On Innovation: Welcoming 2016 with CEO Henry Wilde

We hear the word “Innovation” tossed around so often that it can mean just about anything in Head Start programs.  Changed suppliers of your consumables?  Innovation.  Updated a process to reflect new regulations? Again, an innovation. Developed an entirely new curriculum? Another innovation. Depending on which business article you read, the term means different things to different people – and we can probably all agree that it is overused.

At Shine Early Learning and Acelero Learning, innovation is not an impulsive reaction to less-than-expected outcomes.  Innovative is not a synonym for creative. An innovation is not a new product or an invention. There is not an exclusive subset of senior leaders who are the only ones who have the keys to the innovation kingdom.

To the contrary, innovation is a process requiring long-term focus and discipline. 

Innovation requires evaluation of the vexing problems we need to solve and the opportunities we see to improve outcomes for children. It requires observing and questioning our own practices, probing and discussing and learning from early childhood education providers in our network and even leaders in other fields, and experimenting in controlled ways. It requires a tolerance for allowing ideas that seemed brilliant at inception to die on the vine when they do not work. And it takes time.

More than that, innovation requires trade-offs. How long must we implement and evaluate an initiative before we make additional changes? How many new practices can our staff successfully absorb and execute on at the same time? What are we ready to pilot? To scale up? Or to roll out across our network? What are the financial implications? How will we internally market the change to increase buy-in prior to the change?

There are no perfect answers to these questions, but I am writing this today, because January marks an important time in our innovation cycle. We are four months into our new school year, and we have the requisite data to recognize or confirm necessary areas of improvement or gaps in our practice. Absent a regulatory change requiring an immediate response, we roll out all new initiatives at the start of the school year, which necessitates a planning process beginning nine months in advance.

We aspire to a two year cycle, which we metaphorically shorthanded with a simple framework: in two years, innovations move from Pencil to Pen to Sharpie. We use Pencils to represent our pilots -- small scale experiments in individual centers or markets to test the efficacy of an idea. The funnel narrows as experiments that show promise are adapted and refined (or written in Pen) and we see whether the pilot can be scaled up to a larger group of centers and locations and implemented with fidelity. Finally, each year, our aspiration is to roll out 1-2 Sharpies, or what we believe to be game-changing, network changing, field changing innovations that drive better outcomes for children.

The Shine Early Learning and Acelero Learning network is vast and growing, and thus can support and, to some extent, necessitates this process-driven approach to innovation. As innovators and educators, we are also lifelong learners –- and we would love to learn from all different types of Head Start programs. How do you plan for innovation in your program? What is your process for developing and rolling out new initiatives and managing change with your staff? Please join our dialogue and share your stories of successes and hiccups. We know that there are no perfect answers –- but there is always the opportunity to learn from one another.

We'd love to hear about your organization’s approach to innovation. Submit your comment below or email us with comments, questions, or thoughts at info@shineearly.com.