The innovator’s mindset

Our system has always welcomed the opportunity to engage with leading Canadian educator George Couros.  For me, George not only understands the theory but he is intensely practical – he knows how to empower teachers and learners.  George’s book The Innovator’s Mindset was recently published and I am grateful for his guest blogpost on why an innovator’s mindset will help educators and schools move forward.  

In an effort to bring the past alive, a historic tour of a Blockbuster store offers visitors a glimpse into the hardships of people who lived in the era of video stores. In a revealing video, reporters from The Onion interview period actors who explain that people once traveled great distances (sometimes six miles each way!) to rent and return movies. These poor souls lived in terror of never knowing if the movie they wanted would even be available!

The Onion’s video, of course, is a satirical look at a company that tried to continue operating as if the Internet didn’t exist. It was only a few years ago that video-rental stores, like Blockbuster, were the best way for people to watch movies in the comfort of their own home. In some places around the world, these stores still exist. But in the western world, cheaper and more convenient options (no travel required) have put most neighborhood video stores out of business.

The Internet completely changed the movie rental industry. Companies that took advantage of new technology, like Netflix with its DVD-by-mail and online streaming options, are thriving. Meanwhile companies that refuse to let go of outdated business models, like Blockbuster, experience a slow, painful death.

Blockbuster had the opportunity to buy Netflix a few times, but declined.[1]  And by the time it attempted to start its own DVD-by-mail program, the company had lost its place as an in an industry leader. The hard lesson that Blockbuster and its fellow neighborhood movie rental businesses failed to heed is this: innovate or die.

Defining Innovation

“Innovation” is a common term in many educational circles today, and has been used a number of times in this book already. But what does it actually mean—especially in the terms of education?

In my book, “The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity”, I define innovation as the following: a way of thinking that creates something new and better. Innovation can come from either “invention” (something totally new), or “iteration” (a change on something that already exists), but if it does not meet the idea of “new and better,” it is not innovative. That means that change for the sake of change is never good enough. Neither is using innovation as a buzzword, as many organizations do, to appear current or relevant.

Note, too, that I said innovation is a way of thinking. It is a way of considering concepts, processes, and potential outcomes; it is not a thing, task, or even, technology. As [2] Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk, explains in his TEDx talk, “The New Rules of Innovation,” “Innovation is the process by which we change the world…. It’s the practical application of ideas and technologies to make new and better things.”  So, although many organizations approach innovation as if the word is synonymous with technology, it isn’t. Technology can be crucial in the development of innovative organizations, but innovation is less about tools, like computers, tablets, social media, and the Internet, and more about how we use those things.

Another word that is often used interchangeably with innovation is transformation, which is really more about dramatically altering the work educators do. Although I can see why some administrators are calling for transformation, the truth is innovation—in our thinking as individuals and organizations—is within easy reach; no dramatic shifts required. Katie Martin, Director of Professional Learning at the University of San Diego Mobile Technology Learning Centre, eloquently explains the importance of leadership in developing an innovative mindset:[3]

There is no substitute for a teacher who designs authentic, participatory, and relevant learning experiences for her unique population of students. The role of the teacher is to inspire learning and develop skills and mindsets of learners. A teacher, as designer and facilitator, should continually evolve with resources, experiences, and the support of a community. It is becoming increasingly clear that we don’t necessarily need to transform the role of teachers, rather create a culture that inspires and empowers teachers to innovate in the pursuit of providing optimal learning experiences for their students.

Establishing an innovative culture, doesn’t require transformation. However, it does require leaders who will develop and sustain systems that support “optimal learning experiences” and who value the process of creating and refining ideas.

A Constant Opportunity for Growth

One of John Maxwell’s famous quotes is, “Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.” In many respects, that sentiment is true. We choose whether or not we will grow, change, or innovate. But in schools, where we focus on our students as the future, growth can no longer be simply an option.

