George Couros on the Innovator’s Mindset: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

CourosGeorge Couros is a leading educator in the area of innovative leadership, teaching, and learning. He has worked with all levels of school, from K-12 as a teacher and technology facilitator and as a school and district administrator. He is a sought after speaker on the topic of innovative student learning and engagement and has worked with schools and organizations around the globe. George is also the creator of, an initiative that brings educators and leaders together from around the world to create powerful learning opportunities for students.

Although George is a leader in the area of innovation, his focus is always the development of leadership and people and what is best for learners. His belief that meaningful change happens when you first connect to people’s hearts is modeled in his writing and speaking.

His book, The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity, was published by Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc. (October 2015).

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Morris: When and why did you decide to write The Innovator’s Mindset

Couros: I have wanted to write it for years but struggled with the process. Blogging is something that I have done for the past 6 years, but there is so much more finality in writing a book. If you don’t agree with an idea in my blog, I can easily edit it if I change my thinking. A book seems to be almost like being engraved in stone. That being said, I have seen that in education and other organizations, that we are expecting some technology to come save us, where it is really about how we lead and look at the world in which is truly crucial. This book is not only about developing knowledge, but creating something powerful from it.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Couros: I think for me as the author, was that this was more a start to a conversation than the end of it. Setting up things like a hashtag to talk with readers about the book has helped me really push my own thinking after the fact, and I have been growing because of these conversations. Growth should not just be for the reader. Also, I realized how when I was writing this book is not for anyone who is in a formal position of leadership, but for those that crave change from any position. We all have the ability to influence others, so this was a way to write a book that would help people that wanted to make school a better place.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Couros: I actually think it turned out the way I wanted it to from the beginning. What I wanted to write was a book that was mixed with big ideas and practical ways to achieve them. Too many books are written from a theoretical perspective, or as a step-by-step guide in doing something. This was meant to connect the two. That being said, I love telling stories and think those stories make learning come to life. When I first shared it with publishers they wanted more “case studies” ‘and to be honest, I decided to go in a different direction, or else I would have written a book that I wouldn’t even want to read. Education does not have enough books that bring teaching and learning to life through story, but I am hoping that this book might change that for the future of books in leadership and education moving forward.

Morris: In your opinion, what is the single greatest opportunity to improve the quality of precollegiate education significantly during the next (let’s say) 3-5 years? Where to begin?

Couros: I think that when we help educators see themselves as “school teachers” or even “global teachers”, as opposed to “classroom teachers,” where we only focus on the students we teach that year, it creates a connection to a larger purpose. If we started developing schools where we are starting to see that every child in that organization is ours, we are more likely to work together to create something powerful. Otherwise we will be stuck in “pockets” or “silos” as opposed to developing a complete and cohesive culture.

Morris: Long ago, a weary farmer asked Ralph Waldo Emerson how to transcend an empty stomach. I am reminded of that question whenever I think about all the children who arrive at school with a hunger wholly unrelated to learning. Your own thoughts about this?

Couros: The beautiful reality about children is that every single one of them walked into school on their first day curious, indeed eager to learn. We never had to teach them that. That being said, we start to suck it out of them by stopping them from asking questions in favour of what we want to teach as opposed to what they want to learn. I am convinced that that if a child leaves school less curious than when they started, we have failed that child. We need to stoke this fire in our students rather than extinguish it. Even our smartest students, the ones that do the best academically in school, start to see school as a checklist and learn to play the game of school. The system needs to be changed to fan the flames of curiosity.

Morris: What regard to precollegiate education, what is government’s proper role?

Couros: The struggle with governments in education is that every new leader seemingly wants to create their own stamp. Education spends more time changing directions because someone is trying to establish their own authority in a political position, instead of staying the course. Creativity and innovation take time, but we are constantly changing directions. There is an accountability to the public and that is understood, but often education shifts because of personalities as opposed to systems and, especially, to values.

Morris: What about the business community within which a school is located?

