Culture of Innovation and Creativity

Innovation is the fuel that drives the global economy and it must be fostered in our nation’s schools.

Business leaders recognize that the new competitive frontier in the world of work is place-based innovation-the ability to innovate again and again within one environment. What this means for education is that learning, creativity and innovation skills are critical to future success in life and work and should be an integral part of a 21st century curriculum.

Some experts argue that systems can be designed and deployed that produce innovation while others argue that systems squash innovation and the answer lies instead in creating a culture that supports and advances innovation at its core.

Those who have successfully created cultures of innovation and creativity suggest that one key is to abandon efficiency as a primary working method and instead embrace participation, collaboration, networking, and experimentation. This does not mean that focus, process and discipline are not important; just that innovation and creativity require freedom, disagreement, and perhaps even a little chaos-especially at the beginning.

In this way, fostering innovation and creativity is often counterintuitive to the beliefs and practices of efficiency-minded business managers and administrators. According to Stanford professor Richard Sutton, creative, “weird” ideas work because they provide three key things: an increase in the range of an organization’s knowledge, the ability for people to see old problems in new ways, and an opportunity to break from the past. On the other hand, he warns that creative environments are often “remarkably inefficient and terribly annoying places to work.” Sutton, R. I. (September 2001). The weird rules of creativity. Harvard Business Review, 79(9), 96-103.

This suggests that teachers should attend to and scaffold students’ creativity by providing opportunities for students to engage in deep, complex thinking, employ strategies that are unorthodox and nonlinear, and to explore ideas that are new and even radical. Moreover, these opportunities should exist in an environment that is positive and upbeat, tolerant of failure, provides tools for experimentation, and has little overt evaluation of student work.

In addition, schools should consider emulating models of managing innovation from the business world. Management expert Peter Drucker offers one such model. Drucker, P. (2002). The discipline of innovation. Harvard Business Review, August 2002. Drucker suggests that there are seven windows of opportunity that open up possibilities for innovations. His list includes unexpected occurrences, incongruities, need for efficiencies, industry/market changes, demographic shifts, changes in perception, and new knowledge.

For example, there is currently an incongruity between the contemporary technology tools used by adolescents, such as cell phones, and the high percentage of school districts that ban those very tools from use in schools. Given the large number of students who are disenfranchised from school, this incongruity provides a window of opportunity for educators to re-engage students and catalyze their innovation and creativity through creative use of technologies currently banned.

Another Drucker-style window of opportunity is the positive change in perception recently by the public about the integration of 21st century skills into schools. This represents an incredible opportunity for educators to not only integrate technology into academic standards, but to embrace the 21st century skills as operating principles for their own careers. This would involve a recasting of professional educators as co-stewards-with students and community-of a forward thinking, high-tech, adaptive, 21st century learning system.

“Like short skirts, innovation has traditionally swung in and out of fashion: popular in good times and tossed back into the closet in downturns. But as globalization tears down the geographic boundaries and market barriers that once kept businesses from achieving their potential, a company’s ability to innovate—to tap the fresh value-creating ideas of its employees and those of its partners, customers, suppliers and other parties beyond its own boundaries—is anything but faddish. In fact, innovation has become a core driver of growth, performance and valuation.”

— Joanna Barsh, Marla M. Capozzi, and Jonathan Davidson

Another model of managing innovation in business arises out of the open-source business model. Open source is a set of principles and practices on how to write software that is openly available to anyone who would like to add to it, change it, or use it. Open source is also culture in which giving back to the community is a core value. In businesses based on an open-source model, innovations and creative ideas often come from community members external to the business, which requires radical new techniques for process management and decision-making, among other things.

Mitchell Baker, chairman and former chief executive officer of Mozilla-developer of the very successful open-source browser, Firefox-is a pioneer of the participatory open-source model of collaboration to manage innovation that she introduced at Mozilla to evolve Firefox.

In a recent article, Baker discussed how this works at Mozilla. “For some things at the center, we must have extreme discipline. If you’re touching code that goes into Firefox, the process is very disciplined. But there are lots of areas for participation-whether it’s building an extension or localizing the product or building new products-that don’t need that degree of discipline. And a key point is for people to ‘own’ what they are doing, not in a financial or legal sense but in an emotionally committed sense that gives them a chance to decide, ‘I’m excited about this. I want to do something. I want to write an extension. I want to go tell people how to do this.’” Mendonica, L., Sutton, R. (January 2008). Succeeding at open-source innovation: an interview with Mozilla’s Mitchell Baker. The McKinsey Quarterly.

When asked about how the model specifically enables innovation, Baker cited three things: “Sometimes, just giving people permission does wonders... Second, we create scaffolding for people to work from, so that even if we’re not innovating ourselves, other people can... Third, we’ve assembled a set of people here who are really motivated by seeing other people do interesting things. So if somebody appears, out in another community, doing something interesting, we don’t have a not-invented-here culture; we just say, ‘Wow!’”

Still, open-source collaboration is not without its challenges. “There are days when somebody’s done something and you wonder, ‘What were they thinking?’ said Baker. “At that point, you have to look really carefully and evaluate what’s just uncomfortable and what really must be fixed. And then you try to keep that latter category to a minimum. A healthy community will do a lot of self-correction.”

Research Findings Related to Innovation and Creativity

Up until the 1990s, the creativity literature looked at creative individuals to the exclusion of creative situations. In 1996, Teresa Amabile updated her 1983 book on creativity to include this new focus: the creative situation (the creative individual within a social or cultural context, the creative team, and/or the creative organization). Amabile, T. (1996). Creativity in context. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Research on social factors related to creativity suggest it is influenced in the individual by birth order, family relationships, early exposure to cultural diversity, environments that encourage autonomy and self-directed learning, and exposure to a creative model within that particular work area

Research also tells us something definitive about the impact of motivation on creativity. Findings suggest that intrinsic motivation is a necessary component to creativity. This is due, in part, to the fact that it requires genuine interest in the topic to sustain the hard work and perseverance required to be creative. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, usually diminishes or extinguishes creativity. The only exception is when the extrinsic motivation is perceived as a bonus rather than as the reason for the creativity.

Similarly, the element of evaluation shifts motivation from the intrinsic to the extrinsic, which in turn undermines creativity. The research is not yet clear on the impact of competition, deadlines, self-evaluation, and rewards on creativity. While further research is needed, there are indications that the modeling of creative solutions can further creativity.

Organizational interests in innovation are driven by the need to constantly reinvent. The factors related to innovative environments include group autonomy, group socialization, mentoring, knowledge transfer, innovation norms, innovation sequence, cultural valuing of innovation, and a culture of risk taking. Paulus, P.B. & Nijstad, B.A. (2003). Group creativity: Innovation through collaboration. USA: Oxford University Press. In addition, there seems to be a strong correlation between levels of innovation and job satisfaction.