What are the qualities of an innovator?

downloadAre there lessons that educators can learn from the business world?  What makes a company like Apple continue to be radically innovative year after year? How can we emulate this kind of innovation, both constant and disruptive,  in education?

I’ve been thinking about this as I’m reading Tony’s Wagner’s Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.  As a coach, I can’t help but wonder: How can I inspire a culture of innovation in my school?  What are the characteristics of innovation that I need to foster in teachers, so that they can guide students to be more innovative, too?

Based on interviews and surveys of top business executives and innovative entrepreneurs, Wagner identifies the top 4 qualities of a successful innovator: Curiosity; Collaboration; Associative or Integrative Thinking; Action & Experimentation.  Now, how do these apply to education and supporting teachers in being innovative?


Asking good questions and sincerely seeking to understand is an essential first step to innovation in any field.  This is especially true for teachers though.  We can no longer be satisfied with the status quo.  If something isn’t working, we need to ask why.  I could encourage teachers to ask more questions – to students, to colleagues, and to themselves. Unfortunately, we don’t often have enough time to discover new ideas.   As a coach, I can encourage teachers to make time for creativity and curiosity.


Innovation often begins with truly listening to those who have different perspectives.  Every teacher has their own area of expertise, and we can learn so much when we have the opportunity to collaborate and inspire each other.  Teachers should be leading in-house professional development through workshops, learning rounds, and lab sites.  Teachers also need unstructured time to share their questions and wonderings with each other, and create solutions together.

Associative or Integrative Thinking

Teachers do this type of thinking on a daily basis, as we make multiple decisions on the spot, and multi-task constantly.  Innovators take this a step further.  They have a bird’s-eye view of the entire problem and understand how the various parts of it fit together, as well as how one decision will affect another.  Somehow, they hold all of those pieces suspended in their minds at once.  Taking everything into consideration, innovators can . achieve the best possible resolution.  Innovators seem to have a “tool box” of various skills, and can select the right tool at the right time.

As a coach, I can help teachers build their tool box.  Observing colleagues, connecting to educators outside of our school, and curating educational resources will offer fresh perspectives that could be used to innovate new solutions.  Innovative thinkers welcome complexity and don’t mind getting messy.  They understand that it doesn’t have to be an “either-or” decision; they can choose the best options from multiple scenarios.

Action & Experimentation

Jeff Dyer, coauthor of the Innovator’s DNA, wrote that you have to consistently act differently to think differently.  Innovators don’t just think about what they should do…they do it!  This requires a willingness to take risks and make mistakes.  It is important that I build relationships and establish trust with teachers, so they feel supported though the processes of iteration and reflection.

The thing that has been most exciting to me while reading the book, is that it is possible to teach and coach these skills and habits of mind.  With the right development and experiences, we can all unlock our innovative potential!  In order to help teachers do this, I will first need to understand, reinforce, and model innovative qualities myself.

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