“What Makes Innovators Different?”


The headline on the cover of this month’s Harvard Business Review (HBR) reads “Spotlight on Innovation.”  While HBR presents primarily within the context of entrepreneurship and management, increasingly we are learning as educators that what drives success in other fields also drives success in the areas of teaching and learning.

“The Innovator’s DNA” by Jeffery H. Dyer, Hal B. Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen, provides a perfect example of where successful business strategies cross over into education.  After spending six years studying some of the most innovative minds in the business world including people like Jeff Bezos, Niklas Zennstrom, and Pierre Omidyar (imagine life today without Amazon, Skype, or eBay) the authors identified 5 “Discovery Skills,” that drive innovation:

  1. Associating
  2. Questioning
  3. Observing
  4. Experimenting
  5. Networking

When I look back on my own teaching career, I can see how these five skills were present when my teaching and my students’ learning were at their most effective points.

To deliver dynamic and meaningful lessons we as educators strive to [1] make associations using real life examples that drive critical thinking and aren’t always within the walls of our classroom (or content area); [2]we ask ourselves questions during instructional planning such as “If my students asked me why learning how to find the square root of a number matters, how would I respond?”; [3]we observe things like students’ interests and their energy level in class to inform our instructional and classroom motivation methods (i.e. SPURS jumping jacks for my students in San Antonio when energy was low); [4]we are unafraid to try bold new instructional techniques with the understanding that while we might miss on some, we’ve got to take some shots to make a basket; [5]we don’t close our door and hole up inside our classrooms, but rather we seek out and share ideas with other educators in our building and through workshops, continuing education, and professional organizations.

Even if you don’t feel like you’re an “innovator,” the authors provide some excellent examples of simple things you can do to strengthen your Discovery Skills.  For example:

“Try spending 15 to 30 minutes each day writing down questions that challenge the status quo in your company.”  (Here we can easily substitute classroom, school, or instructional practices for company)

While spending a hundred dollars on a subscription to HBR might not be in all of our budgets, a trip to the local public library with a mug of coffee or tea, a legal pad to take some notes, and a reflective spirit might just give you the boost you need to push your innovation skills to the next level whether you’re in a school, at work, or beyond.

Reference:  Dyer, Gregerson, Christensen.  (2009, December).  The Innovator’s DNA.  Harvard Business Review, 87(12), 61-67

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About Kyle Baker

Kyle graduated with a Master's Degree in Education from the University of Notre Dame through the Alliance for Catholic Education. He taught at St. Joseph's School in Missoula, Montana before joining ACE. During his Master's program he taught 5th grade at St. Paul's School in San Antonio, Texas for two years while also coaching Varsity Football at Antonian College Preparatory High School. As a collegiate student-athlete Kyle earned first team All-American football honors twice and earned Academic All-American honors three times while attending Carroll College. He also was awarded the Dave Rimington Award as the nation's top center and a National Football Foundation Scholar Athlete of the Year award.

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