Tag Archives: change

Treasure Wild Ducks: The Flight of Innovation


Innovation, in the true sense, is something that is applied. For CIOs (CEOs), one best practice they can help drive within their organizations is what we refer to at IBM as “treasure your wild ducks.”  This means that we must embrace new ideas and nurture those who think differently.
                                                                     Dr. Kaiserworth, bold mine

I have a number of Wild Ducks in my team and have come across many in my career in and outside of IBM. They don’t always stay in formation, but that’s the fun of flying with them.

Theresa Alfonso, IBM Manager

The IBM notion of treasuring the wild duck intrigues and surfaces a key inquiry question—how is treasuring the wild duck and leading the innovation enterprise alike?   IBM has one purpose: “Be essential” and offers nine key practices.  One of those is “Treasure wild ducks.” As soon as I saw it on Tom Vines, IBM Human Resources Vice-President’s slide, I had to ask: What does that mean? Treasure wild ducks?  His response: Those are the people who are “way out there”, the innovators, and we highly value them as they are central to IBM’s purpose.

In education, there are many teachers and administrators that are trying new ways of teaching, new ways of organizing and new ways of innovating. Despite an ever increasing knowledge of how to lead innovation, educators still struggle. There are strong organizational cultural and psychological barriers that stop leaders and others from moving from “thinking” about innovation toward “doing” and “sustaining” innovation.   Leading the pursuit of innovative ways can be lonely and isolating. Perhaps the wisdom of treasuring the wild duck will help navigate the WHY?

Former IBM Chairman Thomas J. Watson, Jr. first told the story behind the IBM practice of treasuring wild ducks.  “In IBM we frequently refer to our need for ‘wild ducks.’ The moral is drawn from a story by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who told of a man who fed the wild ducks flying south in great flocks each fall. After a while some of the ducks no longer bothered to fly south; they wintered in Denmark on what he fed them.  Kierkegaard drew his point: you can make wild ducks tame, but you can never make tame ducks wild again. One might also add that the duck that is tamed will never fly anywhere anymore.” – IBM illustrates this principle applied in their organization (see video).

What does the wild duck and innovation in a school district have in common?  How is innovation approached within an organizational culture?  How do leaders build teams that are most effectively innovative?  How do organizations support and treasure innovators?

At IBM, group think is debunked and they try NOT to tame their wild ducks. Instead, they consciously treasure them.  Innovation in a school district depends on individuals who are open to ideas, conflict and who are part of teams in which vigorous debate, dissent and discomfort exist.  Innovators require a culture of openness – to argument and ideas, experts and outsiders, the young and the new.  Innovation requires leaders with courage to fly alone.

Like the wild duck, the importance of understanding and treasuring the individual innovator resonates with any person who has attempted organizational change and innovation.  Specifically, the role of “innovator as leader” is called on to evoke and sustain disruptive positive change.  The individual is often perceived as behaving in ways which challenges status quo; contradicts group think and risks failure and isolation.  The flight path is complicated as change is navigated with enough order and enough ambiguity to sustain innovative behaviour throughout the organization.  Being an innovator is messy business.

Cultivating innovation within an organization requires a thoughtful approach.  Lessons from the wild duck inform the way.  The development of support processes encouraging diversity of thought is paramount to organizational health and essential for individuals who risk being innovators and dare to fly alone.  The IBM practice to treasure wild ducks expresses the vitality so necessary to sustain the individual innovative spirit, and promises enrichment for others who follow the lead.

Wild ducks sometimes can make organizations uncomfortable. They create cognitive dissonance and interrupt the status quo.  Others may want to tame them.  But Dr. Thomas Watson notes, “One might also add that the duck who is tamed will never go anywhere any more. We are convinced that any business needs its wild ducks. And in IBM we try not to tame them.”

In classrooms, schools and districts, there are many educators charting a new path, creating innovation, and flying wild and free.

Do we treasure these wild ducks?

I am one of them.

Are you?

Blogger’s Note: This post was co-authored by Dr. Donna VanSant (@vansantd) and Elisa Carlson (@EMSCarlson). Thank you to IBM and Thomas Vine, Vice President, Human Resources, for the inspiration for this post.

Getting Under Your Skin

I’m trying to get under your skin. I’m trying to get you to stop being a spectator and a pawn in the industrial system that raised us, and maybe, just maybe, to stand up and do something that scares you.
Seth Godin

This is Seth Godin and he speaks to me. I am reading his V is for Vulnerable: Life Outside the Comfort Zone and for some reason it is where I stand. It is an ABC for Grownups and it is for people like you and me.

