Are you intrigued by the idea of working as an educational innovator or entrepreneur, but you’re wondering how to get started? The following ideas are intended to give you a boost.

Start with the Why

In a talk at the 2014 ASU GSV Education Innovation Summit, Steve Case said, “You really need to believe that you are onto something important.”

Educational innovation has to be about more than money, the joy of scaling something, or simply increasing the number of students, products, or clients your innovation draws in. If you want to innovate with soul, then that means starting with a deep and compelling reason, as I’ve mentioned in previous chapters. This is such a central concept that I’m compelled to repeat it a few times in the book. Why do you want to innovate in a particular area? Don’t skip over or cut corners on this piece of your work, as it is foundational. Your answers to this question will make a big difference for your health and well-being, the people around you, and the people who will hopefully benefit from your innovation.

Get Informed About the Possibilities and Innovate from Depth

I see many learning organizations stifled by the simple fact that they are unaware of wonderfully promising possibilities that can help them with their mission. Take the time to explore and learn about these possibilities. You don’t have to like, em- brace, or use everything you learn. Just get informed. Without this important element, one that I’m also planning to repeat often in this book, you will continually revert to past practices or a narrow set of options.

Build Your Personal Learning Network

If you want to explore innovation in a particular idea, add 10 to 20 people, communities, and resources to your personal learning network that will feed and inspire your work in this area. Who are the best and brightest in the world in this area? How can you learn from them and connect with them? Of course, be a good digital citizen and be more than a taker. Give, share, and assist those in your new network as well.

Challenge the Can’t

Remember that common example of the elephant with a chain around his foot? After an elephant comes to believe that the chain is tied to a stake, he stops trying to fight it. Eventually, he will remain in a set area if someone simply puts a chain around his foot, even when the chain is not tied to a stake.

I know nothing about elephants, and I don’t know if this technique actually works, but I see its equivalent in learning organizations all the time. We are re- strained by what we think is not possible. Challenge that thinking. Be courageous enough to engage in some thought experiments, at least, and question whether cer- tain assumed “essentials” are really valuable and if they support your mission.

Once I provided group consulting for a dozen school administrators. They want- ed me to simply be available for a time of questions and answers. As we started, I asked them an important question. What are your non-negotiables? If I was going to spend a couple hours with them, I didn’t want to waste their time by suggesting ideas that they were unwilling to consider. At first, they did not say much. A couple of people even shared that they are open to most anything. I tested that with a few questions. What about getting rid of letter grades in your school? What about changing the class schedules? What about adjusting your funding model? After six or seven such questions it became apparent that they were not willing to reconsider any of these areas. “We can’t possibly change that,” people stated. If we want to pursue missional innovation, we must challenge the can’t.

Put Current Practices and Traditions into Perspective With Historical Inquiry

A study of history often reveals that traditions we think of as central in our educational institutions have far less historical basis than we thought. Letter grades, core curricula, school schedules, and other requirements that are often seen as fundamental all fall into this category. Dive into the history a bit. It will give you a longer view of things and help you to realize that even our most historic institutions have experienced significant changes over time.

Understand the Load-Bearing Walls

Remove a load-bearing wall in a house without reinforcing it first, and the house could fall on top of you. The same is true about changes in our institutions. This is a lesson I learned from Charles Schwahn and Beatrice McGarvey in their book, Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning: Learning in an Age of Empowerment. Find out what policies and practices are holding up the roof of the organization, and be sure to take precautions if your innovation will challenge one of those areas. Some innovations require removing or adjusting load-bearing walls. You can do it, but it takes great time and care. It is not an innovation that you can do overnight without massive implications, even some that impact your own career or tenure at the organization. In other instances, you will find that you can pursue an innovation while leaving a load-bearing wall intact. That will allow you to move much more quickly.

Look for Problems in the World

Get inspired by one of the world’s problems, and innovate to help. This tip gives you your “why.”

Great innovations address important problems. Keep this in mind as you consider educational innovations. As Neil Postman often asked, “What is the problem to which this is the solution?” If your innovation doesn’t provide a solution to a significant problem, why waste your time innovating in that area? On the other hand, if your innovation solves an important problem, then you have some potent fuel for your own persistence and motivation.

Find and Generate New Ideas and Perspectives

Give yourself time to play, brainstorm, and generate possibilities, both alone and with others. I love to use the SCAMPER model. SCAMPER is an acronym for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate, and Reverse. Google SCAMPER to find out more about this technique. I am also a fan of the book ThinkerToys by Michael Michalko, which gives multiple tips for brainstorming and creative thinking.

Beware of Confusing Scale with Innovation or the Entrepreneurial Spirit

While big gets more attention, if you have an innovation that addresses an important problem, don’t worry about scale. If your idea helps a dozen people in great need, go for it. Of course, don’t be naive about the fiscal realities. An institution is rarely going to make huge investments in an innovation that is small-scale but has a huge budget.

“Nail It Then Scale It”

In their book Nail It Then Scale It, Nathan Furr and Paul Ahlstrom suggest that entrepreneurs start small and then scale up their innovations. If your goal is to scale something, start by doing what Jim Collins calls firing bullets before cannonballs. Test the idea, the need, and the market for your idea with smaller innovations. Once you build confidence and have some evidence that you’re addressing a great need with a great solution that is in demand, then you can move to larger investments of time, energy, and money.

Innovate with Humility

Arrogance is not a prerequisite to innovation. You can innovate with humility, as I will explain further in a later chapter. Start by recognizing that you could be wrong, that you will and do make mistakes (sometimes big ones), and that there are often others who might be able to do the same work as well or better than you. I don’t mean you should abandon your idea, but an attitude of humility does provide a healthy perspective.

On the night of his arrest, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. He explained that he was establishing a different model of leadership, one that sees itself as an opportunity to serve others, not to control them. I suggest pursuing educational innovation in the same spirit. Remember that educational innovation is best pursued with a noble cause, one that is more important than our individual reputations. Learning organizations driven by a cult of personality quickly become less about mission and more about amplifying the image of a person or group of people.

“If We Don’t Do It, Who Will?”

A friend and mentor once asked me this question when I was wondering if I was wasting my time on a project. His simple question put every- thing into perspective, and it gave me a way to focus my efforts.

Why not invest your life in the areas where others are less likely to act? Do what might not get done if you do not act. There are so many needs and problems in the education space. Some of those needs are attended to by hundreds or thousands of people and organizations, often because they are easy or offer great financial or other rewards. Why not invest in great needs that are off the radar of many others, needs that might not be met if we ignore them?