Greg Pilewski | January 2015

STEAM Leadership: 4 Tips on Fostering Innovation At Your Door Step

Fostering Innovation at Your Doorstep

Innovation is a cool word and it sounds “shiny” and “buzzy” by nature.  However, one of the things that we fail to do is truly take the time to define the components of fostering innovation as STEAM leaders.  Why?  Because we always seem to get caught in the day-to-day of our work.  We attend conferences, watch videos, participate in webinars, read articles and get inspired about innovation. Then we begin to brainstorm ideas on what we plan to do next.  “I will do that when I get back to school or the office”. 

“Next week, I plan to put that together”. 

“I will get my team together next month and we will start working on it”.

Sound familiar?

Research from the Performance Institute, Inc. in Washington, D.C. sites that 21st century leaders in high performing organization spend 50% of their time creating the future, 30% of their time improving systems, structures, and processes and 20% of their time in the day-to-day.  Dedicating 50% of your time to creating the future for your school, your district office or department is a big statement, but STEAM leaders know that dedicated time is a key ingredient to fostering a culture of innovation.

Where are you in your journey of leading and fostering Fostinnovation at your school or district? Are you moving? Are you stuck?

As you think about your own work and experiences consider these 4 tips for fostering innovation at your door step.

1. Apply Transformational Leadership Skills:

There any many different types of leadership styles, but one approach that seems to connect with fostering innovation at high levels is developing your transformational leadership skills.  At the core of being a transformational leaders is the ability to inspire others to work towards a common set of outcomes while changing others motivations, perceptions, and expectations.  A few leadership behaviors that take constant practice to lead innovation include:

  • Create a vision for the future that inspires others to reach for the impossible and break new ground.
  • Motivate others by over communicating your core values and generating buy-in as their head coach.
  • Develop actions by being skilled at change management and project management strategies while always “framing” the work for others.
  • Build high levels of trust with your team and don’t under-estimate the power of “listening”….really listening.

2. Practice the Flywheel of Fostering Innovation:

Fostering Innovation is a continuous process that needs to be practiced. Great inventions like iTunes or the iPhone didn’t happen overnight.  Those products were created after thousands upon thousands of conversations and dialogues with a variety of individuals.  Getting the flywheel of innovation started can seem like a monumental task, but once you frame the work for your team and get them through one revolution the more confident they will become. Consider these steps to foster the flywheel of fostering innovation:

  • Observe: Frame your problem and look at the world around you and begin to study human behavior, products, or services. Document your observations.
  • Ask: Dig deep into your problem and observations by asking probing questions.  (Why??????)
  • Know: Learn as much as you can be collecting a variety of information and building your knowledge about the problem and then apply it to your observations. 
  • Create: Apply your new learning and observations by brainstorming and creating something new. Connect the unconnected dots!
  • Revise: Analyze new ideas through application and revise as needed.

3. Create Innovation Spaces:

Creating a designated space for the collaboration and sharing of innovative ideas can be powerful. From giving the space an identify to how the area looks and feels can communicate volumes that innovation is valued, encouraged, and practiced on a regular basis.  It can be as simple as painting a space with chalk board paint in your school or office building to putting up a dry erase board outside your office. Don’t be afraid to “rebrand” your wall space!

Take the company Netflix for example.  They name their innovation spaces after blockbuster movies (ie. King Kong) to promote what is possible when the innovation process is practiced.  The naming of your innovation space can be a fun collaborative activity, but designing the inside space can be equally as exciting.  Check out the innovation and brainstorming space called “huddle rooms”at the Stanford School of Design.  How cool are these spaces?

What if you were able to create a space in your school where teachers could dream and create new ideas that would grow into innovative solutions for problems students faced with learning?  The space could have “collaboration hubs” where  teachers could working collaborative solving complex problems that were identified through the school improvement plan.  The space could have music playing and inspiring quotes and pictures on the wall. Each “hub” could have a dry erase board that could illustrate observations of human behavior, questions, new learning and new ideas, etc. Everyone could visualize their thinking and visualize!  The space could also including lap tops and other smart technology that could assist in the fostering innovation process and deepened the collaboration.

The sky is truly the limit in creating spaces that foster innovation.

4.  Embrace the Insights and Wisdom of Others:

Innovation is a constant conversation. The power of “we” is always stronger than the power of “me” which is why building a network of people with diverse backgrounds to share innovative ideas is so exciting to the process.  To encourage trust, collaboration and the sharing of innovative ideas, consider an approach from the global research and development team at Colgate-Palmolive.

Their concept was to create a “recognition economy” where employees would give peers wooded recognition coins for their ideas and contributions to projects.  The idea encouraged a collaborative culture and the free-flowing of new ideas.  You know you are building a high level of trust for innovation at your door step when adults in your building can say “your idea is better than mine and you need to be recognized for it”.  Wow!

What are some ways that you foster innovation?  Everyone is a leader in some way – how do you build capacity with the teams that you work?  A penny for YOUR thoughts!

About the Author

Greg is a former Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction and has nearly twenty years of classroom, school-based and district-level leadership experience in five different public school systems. He has a passion for teaching and learning and a commitment to supporting school-level and system-level leaders with integrated and innovative resources. Not only is Greg an accomplished leader and speaker, he’s also an avid tinkerer in his workshop where he enjoys making projects around his historic home for his lovely wife and two Labrador retrievers. You can catch Greg’s insights right here each and every Thursday and contact him directly at: