Cultivating Innovation

NOTE: I will be leading an on-demand session at Promising Practices 2024 on this same topic and will go much deeper. If you have not registered, then please do so to attend this award-winning conference: Promising Practices. The theme this year is “Limitless! Innovative Approaches to Teaching and Learning.”

When was the last time you had a great idea? Was it as recently as today? Last week? Last year? Maybe you can’t remember. There should be no judgment on the answer. However, the first step to cultivating innovative thinking is to increase your self-awareness. So, how does one become more self-aware to cultivate innovation? This blog will highlight six specific steps that you can follow:

  1. Pay attention to yourself. There is a misconception that great ideas just come to us quickly, like a gust of wind smacking us on the face. But the reality is that good ideas are tied to other thoughts, experiences, and circumstances, just like the wind is connected to a weather pattern. Therefore, to have good ideas, first, we need to pay attention to when and how we think, as well as who we are and what we have to offer. If you are not paying attention to yourself and letting all your thoughts be monopolized by your work, friends, or family, you won’t even notice if a good idea tries to rattle you.
  2. Pay closer attention to your thoughts. This thinking about thinking is called metacognition. I’ve used this strategy for over two decades when teaching reading to get students to think about their thoughts while reading to increase reading comprehension. However, now I’m realizing that paying attention to my thinking also lends itself well to better mental health, self-awareness, and innovation. Are my thoughts constructive? Positive? Negative? Are they about myself? Others? Or Work? Being self-aware will allow for more moments to be innovative and find what brings you joy. However, this is also when you may notice blockers getting in the way of your innovation.
  3. Diminish blockers to your good ideas. Blockers are outside routines, stresses, distractions, or situations that prevent us from realizing our best ideas. For example, you might be trying to brainstorm at your remote home office, but the dog barking at the door might be a distraction, or you can’t stop thinking about the untidy mess in the kitchen. Or maybe there is a stressful situation at work or at home that is consuming your thoughts. Of course, there are exceptions, like Taylor Swift’s breakups inspiring some of her lyrics or a pain point leading to an incredible solution. However, soon, you’ll be able to see which of your thoughts are truly blockers. Removing these blockers by eliminating as many unknowns as possible and removing yourself from certain situations may help. This might look like taking a brisk walk, or naming your stress and moving on.  If you are paying attention to your thoughts, you will be more cognizant of when blockers are ruining your ability to innovate and allow you to change your environment, situation, and even thought pattern to allow for good ideas to flow.
  4. Make time to think. Thinking and innovating take time. We can be fooled into believing the thought happens quickly, but it is mostly after contemplation. For example, even if you have the brilliant idea to go out to dinner. It most likely came after thinking about how you haven’t been out in a while, don’t feel like making anything, have nothing to make, or want to connect with someone. The idea didn’t just magically fall from the sky. Even this small idea stemmed from other thoughts. So, if someone wants to have a big idea or be a part of a major innovation, one needs to make time to think so that the thoughts can grow. This means you might schedule time with yourself on your Outlook calendar, take a break, or go somewhere and think.
  5. Create an environment for innovative thinking. Everyone is different. So, maybe you notice that your ideas come to you when you first wake up, listen to music, or are outside. Wherever that is, you’ll want to be in that environment as often as possible when trying to innovate, brainstorm, or solve a problem. You might like to make lists or type or record your voice. There is no right or wrong answer. However, only you know the environment that could work for you. As you pay more attention to your thoughts, thinking, when and where they occur, finding the environment will get easier.
  6. Grow your ideas. Now that you have embraced self-awareness and cultivated innovative thought, you need to take a step further outside of your comfort zone. By pulling together a group, you get the chance to test your ideas, ask for feedback, or refine those thoughts. This step will take time, so be prepared for it as you revisit those initial plans, talk with others, or maybe do more research. The point is that you cannot settle on the first good idea without checking the possibility that the good idea might be a seed for an even better one.

Overall, being self-aware will create moments to discover what brings you joy and what does not. This discovery not only leads to a better understanding of your ideas to cultivate innovation, but also to yourself, which improves your mental well-being. Therein is the first step to then leading your team through the same process to cultivate their innovative ideas. A spirit of innovation in schools is what transforms the everyday, mundane experiences into vibrant and growth-enhancing opportunities for all school stakeholders.

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