through the small connections within the network, there is the potential to learning from both sides of the mentor-mentee relationship.

The ability to share and discuss in a smaller place brings the opportunity to learn from individuals and feel a deeper connection to a smaller network, while also creating a stronger accountability to growth.  If I am one out of 400, it is much easier for no one to notice if I am not writing a blog post or sharing my thoughts in a larger network, but if I am one out of four, I am more accountable and my lack of participation is much more identifiable.  The human connection in a smaller setting creates a higher level of accountability to growth than a large network where you can easily be missed.  It is easy to get lost in a crowd, so make the crowd smaller.

Creating These Spaces

So within a school, you often see one of these spaces utilized.  Whether it is through PLC’s for that “individual connection” or the use of a hashtag for  “mass collaboration”, it is imperative to bring these two ideas together in one space.  For example, using something such as blended PLC’s gives educators to share the same learning that they do with a small group, but also with a much larger audience that is often willing to jump in and share ideas.  Sharing the work of each PLC group to one hashtag, google plus community, blog, etc., gives the opportunity to learn from both the large group and the individual.  What is imperative though is the openness of the larger group.  Open often leads to growth, closed (or fixed) leads to stagnation.  Carol Dweck’s idea of “mindset” is not limited to an individual, but applies to networks as well.

Concluding Thoughts

So as I move forward continuously learning and experimenting in the “online” space, I look at the implications of that work and how it applies to what we do in schools every day.  The learning that is happening in groups such as the #SAVMP program tell me (and hopefully others) a lot about how we can not only lead and learn, but help people to embrace change.  The mass ideas that are shared through many large networks brings many of those ideas to the forefront, but the actual embracing of those ideas often happens on a one-to-one basis.  It is essential to ensure that we are looking at how we take both roads in our work.



  1. Thanks George. Once again, you have given us something to think about. Earlier today I published a post that essentially begs educational leaders to get connected to a PLN (mass collaboration).
    But, this dual path two learning makes perfect sense. In my role as technology coordinator, I typically make greater impact providing training for individuals or small groups. However, I also try two bring mass collaboration into the mix in the hopes that this will spark future connections through social media.
    BTW – George Siemens is one of the smartest people I have ever met. You are lucky your head didn’t explode during your three-hour car ride!

  2. Our district has recently started what we’re calling the Collaborative Teacher Project (CTP) that is set up to support both of these. Small groups learning together for the year around a self selected topic, but using systems such as edmodo and wikispaces to open the conversation up to a wider group. We also incorporated monthly tech workshops, one dedicated solely to creating larger PLNs, and the others support content, PLNs, and organization. Here’s a link to the entire project. One page has links to all of the individual CTP wikis, all of our start-up docs and ppts are on another. We just started training this summer.

  3. Yes! I am still synthesizing these ideas and don’t feel I have fully captured them enough to explain to a non-connector why they should participate in a PLN. I do think these two paths are at the crux of the transformation necessary for systems of education to stay relevant. The power of the PLN is difficult to describe until you experience it. Important points! Thanks for posting.

  4. Good posting.

    Innovation and insight can be extremely fragile in a social context where difference can set off alarms of disloyalty to the group or evidence of misunderstanding the boundaries of membership. We take accountability as a high-value attribute and proof of genuine intent but it can also kill speculation as in the implied risk in the sayings: “going out on a limb” or “taking a chance.”

    Personally, I think people are as averse to innovation as they are to change and uncertainty. Who wants to be made fun of for their unformed inspirations–especially if they consider themselves professionals? The way to break this is to allow a space for anonymous inspiration where new ideas can be explored firstly as inspirations detached from initial explanation. In that manner an idea can be worked on in the safety of being the product of unknown authorship (blame). The reverse engineering principals we use to push outcomes back to their origins could work here. All of us carry the advantage of individual experience that allows group work to generate ideas an individual member may never imagine. Run that process backwards and who know where we would end up?

    My experience with Connectivism is the positive advantage of connecting not simply to people who share your interests or level of qualification but also the wholeness of their quirky selves. I wonder if accountability, as useful as it is for ensuring responsible contribution, is misapplied in those first moments of an idea coming into the world?

  5. It is rewarding to see that many of us think that innovation is the key to better teaching. Had I not shown my work before this was published, one could have thought that I´d fed from your post…I guess the truth is people still need to understand that our concept of innovation has to be reoriented…it is not enough to buy modern gadgets…we need to look differently at what we do and experience. The challenge is there…creative thinking should be destructive or as chaotic as our thoughts …holding on to old old thoughts and practices will take us nowhere new. ( I wil lbe delivering a workshop soon: At the Speed of Change – The Benefits of Innovative Teaching, it touches on the urgent need to fine-tune challenges in the classroom and to embrace transformation). I´de love to hear more about your finding =)

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