Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Look Back at Minnetonka's Innovation Journey

As we prepare for our fourth annual Big Hunt for Ideas in Minnetonka Public Schools, it’s a good time to take a look back at how far we’ve come over the past years and to share some of the lessons we’ve learned with colleagues in other districts.


Minnetonka started its journey to build a culture of innovation approximately six years ago, in 2008.  At that time, the district’s Strategic Plan was wrapping up and there was a sense that the strategic planning process had run its course.  In his eighth year as superintendent, Dr. Dennis Peterson set in motion a series of events and processes that would lead the district down a very different path compared to other school districts.  He intended to grow a culture of innovation.

Based on the research of John Kotter and his book Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions, Minnetonka followed the eight steps that Kotter says are most important in building a culture of innovation.  This included creating an Urgency Team that was tasked with communicating a sense of urgency for innovation.  Kotter also recommends a Guiding Team that is tasked with guiding the system and building the internal structures that would fuel the effort.


In November 2009, Dr. Peterson posted the vacant Assistant Superintendent for Instruction with specific work direction to lead the innovation process and to develop the next “Big” ideas that the district would develop.  Nearly two years later, I started in this role and have been leading innovation for Minnetonka ever since.  In my first year I worked with other members of the Guiding Team to launch the first Big Hunt for Ideas, in October 2011.


With the support of innovation consultant Tim Sutton, Minnetonka assembled the two innovation teams recommended by Kotter, adopted the crowdsourcing software Spigit to provide a platform that would allow all staff to engage in the process, and kicked off our first innovation event.

Our first Idea Hunt was a great success, leading to over 100 ideas submitted by staff across the district.  Internally, however, the Guiding Team struggled to understand the complex inner-workings of the Spigit software.  In the end, the team opted to pull the ideas out of the crowdsourcing platform and work manually to connect ideas and to select the top choices.

That first Idea Hunt led to the development of a profession-based program that would offer Juniors and Seniors an opportunity to gain unique real-world experiences.  The idea was submitted by two social studies teachers at the high school.  Three years later, these same two teachers are speaking at national conferences sharing the amazing story of their success.


In our second year, innovation leaders had more confidence in our ability to operate the software, and we had captured more interest from staff.  This combination led to a very successful year #2.  We tried to refine our process, but found that many of our fixes fell short.  Once again, we relied heavily on the expertise of the Guiding Team to make the final selection for ideas moving forward.  Overall, staff were supportive; however, there were frustrations about the lack of transparency.  We knew we still had work to do, and yet there were three very promising ideas that received approval from the School Board for further development:
  • A high-level online learning platform, later branded as Tonka Online
  • A new E-12 core curriculum in the area of computer programming, later branded as Tonka <codes>
  • A summer learning platform that would expand learning options for middle level students during the summer months, later branded as Summer Academy
There was one idea that was proposed to the School Board, but was not given permission to move forward.  The Board did not support the development of an inquiry-based Lab School that would focus on project and problem-based methods primarily because they didn’t want to limit this brand of learning to only a select group of students. 

All three of these ideas moved forward into the design and development process.  Tonka Online focused on replicating the high-quality experience of the brick-and-mortar classroom in a virtual environment, and successfully launched in Summer 2014.  Summer Academy enrolled over 200 students the same summer with a variety of STEM and Arts options.  And perhaps the biggest launch, Tonka <codes> launched in Fall 2014 with 300 K-5 teachers trained in the new computer programming curriculum.  In one year, Minnetonka had successfully tripled its pipeline of fully developed and launched “Big” ideas.


In year #3, the Spigit software continued to confound the Guiding Team leaders, and yet the engagement from staff hit new heights.  182 new ideas were submitted for consideration, and over 50% of the staff was directly engaged in some element of the process.  Typically, organizations that use crowdsourcing tools expect to attract 15 to 20% of their workforce.  By every metric, Minnetonka’s culture of innovation was a clear success.