Here are some letters of the alphabet from his ABC picture book that are resonating for me. Perhaps they stick for you as well. I present letters A, C, D and E.

1. “Anxiety is experiencing failure in advance.”
This is what we do. We worry. I worry. And then we do not bring our best selves to the task at hand. We anticipate the worst and it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We need to let go and have hope in what we want to accomplish. Seth calls us to be intense in what we do: “The artist wonders, ‘How can I break this?’ and ‘Is it interesting?’ Go break something,” Seth exhorts.

2. “Commitment is the only thing that gets you through the chasm.”
This is what takes us from a great idea to reality. It requires risk and a stick-to-it-ness.  When change is discouraging or seems insurmountable you need to believe what others have believed for you on your behalf. You are a warrior. Change is hard work. Not everyone values it the same way. Commitment can get you through the valley.

3. “Dance with resistance.”
There is something here that I need to learn. When we embark on a change agenda it is uncomfortable for us and for others. We are pulled back to continue the status quo like some rubber band that snaps us back to the comfort of the past. It is safer to teach and lead the way we have always done. I need to learn to dance with others, to engage the unbelieving and to convince my own heart. I think I have forgotten how to dance. My moves are awkward. I cannot seem to find my place to move with others gracefully. I have been stepping on toes. And alas, I feel my own have been squished as well. I need dance lessons—this I know. This is an embarrassing weakness and my flaw. I will covenant to practice the dance until I too can dance with others. It doesn’t work to be a wallflower. Our organizations need to get everyone on the dance floor.

4. “Effort isn’t the point, impact is.”
How do we know these change efforts, these shifts in pedagogy, these new ways of learning, are making a difference? Are we better off as a system? Has the learning experience deepened for the student? How are we measuring it? How will we know that it matters? “Effort isn’t the point, impact is.”

Seth is getting under my skin. There are others that get under my skin as well. They call me to stick to an agenda of transformative change in a large, slow-moving and sometimes resistant system. Seth encourages and admonishes us to embrace ideas that “push us to take action, to embrace opportunity, not to merely watch and wait.” I’m not waiting. Are you?

What’s your rock?

I want to be a linchpin. Seth Godin says, “Every organization needs a linchpin, the one person who can bring it together and make a difference.” Can we create an organization of linchpins committed to making a difference? And he adds, “What will make someone a linchpin is not a shortcut.  It’s the understanding of which hard work is worth doing.” What is the most important work? Which hard work is worth doing? Do we have clarity and laser-like focus on what truly counts?

My personal goal is to transform education. I have a rock in my office that I keep on my desk. My goal is written with a black sharpie across the rock. I have intentionally used this to guide my work and remind me of my focus. My goal is broken down further into two key pieces so when I speak of transforming education it looks like this:

  • Continue to create and support opportunities for Curriculum Transformation (ie: personalized learning, 21st century learning).
  • Use technology as a tool to leverage change in pedagogy in order to transform teaching.

Essential to achieving my goal is building capacity across the organization. For me, this fits. I am fundamentally addicted to learning. I have a thirst for knowledge that is inherent in my being. I do believe that when others are equally engaged and passionate about their own learning, it has the potential to transform the organization and the classroom. When we find what we are passionate about, when it is connected to a higher purpose (making a difference with students), we are released to maximize our potential. The enthusiasm for learning, for growing, for improving, is infectious. It spreads across the organization, across the school, and into the classroom. Students reap the benefits.

At a recent meeting with some district staff and external guests, I brought my rock for “show & tell.” I used it as a symbol to talk about what is important in my work, and the work of the district. I also talked about it in connection with our district. I do feel that if we can transform education in Surrey (the largest district in the province), that we can transform it in other places as well. I see our district as a potential “tipping point.” Do it here, do it in a big way, and it will overflow and tip out to the rest of the province. In some respects, it is embarrassing to share one’s deeply personal goal with others in this fashion. I try not to feel self-conscious but it feels like one is undressing a bit of one’s soul, of what is at the essence of one’s being, in a room full of strangers. I do like to dream big but I don’t always like to share that out publicly. Others might think I am crazy. But, that being said, I would rather be crazy and adventurous than live my life in a stalemated routine of sameness. The “bleeding edge” suits me quite fine.