Couros: I recently spoke at an event where it was a particular school system with the business community, and they were talking about how they were “walking together.” What struck me about this is that the business community realized that the work they were doing with the schools, whether it was providing financial support or internships with students, was an investment, not an expenditure. It just takes some time for us to see the fruits of this investment. Business organizations are constantly saying what they want from schools in how they develop students, and I think that working together, we can develop the leaders not of tommorrow, but today. We also have to realize that schools are no longer focused solely on developing the “workers” of tomorrow, but also the bosses and entrepreneurs. You are seeing students start very profitable businesses while in school, and many schools are enabling this. The students are not doing this in spite of school, but because of it. This creates opportunities for our communities that didn’t exist to the same extent when I went to school.

Morris: These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me. For those who have not as yet read the book, please respond to questions they evoke.

First, Defining Innovation, and, Innovation Starts with a Question (19-22): What’s the question?

Couros: “ What is best for this learner?” Too often we think from the perspective of teacher, not student. We have to realize that the student is our “customer” and that we are there to serve them. If you think about your own experience in school, how many of those same “customers” hated school. This would not be acceptable in any other business.

Morris: How best to determine the answer?

Couros: Constant asking of questions and conversations. We need to understand these kids and not decide what the entire year will look like in a classroom before students even walk in.

Morris: Open Innovation Learning (22-23): How open? Please explain.

Couros: The more we see things that others are doing, the more we can adopt them and recreate something powerful. Think of the business Apple has created by letting basically anyone develop apps. If they limited it to only Apple employees, they would be limited in their business. The app store made the iPhone almost more than any component of the actual phone. Schools can now become “the best of”, pulling ideas from places all over the world.

Morris: Adopt an Innovator’s Mindset (32-36): What seems to be the most serious barrier to adoption? Why?

Couros: Our own way of thinking. One thing that I always say is that somebody,somewhere, is doing the exact same thing that you say you can’t do. How they are looking at what is in front of them is crucial; obstacle or opportunity.

Morris: How best to overcome that barrier?

Ask questions and challenge our own preconceived notions. People complain about “phones” being distracting, but do we also realize that the biggest library in the world is now sitting in our hands. When you look at that phone as a library and opportunity, you will create something differently than if you look at it as a “distraction”.

Once the mindset has been adopted, what seems to be the greatest challenge when sustaining? Why?

Couros: I don’t know if it is a challenge or just an understanding that change will be the only constant we ever have in our world. Blockbuster was a great business model for a while, but when Netflix approached them to buy them out, they said no, because they were too comfortable with what they are doing. As their business started to crumble and they tried to jump into the “streaming” business, it was too late. Bottom line, innovate or die. Change has to be something that we constantly embrace and schools, as learning organizations, should do this better than anyone else.

Morris: Critical Questions for the Innovative Educator (39-41): Which question is most critical? Please explain.

Couros: Would I want to be a learner in my own classroom. Too often, if we really think of it, the answer might be no. Why should we have students endure something that we would hate ourselves?

Morris: The 8 Characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset (48-58): In your opinion, which of these characteristics is most significant? Please explain.

Couros: I think all of them are hugely important, but the one that may be most unique is the idea of “problem finders”. We want people to be in an organizations that ask questions, not simply solve problems posed. When we are all looking at how we can make things better, the organization wins. We can’t wait for the problem to be told to us.

Morris: The Power to Kill Innovation (70-71): Who possesses this power? How is it most frequently applied?

Couros: I think there is a difference between an administrator and a leader. You can be annointed as an administrator, but you earn the role of leader. Often administrators say “no” to what they don’t understand and when we try to lead from a place of ignorance, we will never lead effectively at all. The more we say no, the more people stop asking to try new things.

Morris: The Power of “No” versus a Culture of “Yes (72-73): Who tends got win this competition? Why?

Couros: A culture of “yes” encourages people to be innovative and take calculated risks, where “no” leads to the same. In a world that is constantly changing and developing, staying the same is ultimately falling behind. Earlier I talked about needing both people who can lead and manage, but if we only manage, then we will ultimately fall behind.

Morris: Disrupt Your Routine (82-84): Is there any one routine in greatest need of disruption? Please explain.

