Everyone Can Innovate

Innovation is the buzzword of the 21st century. Perhaps because of the way technology is quickly changing our lives (think Apple, Google, and social media) or because globalism is helping us realize others can do our job just as well (or better) than we currently do. Dan Pink (@danielpink) wrote in his 2006 book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, Abundance, Asia, and Automation will take over current economics, and if countries do not adapt to innovate and create, existing superpowers will see an end to dominance. For educators, if our job does not adapt to right-brained, innovative teaching, then our students will be ill-prepared for the future.

So, how does one innovate? It’s not a professional development session of “innovative idea-sharing.” Jonah Lehrer, in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works (yes, I know the controversy over his book, but it’s not all plagiarized) found only 1% of Psychology papers published from 1950 to 2000 focused on an aspect of creativity. Perhaps no one is clear on how to innovate and create.

I believe innovation is a life-style, which ultimately leads to new ideas. Like anything else, I do not think innovation is a gift special to a chosen few. I believe innovation is for those who cultivate it; some have a special gift toward innovative thought. This does not mean individuals cannot learn or practice innovation.

To quote Lehrer, “Every creative journey begins with a problem.  It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer.  We have worked hard, but we’ve hit the wall.  We have no idea what to do next.”  As Larry Page said, “If you’re not doing something crazy, you’re doing the wrong things.”

I’ve made innovation a goal of mine this year. I see many, major problems in education. I also know I am equipped to tackle them, but I need to dedicate energy to creative solutions. Here are my notes on what I’ve been practicing so far this year.

1. Innovation requires time. 3M, one of the most innovative corporations in the world, gives engineers 15% of their time to an innovative idea. Google copied this idea, giving engineers 20% of their time (essentially one day a week) to cultivate innovative ideas. Innovation takes time. Do not think you will turn on your creative juices over night.

2. Effort and Focus. Though 3M gives time back to its engineers, 3M also requires dedicated work to the job. Though the work environment is relaxed, this does not mean no work is done. Rather, innovation requires a strong devotion to an idea. Diligent, direct action can help focus the mind and fix problems. Yo Yo Ma believes his ability to improvise only comes after hours upon hours of practice. Without the effort input, he is not creative. Focus to a goal or a problem is important, but focus can also be detrimental. Focus drives the mind outward, to analytic problem-solving. Caffeine and stimulants help. However, such focus limits right-brained thinking. So, while focus does help, only this intense focus is also bad.

3. Relax. For as much as focus can help you accomplish your goals, so can relaxation. We have all experienced this. The one time in the day when you are disconnected, where you have time to yourself—the morning shower! How many a-ha moments do you have in the shower? It’s not coincidence. First, you are most relaxed immediately in the morning. Also, your brain is finalizing the random right-brained connections from nighttime dreaming, and your relaxation in the morning fosters these creative ideas. Daydream. Meditate. Think positive thoughts. Relax. Whatever technique is best for you, practice it daily. Give yourself this time in the morning, when you are most likely to continue the right-brain connections from sleep.

4. Collaborate & Share. One person cannot figure everything out for oneself. Share ideas among colleagues in different fields. Share ideas with new peers and established peers. A mix of new and old ideas will foster creative thought. Encourage this in schools and model this with students. Avoid brainstorming; brainstorming limits creative ideas. Rather, criticize ideas in positive ways, building on what could make bad ideas better. This encourages new ideas to arise.

5. Fail. You cannot achieve ideas without testing dozens of failed ideas before. Do not be discouraged with failure. Reflect on the reason for failed attempts and build toward success.

6. Lead. Innovation in organizations needs leadership, one who is crazy enough to support new ideas. Latch on to individuals in your organization or community who foster innovative thinking. Find a leader who challenges you. If you cannot find someone, become the leader to tackle new problems with innovative peers. Unless leaders support innovative solutions, the new ideas will only support the existing status quo, not the creative solution result desired.

So, what does my routine look like? I’ve taken my own advice this year, and I have enjoyed looking at problems from uncommon vantage points. Here’s what I do.

  • I get up earlier, adding about 10 minutes to my morning routine. With there small boys, sometimes this isn’t enough.
  • I’ve delayed or eliminated caffeine as much as I can, unless I need to have strict focus to one task. This is easier some times than others.
  • I am trying to meditate and pray more often. I prefer the repetition of the Catholic rosary, but I submit I’ve used simple meditation techniques to the same success.
  • I’ve branched out to so many new peers for collaboration that I could ever imagine. This has led to many new ideas I hadn’t known existed previously.
  • I’ve encouraged these ideas with my students and colleagues.

I have not attained innovation nirvana, nor have I had any million-dollar ideas to save education. I have felt more self-aware of the problems around me, and I feel better prepared to identify future problems than I ever had before.


6 thoughts on “Everyone Can Innovate

    • Justin Staub, Ed.D. February 19, 2013 / 10:52 pm

      You’re correct. This should have been easily citable. While I feel issues like this could be oversights, I more stringently critique his work now that we know some of it was plagiarized or made up. So, if this oversight were in another book and missed, I’d likely never notice. But, with Lehrer, now everything will be questioned. Thanks for the astute observation.

  1. DAVID MENSAH February 20, 2013 / 1:03 am


    • Justin Staub, Ed.D. February 20, 2013 / 7:37 pm

      Thanks, David. I’ve realized education needs leaders who do more than promote the status quo. This requires innovative ideas, which everyone is capable of. This is just my approach to those ideas. I appreciate your kind words.

    • Justin Staub March 31, 2013 / 3:09 pm

      Thanks for your reply. I read our post and couldn’t help think about how broken the American education system is…

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