I have people standing on my rock. How do I know this? They are committed to the same work as me. We do it together. Our Superintendent has described his view of the purpose of our organization: “Building Human Capacity.” I would consider that his rock. And I stand on his rock as well as my own. What is your rock? And whose rock do you stand on? Does the clarity of your focus help drive your actions? We are inundated with the urgent that we sometimes lose sight of what is most important. Let’s bring clarity to our work. Which is the hard work worth doing? What’s your rock?


Pondering Personal Space, Connected Minds and Action

Chance favours the connected mind.
Steven Johnson

How do we create a coral reef in our organizations? Where do good ideas happen? Can we create an environment where innovation thrives? Is there a space where good ideas can collide? Do we encourage opportunities for personal reflection too? And how do we allow that collaborative collision space, those innovative ideas, to generate action?

I keep thinking about the tweet from Neil Stephenson:

I want a coral reef too. I hunt down Steven Johnson. I remember I have the book (Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation). It sat on my night table for a little while. True confessions: I only read the first few chapters, as the book didn’t quite hold me. I head back to the digital highway and find some reviews that give me the basics on what I need to know.  I tweet a librarian who connects me to some more good related resources.

I watch the video:

Johnson has many entertaining ideas but I am particularly struck by the notion of connection. “Chance favours the connected mind” keeps reverberating in my head. I see it lived in our district, through our innovative projects, our Engaging the Digital Learner series and through our district’s professional learning network (see our twitter hashtag #sd36learn). I follow the hashtag and I see teacher after teacher making a connection with someone across the system. This connection often goes beyond the virtual.  Sometimes I see they visit each other’s schools, make arrangements to meet for real coffee and/or discuss their practice. I see people connecting across grades and from high school to elementary school in unusual ways, creating productive alliances around teaching and learning. This is a curious thing.

Johnson talks about the ‘liquid network’ as “an environment where ideas come into contact with each other.” He provides the historical context of coffee houses in 17th and 18th century–these were places people gathered to share ideas over coffee. We do that virtually via twitter. We do it in real-time, face-to-face in many schools. It often happens organically. But can we be strategic about ensuring it happens? Is there a liquid network in all our schools? Throughout our districts? Where are we taking time to incubate our hunches? Where are we connecting our good ideas beyond the virtual realm?  Does it happen in our staff rooms? In the hallways? At the Board Office? In the meetings we hold? At pro-d days or in between sessions at conferences? And do we create this same type of space for students in the classroom? In the library? The learning commons? Can we structure this architecturally into our system rather than leaving it to organic and spontaneous hit and miss activity? Can we be intentional and strategic in our diffusion strategies?

And when do we take the time for our own personal reflection so that we can come to the table rich with ideas and thoughts? Nigel Barlow asked us, “Where are you when you have great ideas?” Think about it. Where are you? Some of my best ideas come during or after a run. For me, these ideas come when there is an opportunity for both silence and alone time, often on the heels of a complex problem, significant question, or conundrum where someone at work has challenged me. Some of the best work we do is when we are asked curious questions, not yes or no questions, but those kind of questions that create that puzzled look on our faces. These are thought-provoking and disturbing questions that can create some uncomfortable dissonance. This is a good thing. I need the personal time to process, to reflect and to see things from different angles. Then I can come back to the coral reef to let the ideas collide, grow bigger and come to life.

and come to life. Coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems that flourish with life. The liquid network–whether it is over virtual coffee or the life-giving waters of the coral reef– is a potent metaphor; ideas connect, expand and are adopted.  Can we design our organizations to do the same?  I grapple with the notion of creating a coral reef for ideas and collaboration but I keep thinking about action. Does it come alive? Does it change our schools? Does it change our practice? Does it change learning?  Does it change me? How can I work better and differently in my position so that all of us can pause to think deeply, to connect richly with others (both virtually and in person), and then to allow those innovative ideas to become a lived reality across a large system.

I am looking for an organizational coral reef where ideas collide in some form of liquid network. I want whole scale change that permeates the system and where ideas are so attractive others are pulled to them from across schools and the organization. This is not about a one-classroom silo of significant change dependent on one teacher, or one team of teachers with a supportive administration. This is about creating capacity across a monolithic system. This is about generative conversations that lead us to learn and grow in such ways that we are compelled to change our practice. Call it what you may–the coral reef, the liquid network—but this becomes the inspiration for transformation. The contagion of good ideas spreads, is explored, and is action-ed. The organization grows and reinvents itself. We reinvent ourselves. And as we do that, our own sense of purpose, our own passion for our work, grows and comes alive as well. And professionally, this is how we come to life, too.