Based on input from staff, the Guiding Team placed a much higher focus on the “small” and “medium” ideas that were submitted for consideration.  The feedback from staff made it clear that “Big” ideas are exciting, but it’s the “small” and “medium” ideas that really impact the lives of our employees.  Many of the “small” ideas were given immediate resources and permission to launch.  This positive energy increased the momentum of our efforts.  The Guiding Team made a commitment to support a minimum of five top “medium” ideas for site-based testing.  Overall, the response from staff was positive.  The innovation culture took another important step forward.

Another important point of feedback offered through district surveys was the need for more human interaction.  The website was helpful and efficient, but staff felt that more face-to-face communication and support was needed.  Based on this request, the Guiding Team was reconstituted with site representatives who were hired as “Innovation Coaches.”  These coaches were expected to provide a high level of personal touch at each site, answering questions at staff meetings, hosting site-based events, and helping improve communication between Idea Champions and the Guiding Team leaders.  Although some coaches would handle this role better than others, overall this was seen as another important step forward.

At the end of year #3, three more “Big” ideas were brought to the School Board for consideration, each with a high level of followership and a compelling story:
  • Science Research:  After competing in each of the first two Idea Hunts, this team of science teachers finally gathered enough support from across the district to see their idea move to the top of the list.  Promoting the development of a new focus on authentic and original student research, this team was energized by the support they received.  Their dream is to oversee the design and launch of dedicated laboratory space where students can stage their authentic research projects.
  • Design for Learning:  As a district that is known and recognized for its modern, 21st Century facilities, this idea team set forth to get staff and students involved in the process.  “Hacking” their space to identify ideal learning environments and working closely with local architectural firms and forward-thinking furniture design companies, this team has made impressive progress in a short amount of time.
  • Project Inquiry:  Focused on the struggles that some middle school students demonstrate when faced with the faster pace and higher levels of rigor, this idea team proposed an academic option that would provide students with a project- or problem-based pedagogy that was more of a hands-on approach.  Similar to the Lab School idea that was essentially rejected by the Board one year earlier, this team was given permission to move forward but with caution.
As ideas appear before the School Board in April and May, they quickly organize into Design Teams and begin planning for their initial presentation before the Board in September or October.  These teams are highly motivated to see their idea continue to move forward.  For these idea champions, this is a rocket ride that intensifies their excitement and enthusiasm for their career pathway.  Members of the design team benefit from the same increased level of enthusiasm.  Overall, the entire district feels a surge of enthusiasm as staff observe the teams’ progress and cheer for their colleagues.


As we prepare for the launch of our fourth Idea Hunt, we have made three important improvements to our event:

1.     Each school level will have its own Idea Community:  Instead of expecting that staff would have to sort through nearly 200 ideas, the software will now be organized so that a teacher from the high school can easily search only the ideas that are specific to high school students and staff.

2.     Each idea will be given a price tag:  Instead of expecting that small ideas must compete against big ideas, there will now be greater emphasis on properly classifying ideas at the beginning so that they compete against similar kinds of ideas.

3.     Each idea will be required to gain support through accumulating dedicated team members:  Instead of focusing on metrics such as page views and “likes,” ideas will be measured by how many colleagues are willing to step up and work to make an idea happen.

Our Innovation Coaches are back again, and so are six highly engaged parent/community representatives.  Along with three principals and one union representative, the 2014-15 Innovation Guiding Team is ready for another great year of innovation.  We’ve learned a lot about the innovation process over the past years, and we believe that the success we’ve had in Minnetonka makes us a model that is worth studying.  Not only have amazing new ideas been brought to our students, but our community is highly enthusiastic about the district’s approach to innovation.  The world of business has understood the power of innovation and reinvention for many years; the fact that our staff and students are engaging in this kind of important practice is encouraging to our families. 

Perhaps the most important benefit from this work is the way that staff begin to embrace change instead of fear it.  The fact that these ideas are coming from their colleagues, staff are much less likely to criticize or, even worse, to sabotage.  Staff feel that they have the ability to impact the future of the district through this process.  Even if the idea is only small in size, staff now know that the district is listening, and that these ideas are valued. 

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