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Recently I asked all our employees to describe a time in which they felt most alive and engaged in the life of the school. Many reflected on the school’s start up days, when they were collaborating to execute on the founding vision and build something new and exciting.

The product of that labor of love is the Cary Academy we know today, and by nearly every metric we have available, Cary Academy has reached the top tier of independent schools in less than 20 years.

With the upcoming launch of the Cary Academy 2020 Strategic Plan, we will no longer need to reflect backwards to capture that entrepreneurial, can-do spirit of our founding. We soon expect to unlock the next wave of big thinking and creative energy within our community.

An understanding of the importance of innovation and collaboration is much more widely shared than in 1996, when Cary Academy was founded as “a learning community committed to discovery, innovation, collaboration, and excellence.” In the short time since our founding, the internet and mobile technology have transformed industries and upended the ways we communicate and learn. Scholars like Harvard’s Clayton Christensen and John Kotter have studied these disruptions and worked to help organizations understand how to survive and thrive in a fast moving world.

In the language of our strategic plan, we have chosen to highlight the phrase “institutional flexibility” to signal our purposeful desire to design systems that can unlock innovation. The first goal of our draft plan reads: “We will create institutional flexibility to facilitate dynamic and innovative learning experiences.”

John Kotter has called such a setup a “dual operating system” — where smaller-scale improvements can be encouraged from everywhere within an organization and institutional might can be harnessed to do big things with the most relevant and proven concepts. Ultimately, the system itself can be transformed rather than be rendered obsolete.

At Cary Academy, we may take this one step further and ultimately organize around three important aspects of innovation:

  • Sustaining,
  • Disrupting,
  • Diffusing.

Sustaining innovation at Cary Academy means focusing on the core of what we are all about: excellent teaching and learning. Sustaining innovation means having a portrait of an ideal teacher and student, an articulated view of learning, processes for holistic curriculum review, a strong assessment philosophy, and robust methods of for professional evaluation and development.

Disruptive innovation at Cary Academy means having a system to allow for smaller-scale research and development and the willpower to allow new ideas room to grow. To foster meaningful disruptive innovation, we need some common language around process, access to additional resources and talent, and a way to feed back promising ideas into the core of the institution.

Finally, diffusing innovation hits at a core founding vision for Cary Academy: to be a lighthouse school that collaborates with our wider communities. To foster this we need renewed platforms for connecting with constituents and peers locally, nationally, and globally. We need communication systems that share what we are working on and methods to bring people together for meaningful conversations, through short-term methods like meetings and conferences and long-term relationships such as partnerships and exchanges.

In this structure, I hope that you can feel a bit of regular and a bit of radical. Our strategic plan is both a process for continual improvement and path to an even brighter future — but to be effective there needs to be a strong connection between the two. While we might not quite be able to see the future, it is important that we can imagine taking a road that leads us there.

I look forward to sharing more with the community after our Board of Directors endorses the plan at their next meeting.