I learned early in my career – during a five-year stint as chief of staff to the president of a three-campus urban community college – that what formal long-range planning does best is codifying and describing strategies already in place – what an organization is already doing – and projecting what is already happening into the future. Of course, in today’s rapidly changing world, such projections are terribly unreliable, which is why shelves all over the land are groaning under the weight of seldom-consulted, handsomely bound planning tomes.
A formal study I conducted while at the college confirmed what I’ve observed over the years: that innovation initiatives are typically the result of collaboration among open-minded, creative people not afraid of change, who fashion project plans and secure financial support outside the formal planning framework. In the college’s case, I determined that not one significant investment in innovation (for example, a high-tech skills training center) over a five-year period actually resulted from the college’s elaborate long-range planning process, which basically codified the innovations once they’d been launched.
This is one of the important lessons that Aaron Spence, Superintendent of the Virginia Beach Public Schools, and Captain Chad Vincelette, Commanding Officer of Naval Air Station Oceana, teach in the podcast they recorded for this blog, describing a number of innovation initiatives resulting from the creative partnership their two organizations have formed. For example, transporting 5,000-some Virginia Beach fifth graders to Naval Air Station Oceana during Oceana’s annual air show to participate in what Aaron calls “the world’s largest outdoor STEM laboratory” wasn’t the outcome of formal long-range planning. Rather, the outdoor STEM lab emerged from the collaboration of open-minded, innovation-friendly leaders, who translated their initial informal brainstorming into a concrete project plan. Of course, when the chief executives themselves – like Aaron and Chad – are active collaborators, innovation initiatives are much likelier to see the light of day.
The Virginia Beach Schools/Naval Air Station Oceana case also demonstrates the critical external role that chief executives – in this case a superintendent and commanding officer – play in innovation, wearing what I call the “Connecter-in-Chief” hat. As Connecters-in-Chief of their respective organizations, Aaron and Chad played three important roles: scouting out potential collaborators/partners and identifying potentially high-yield partnerships; actively engaging in mapping out partnership initiatives; and enabling implementation of the initiatives, primarily by allocating the necessary resources.