Innovation and Imagination

Fascinating conversation in my office with a parent the other day.

“Some important decisions are made in this room”, he started. “I hope they are the right ones”, was my response. “I can’t imagine all you have to think about.” “In this room, you have to imagine it.”

My district has jumped the hoops, paid consultants, sought input and ideas from all stakeholders, crafted and adopted the Holy Strategic Plan.*

We are doing our best to prepare our students for the “real world” they will enter when they leave us.


*I have had the pleasure of sitting in Mike Schmoker’s presentation a couple of times. One of his slides says that strategic plans are about as effective as dancing naked around a campfire. He is spot on. The important lessons learned happen during the planning process, not in the implementation of the plan.

This wasn’t a consideration when we were developing our Strategic Plan. It should have been.

Twenty-five years ago, I was one of fifty principals from across Colorado who were invited to spend a week with IBM. It ranks as one of the most intense, and effective, professional learning experiences of my career. One of our days was spent talking about Visioning, and planning for the future.

We thought the planning equation was really quite simple. Past + Present = Future. What we have learned added to what we are learning allows us to create the future. Every teacher wants to create or touch the future.  Except that the world doesn’t work that way. The equation should look like this: Past + Imagined Future = Present.

We don’t prepare students for the present, we prepare learners for the imagined future. In order to prepare our students for their futures, we have to imagine them. The variable in the equation is the Present, what are we going to do today. And we all know that the equation can’t be solved unless the variable is isolated.

A recent post from Greg Satell, “Here’s Why You Should Think Twice Before Listening To Business Gurus” starts with this sentence – “Probably the hardest thing in business is to innovate consistently, year after year and decade after decade.” We have all had similar conversations in various leadership contexts. None of us want to work in a district or school that isn’t “Innovative!”

One of the lessons learned during the week with IBM is that innovation is all about creating systems and processes that did not exist at the time. They called them Zero-based systems, created from the ground up, not tweaking or adding on to something that was already in place.

In my experience, the innovations started by identifying problems that needed to be solved. I have written about that experience in a previous post. As stated in that post, not many schools were invested in technology integration in 1993. We didn’t do it because we wanted to buy a bunch of computers and stuff. We did it in order to meet our identified educational goals, and we believed the new tools would help us.

It worked.

Not because we had a bunch of cool new toys, but because a very dedicated group of professional educators, playing with those cool new toys, immersed in some very intensive staff development, created new ways to solve our problems and help us grow. We were able to consider new solutions and new courses of action.

We started by identifying problems to solve, then began dreaming of ways to approach them. At that time, we didn’t have a Strategic Plan. But we had some big dreams. None of which were in our budget.

We used dreams and vision interchangeably. We believed the budget should be a tool of our vision, it should not determine the extent of our vision. You can’t put a price on vision.

There is a big difference between dreams and goals. Like most creative functions, dreams are housed in the right hemisphere of the brain, along with passion, imagination, and emotions. Goals are formed in the left hemisphere. They are rational, linear, and measurable. The dream is the ideal state and the goal is the realistic state. The dream supplies the vigor, vision and direction; the goal, a specific, short-term target and the strategies for hitting it. The goal is a step toward the dream.

The dream is a goal with wings.

A dream supplies meaning and intrinsic value. It is our deepest expression of what we want, a declaration of a desired future. A dream is an ideal involving a sense of possibilities rather than probabilities, of potential rather than limits. The passion is missing when we work with only our rational left brain. Without passion, there is little enthusiasm and vitality. A dream is a wellspring of passion, giving us direction and pointing us to lofty heights. It is an expression of optimism, hope and values lofty enough to capture the imagination and engage the spirit. Dreams are capable of lifting us to new heights and overcoming self-imposed limitations. Dreams aren’t limited by what you think can or cannot be done, or by what your rational mind tells you is or isn’t possible. It represents something that you really want, as opposed to something you think you can get. Goals are tangible, dreams are intangible.

Dr. King said, “I have a dream.” He didn’t say, “I have a strategic plan.”

Dreams can empower people as nothing else. When we have a dream and pursue it, nothing is impossible. We tap into power, personal resources, and creativity that we never thought we had. We can accomplish what had previously been considered impossible.

Budgets and strategic plans are goals. Goals have a place, second place, following dreams. They serve a purpose, they give us something specific to shoot at and provide feedback to tell us how we are doing. They are a way of keeping score. But if goals are to be beneficial for enhancing performance, productivity, and motivation, they must be guided by something larger and more encompassing, something that inspires us and infuses us with passion, creativity, and courage. The tunnel vision of goals blinds us to opportunities for innovation and creativity. It prevents us from seeing other possibilities and options – alternative routes that may appear as a consequence of change, new technologies, or an unpredicted circumstance.

Effective schools are all about relationships. Programs don’t solve problems, people do.

Effective schools are filled with people who are not interested in red tape, fixed mindsets, low expectations, or blending in. They are solution seekers, ethical decision makers, communicators, creative thinkers, collaborators and innovators. They are building something exceptional. Every day, they bring the work of their hands, the wisdom of their minds, and the discernment of their hearts.

They imagine, and they dream.

And we are all better for them.

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