Couros: Not really, but that being said, many “leaders” know that things need to change, but they reserve change for others, and not themselves. A subtle thing that I did in my work is that I started doing everything online instead of on paper. It allowed me to have access to everything and anything on my phone, and it shifted how I accessed information. As an adminstrator, I started to push my staff there, but I couldn’t do it without modelling it. It is easy to say, “do this,” but the power comes in saying “let’s do this together”.

Morris: Master Learner, Innovative Leader (86-88): What is the key point or take-away?

Couros: Learning is about constant growth. So is innovation. What was innovative today, can be outdated tomorrow. I ask people in my workshops, “How many of you would like a free iPhone for attending today?” 100% of hands go up regularly. Then when I ask them, how many would still want it if it was the first generation phone, the only people who are interested are for either nostalgia or because they have a flip phone. When the first iPhone came out, it was amazing in our eyes, yet it really could only text, phone, and go on the Internet. The app store didn’t even exist. As I said, innovative today, outdated tomorrow. Learning is crucial to growth.

Morris: The Characteristics of an Innovative Leader (88-90): Which characteristics (if any) is most essential?

Couros: Again, all of them are crucial, but for the sake of conversation, I think “networked” is something that we really look at. When you hire any one person, you do not only hire them, but you hire their entire network. But is that only people that connect with face-to-face, or is this also online. At the time of writing this, I have 110,000 people who follow me on Twitter that I can learn from and ask questions of. This creates opportunities and learning that didn’t exist when I started teaching in 1999.

Morris: How best to develop that characteristic?

Couros: I think that we just need to understand that the word “collaboration” can happen in many forms. Most people think of this as face-to-face conversations, but there are amazing people to learn from all over the world that are already connecting through social media. We need to learn to tap into them.

Morris: A Culture of Empowerment (97-99): What are its defining characteristics?

Couros: This one is really important to me. We have talked about “engagement” forever in schools, but rarely focus on empowerment. If I was going to talk to you about what you would want in your role, would you choose “engaged” or “empowered”? But to be empowered, there has to be ownership. Do we try to keep kids entertained, or do they actually have ownership of their own learning? Same with educators. We want them to change the world for our students, but they have to jump through so many hoops to make this happen. Great leaders remove as many barriers as they see in front of their people, so they can do powerful work. That being said, I would take “engaged” over “compliant” any day. But I still think engagement is a low bar.

Morris: 8 [Occurences, Habits, Customs, etc.] to Look for in Today’s Classroom (111-115): Are they more likely to be found in a private rather than public school?

Couros: That is a tough question because it is so dependent upon the leader. That being said, there is this notion that it is more likely to happen in a private school, but a lot of the students come from great situations, and they will do well in school more because of their circumstances in their life, than the teaching that happens in the school. I think that these things are important in all schools, no matter if they are a private or public institution.

Morris: For more than 30 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in The Innovator’s Mindset, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Couros: I think two things would really stand out. First off, it is empathy and understanding who you serve. One thing that I always tell leaders is that the higher they go up in an organization, the more people they serve, not the other way around. If we simply want people to do what we say, give them a fair wage, and that can happen. If you want to get them to do amazing things though, it is all about how we lead and tap into their greatness. This takes a different understanding than we have traditionally had in leadership.

The other part is the idea of the “Innovator’s Mindset” which is more than simply about learning, but doing something with what we learn. In a world where there is information abundance, what we create is more important than what we know. My hope is that business start to see that this is the normal mindset of education sooner rather than later, and that businesses around the world start to look at education as being the innovators, rather than the other way around.

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Here is a direct link to Part 1.

George cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Link to George’s blog, “The Principal of Change”

His Twitter link

SlideShare link

Link to “George Couros at TEDxBurnsvilleED”

TAGs [Incomplete]: George Couros on the Innovator’s Mindset: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris, Lao-tse, Tao Te Ching, Peter Drucker, Tom Davenport, Judgment Calls, Brooke Manville, James O’Toole, “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom”,, The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity, was published by Dave Burgess Consulting Inc. (October 2015)

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