Change is an opportunity to do something amazing. Perhaps, the great thing we can do is make growth mandatory—for ourselves as educators, as well as for our students. That is how we can truly serve our children.

Education cannot become the new Blockbuster, where we refused to embrace the new, in hopes that the old ways will suffice. In a world that constantly changes, if our focus is to only maintain what’s already been done, we are bound to become worse. The innovator’s mindset is necessary for all of us, if schools are to move forward.


[1] “Epic Fail: How Blockbuster Could Have Owned Netflix”, November 12, 2013.

[2] Bass, Carl. “The New Rules of Innovation”, February, 2012

[3] Martin, Katie. “Creating a Culture of Innovation versus Transformation”, June 10, 2015.




4 thoughts on “The innovator’s mindset

  1. I do like the observation of innovation being linked to technology – there’s definitely something in that. As for the importance of a culture where the school ‘value the process of creating and refining ideas’ – yes.

    At a non-leader level for a moment (although arguably every teacher is a leader of learning) there are two additional ‘f’ words I’d use to spell it out even more clearly – fear of failure.

    It’s only my experience over the years but there is an innovator in every single teacher, particularly as they start out in their career, however I’ve seen sparkling newly qualified teachers almost fall asleep at the wheel, worn down by an incumbent culture of a risk avoidance. Really sad and the causes are complex.

    New Head Teachers are always interesting to see in action – they are lucky to have a unique opportunity to encourage/nurture/celebrate innovation from grass roots or bring it themselves (there’s always something great that was done at their last school that they bring to the new isn’t there?) or a bit of both. Everyone is very busy proving themselves worthy whilst doing the day job I suggest that the notion of being innovative is seen as something on a sliding scale that people shift along depending upon the reaction they get to their innovation. An innovation barometer if you will.

    We all know that ‘creating & refining ideas’ is messy with ups and downs but as you suggest, if people (& I’d include parents in this) are happy that teachers want to do better things then they’ll accept the rough and smooth that comes with this won’t they?

    A culture of fear of failure (in results terms) sneaks through a school like a gas leak and it’s so very toxic to innovation. This is highly over simplified I know but does a school that’s ‘in trouble’ come up with brand new innovative approaches to solving it’s problems or does it look around and take successful tried and tested formulas from other schools? If all else has failed there is little else to but innovate.

    I suppose that if innovation was easy everyone would be doing it every day. Such a great topic to blog about anyway & thanks for sharing the refs.

  2. As a footnote in favour of the currency of collaboration and it’s sometimes uneasy relationship with ‘innovation’ this article by a Head Teacher on Michael Rosen’s blog about improvements between collaborative school partners might me worth a quick look for anyone wondering about the impact of schools working together. Michael Rosen’s guest blogger very succinctly points out the importance of wider culture and structures – not least of which is succession planning Thanks, John

    1. John, thanks for sharing your observations/thoughts. Fear (of failure) is a remnant of the highly efficient industrial model of schooling (you’ve probably seen Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talks on whether schools kill creativity). It is the current process that deflates people because as you say there is an innovator in every teacher and I would add, every student. We need schools to be more fluid and entrepreneurial but not at the expense of ignoring contemporary theory and research. I will check out Michael Rosen’s blog!

  3. Great article, and thanks for sharing your thinking. It made me think about a couple of related points:

    Firstly, what happens if the current trend for companies to declare that employees no longer get preference for recruitment if they have a degree gathers pace (it seems to have started with the big management consultants like KPMG, but I was really surprised when Penguin announced it last week, and instead said that it would require professional qualifications? What does that do to the traditional educational and assessment model?

    And secondly, I have a Blockbuster just down the road from us in Northbridge in Sydney, so I think I should rush down there and shoot my own video of it, so that I can show my grandkids what it was like in the day, rather than having to show them the Onion News Network version of a re-created Blockbuster. It’s another one of those examples where The Onion gets so close to the truth that you can’t really spot the spoof!

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