Book Review: The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity

Having formed a sizable committee from all walks of our educational to craft a plan to become a “District of Innovation,” district leaders and I decided to launch our series of “colloquies” with a book study. Considering the title, The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity, and the fact the author, George Couros, was scheduled to be the keynote speaker for our summer technology and curriculum conference, Lone Star TIA, it made perfect sense. Although I’d already ordered a digital copy upon its release, I had yet read the text knowing I was saving it for my upcoming, month-long medical leave of absence. After hearing Couros speak at the Texas Computer Education Association conference in Austin a few years ago, I’ve been a huge fan. With a combo of insight and humor, his engaging style of presenting hooked me; and I attended all of the sessions he offered as well as a few other events in which he spoke. Hearing him talk of his experiences as principal and as a district leader, I hold his leadership style in the highest regard. To know I could gain insight into his thinking in far greater depth, I couldn’t wait to dive into the pages. And he didn’t disappoint.

After reading What Matters Now: How to Win in a World of Relentless Change, Ferocious Competition, and Unstoppable Innovation by author and London Business School professor Gary Hamel a few years ago, so much of what Couros writes is of the same ilk, only applied specifically to education rather than to business. Hamel pens, “To be an innovator you have to challenge the beliefs that everyone else takes for granted—the long-held assumptions that blind industry incumbents to new ways of doing business.” Couros captures this thinking throughout. “Without innovation, organizations—including educational facilities—cease to exist.” His words reflect a note highlighted in my copy of What Matters Now, “Truth is, every organization is successful until it’s not. There’s a simple, but oft-neglected lesson here: to sustain success, you have to be willing to abandon things that are no longer successful.” The parallels to the two texts are astounding with each author emphasizing the role of innovation to the continued relevance in business (in the case of Hamel) and education (from the lens of Couros).
“Change is an opportunity to do something amazing,” writes Couros who also quotes author John Maxwell, “Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.” Throughout, his tales of his own experiences and those of others, Couros provides insight and guidance on fostering a “growth mindset” towards innovation, which he defines as “a way of thinking that creates something new and better,” all while debunking the idea “innovation is synonymous with technology.” Melding the two concepts of innovation and Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, he describes the “innovator’s mindset” as the “belief that abilities, intelligence, and talents are developed so that they can lead to the creation of new and better ideas.”

Of the numerous lines I’ve highlighted, one stood out above the rest. “Innovate inside the box.” While acknowledging “schools are not overloaded with funding,” he writes, “Innovating in our schools requires a different type of thinking, one that doesn’t focus on ideas that are “outside the box,” but those that allow us to be innovative despite budgetary constraints. In other words, we need to learn to innovate ‘inside the box.’” Whoa! Stop. Reread. #profound So often, educators give up or give in to what is in our “circle of concern” rather than build upon what is in our “circle of influence” as noted by author Stephen Covey in his bestseller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Couros does not allow readers off the hook to surrender to this age-old excuse despite its glaring reality.
When reaching out to committee members in my initial contact, I wrote, “I’ve no idea where the ‘District of Innovation’ process will take us, but one of the highlights I’ve underscored in the Couros book reads, “Innovation starts not by providing answers, but by asking questions. #InnovatorsMindset” Because there truly is no predetermined course of action, this quote solidly reflects my view going into the process.
From his “critical questions for the innovative educator” to the “eight characteristics of the innovator’s mindset” to the “characteristics of the innovative leader” to the “eight things to look for in today’s classroom” to “eight things to look for in today’s professional learning” (I’m sensing a pattern here.), Couros scaffolds a system of support for educators willing to embrace change and innovation.

From his stories about Carly Rae Jepsen and analogies citing Blazing Saddles and Talladega Nights, this page turner kept me going; and I finished it over the three-day Memorial Day weekend. (Now what am I going to do with the next 27 days?)

In his book, Hamel writes, “Within any organization, it’s usually the malcontents and rebels who are the first to sense the impending demise of a long-cherished business model, and the first to see the value in wacky, new ideas. The best leaders are the ones who get the most options on the table before making a decision.” With The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity, Couros does just that; and for this fact, I am beyond grateful to have read this book.

And finally, although I am certain my heritage is German and not Greek and the fact he is Canadian and I American, I’m more than convinced we are “brothers from another mother.” From the same stylized spiked haircut to the similarities in presentation styles to our insistence to remain connected to the classroom (as I continue to teach students across our district (as in the 50+ sessions on the “growth mindset” with kindergartners to ninth graders this school year) to his ridiculously simple idea of talking his laptop to classrooms for hours at a time doing administrative work there rather than the office, I think it’s true.

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