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The innovation mindset

An example of negotiating meaning in a group

The way words are understood

When trying to understand what the word innovation is meant to mean, it is not so much the dictionary definition that interests us but rather the meanings that people give the word when they use it(1). Of course, a dictionary definition can be a very useful starting point in discussing the meaning of a word. But the emphasis here is different. It is not the meaning “per se” that should concern us, but rather the process of negotiation of meaning that takes place within a group and the contribution that that “negotiation” makes to the process of learning of the group and its members as well as the changes it brings to the practices of the group and to the development of the identity of the group. I am drawing here on work by Etienne Wenger about communities of practice. Wenger portrays communities of practice as groups whose very existence is tightly bound to the negotiation of meaning as a source of learning and identity.(2) In this text, I attempt to trace the emergence of the concept of “innovation mindset” in a recent meeting of European Schoolnet’s Policy and Innovation Committee (PIC) and to point to the role the negotiation of the meaning of the concept plays in processes of learning within the group and the contribution that negotiation makes to the ways of working of the group. What follows is naturally coloured by my perspective as chairperson of the PIC and what I see as the requirements of that position. Ideally, we should carry out an evaluation of the perspective of others on the question.

Associated ideas

During an initial quest for words that people associated with the word “innovation” at the beginning of European Schoolnet’s Policy and Innovation Committee meeting in Brussels the other day, we obtained the following constellation of words: enthusiasm; novel; different; new; helps make things happen; changes something; problem solving; challenging; impact; large scale; creative; improvement. Clearly you could not construct a definition from these words. You could not even use the list to identify what is and what is not innovation That was not the purpose. However, the list of words is an indication of what people think of when they think of innovation. The words seem to go together naturally. None of them stands out as in fundamental contradiction with the others. However, they do indicate the differing perspectives that people have on the same word: from those who see the enthusiasm in the creativity of innovation to others whose difficult task is to measure its impact.

The emergence of a useful concept

As the discussion progressed and concrete examples (3) were given of policy-making strategies designed to stimulate innovation in various countries, the concept of the “innovation mindset” emerged as useful tool. The usefulness of the term to the group was not however immediately apparent. The term first arose in Lieve van den Brande’s presentation about the work of the European Commission in the field of innovation when she spoke of changes in education and the relationship of those changes to innovation. She saw education and training as being key actors in producing an “innovation mindset”. At that moment, the term was part of an overall presentation and was not challenged or discussed in itself. When Mick James subsequently presented the work of the European Commission’s ICT Cluster meeting in Birmingham, he spoke of the importance of leadership, amongst other things, to successful innovation. With hindsight, attention to the role leadership is a key ingredient of an “innovation mindset”. But at the time, the association was not openly made. It was only when Tanya Varbanova mentioned the concept of intelligent failure and she suggested that it was a part of the innovation mindset that the discussion turned momentarily to considering what the other attributes of the innovation mindset might be. Further sense in pursuing the understanding of the “constituent parts” of the innovation mindset was provided by Anja Balanskat, part of whose job is to develop and structure stimulating content about policy making and innovation in schooling for European Schoolnet’s INSIGHT portal, when she suggested producing a document about the subject as a contribution to the European Commission’s call for comments on the question of the future of schooling. I mention Anja’s role, because knowing it illustrates how our differing roles both within and outside the group contribute to influencing the creation of meaning and the development of our practices. As chairperson of the group, Anja’s suggestion was very welcome because part of my role is to seek ways to produce “concrete” outcomes of our work that reinforce the existence and the identity of the group.  Wenger calls this process “reification” which he describes as “… the process of giving form to our experience by producing objects that congeal this experience into ‘thingness’. (4) He goes on to say: “In so doing, we create points of focus around which the negotiation of meaning becomes organised. (5)


We did not discuss our understanding of the word “mindset” during the meeting. Nobody suggested it. Doing so might have been considered too far from the agenda we had fixed ourselves. Wikipedia says of the word: “A mindset, in decision theory and general systems theory, refers to a set of assumptions, methods or notations held by one or more people or groups of people which is so established that it creates a powerful incentive within these people or groups to continue to adopt or accept prior behaviours, choices, or tools.” This definition seems to lean heavily on the idea of mindset as a conservative force, whereas, in the case of innovation, the mindset is seen as projecting and procuring change in the future.

