While teachers aim to create educational environments that prepare graduates who can join an adult world in need of creative thinking and innovation, outside the classroom, many teachers work in organizational structures that leave little room for creativity and innovation. In other words, what we would like to accomplish in our classrooms, we don’t always experience in our jobs.
Creativity expert Keith Sawyer has spent the better part of his career studying the dynamics of groups and the resulting scope of creativity and innovation. His book Group Genius details the best practices that organizations must adopt if they hope to be vibrant, creative engines of innovation. It could be argued that Sawyer’s observations and examples focus mainly on organizational structures in the worlds of business, the arts, and even non-profits, and not specifically on schools. However, the principles he identifies apply to all organizations. Indeed, educators at any level, from primary school to university, will recognize the strengths and weaknesses of their institutions in the scenarios Sawyer describes.
Specifically, according to Sawyer, a creative and innovation organization will accord importance to these elements:
- Effective collaboration – the leitmotif throughout the book, and in all of Sawyer’s research findings, is that the concept of a lone genius is a total myth. All creativity and innovation is the result of collaboration, virtual or in real time, immediate or over time, implicit or implicit, planned or spontaneous. An organization that values creativity also values the importance of collaboration.
- Heterogeneity of collaboration – when like-minded people interact, the potential for innovation is limited. Interaction amongst people whose experiences and approaches are different enhances the potential for creative thinking.
- A shared common goal – particularly when it comes to planned collaboration, “flow” and the effective generation of ideas occurs when the individuals involved share a common goal, though the means to reach the goal may diverge.
- A good balance of planning and improvisation – planning creates vision, purpose and a comfortable structure in which to work, but improvisation is a richer context for creative thinking. A creative organization needs both.
- Time – creativity and innovation cannot be ordered within a specific timeframe. They happen when the factors are right. That can take time, and can often be quite elusive.
- Failure – the importance of failure cannot be underestimated. It is not always negative; rather it can be a rich source of valuable knowledge. An organization that values creativity and innovation also values its moments of failure.
- Bottom-up structures – when the priorities of an organization originate amongst the members on the ground, it is more likely to be creative. Bottom-up structures ensure adhesion to the priorities of the organization, and greater participation in goal-setting and peer management.
- Physical and social work structures that promote spontaneous conversation – when people work in silos, they are less likely to be confronted with ideas, experiences and visions different from their own. This inhibits creative thinking. When members of an organization interact spontaneously and regularly with each other, creative thinking is more likely to emerge.
- An innovation lab or innovation units that remain connected at all times to every level of the organization – All too often, the mandate to innovate is conferred upon a specific group of individuals. Sawyer’s study reveals that greater success occurs when participants in an innovation unit come from all parts of the organization and remain connected to their “other” job. This also ensures a greater level of heterogeneity in the innovation unit (see “heterogeneity of collaboration” above). Moreover, rotating a multitude of employees in and out of the innovation unit can be beneficial, as can spreading the objective of innovation throughout many parts of the organization.
Many educators can proudly tick off some or all of these elements when they look around their classrooms. Sadly, the same is not often true of the organizations in which they work. It is in this sense, the teaching environment can be significantly different from a teacher’s work environment.
Indeed, schools as work organizations can be tightly controlled and highly conservative environments that many argue could use a good dose of creative thinking.