Opening a door to future activities

In pursuing the idea of the innovation mindset it became clear to me that a list of attributes or attitudes or competencies making up the mindset would be a powerful tool in understanding how education and training could contribute to fostering innovation both generally and within its own walls. When I pointed this out to the group during the meeting, I explained that once you have a better idea of the constituent parts of an “innovation mindset” and the related attitudes, it is then possible to use that set of ideas, attitudes and competencies to evaluate which aspects of institutionalised education favour the development of the mindset and which oppose it. That in turn provides a starting point for designing policy strategies to foster the mindset through institutionalised education or through other agents. At the same time, in writing about this now, it strikes me that clarifying the innovation mindset, in particular the assumptions that are a part of it, it becomes possible to challenge those assumptions whenever necessary. Whereas before, those assumptions lurked unchallenged in the enthusiastic whirlwind that surrounds the words in the mouths of its ardent advocates.

Attributes of the innovation mindset

So what competencies or what attitudes or what assumptions contribute to the innovation mindset? We have already mentioned the idea of intelligent failure which can be associated with the taking of risks and the need to create confidence and trust within which risk taking and “intelligent” failure are possible. We have also already mentioned the importance of leadership as support and encouragement for innovation but also, for example in the form of distributed leadership (6), as a source of innovation in the way groups or institutions are organised. Creativity is also clearly a part of the innovation mindset with a heavy dose of out-of-the-box and lateral thinking (7). Another set of attributes of the innovation mindset relates to communication and collaborative working including such competencies as project management, leadership, emotional intelligence (8) and conflict resolution. One of the most important aspects of working in groups is that of the negotiation of meaning, the very thing I am illustrating here, and then the creation of “markers” for that negotiation. Finally, in this incomplete list, there is the culture of formative evaluation: developing ways and means of assessing what we know so as to learn from what we are doing. Beyond these attributes lies the assumption that innovation is necessarily a good thing. Although it is not explicitly mentioned and if it were it would no doubt be challenged, this assumption of the almost magic power of innovation to solve problems fires people’s imaginations and stokes their enthusiasm. That passion in innovation and the excitement in the face of newness is a powerful motor in the innovation mindset. At the same time, unchecked - and by “checked” I mean the evaluation of innovation’s proposed outcomes against underlying values of society and community and the particular goals of the context it is applied to -  innovation for its own sake could do much harm rather than bring all the good people expect of it.

Alan McCluskey
Brussels and Saint-Blaise, November 10th & 11th, 2007


(1) If you are interested in going further into the construction of meaning by people from a linguistic point of view, you might like to look into Pragmatics. A useful introduction to the subject is given by Prof. George Yule in a book called “Pragmatics” published by OUP in 1996.

() See Wenger E. Communities of Practice - Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

(3) I do not do justice here to the interest and the pertinence of the presentations given by Lieve van den Brande (DG EAC of the European Commission), Karianne Helland (Norwegian Ministry of Education) Leonardo Tosi (INDIRE Italy) and Gavin Dykes (Innovation Unit and BECTA in the UK) which nourished a rich discussion about the possible roles and strategies of policy-making in stimulating innovation in and through education.

(4) Op CIt pg 58

(5) Ibid.

(6) For more about an example of an innovative approach to leadership see “Leadership, information gathering and the future - what if we've got it wrong?” on Connected Magazine. Url: http://www.connected.org/learn/have-we-got-it-wrong.html

(7) For more about lateral thinking, see the writings of Edward de Bono, in particular “I am right you are wrong”, Penguin 1990 and “Serious Creativity” Fontana 1992.

(8) See several articles about emotional intelligence on Connected Magazine. Url: http://www.connected.org/reports/R-emotion.html

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Created: Saturday, November 11, 2007 - Last up-dated: Saturday, November 11, 2007