Departing from Technology to Discover Innovation

Approaching the first weekend experience of Leadership Ohio’s Class of 2019, designed to set the tone for a year-long study around the impactinnovation (and innovative leadership) has on organizations, societies and systems, a smart bet would have been that the day devoted to Artificial Intelligence, versus the day devoted to a study of the Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW), would be the most transformational set of experiential learnings, purely from an “innovation” standpoint. But, that would only be a smart bet if one were using traditional definitions and assumptions about what innovation is, where it can be found and how it should be understood and empowered. In fact, it was quite the opposite, at least for this writer, and that may not be the universal perspective of my classmates, as I do recognize my own bias on the subject. I work in the high-tech space, and I may be well-hydrated on the “Kool-Aid” of my own everyday environment.  

With that said, what I learned about the impact innovation can have on humanity was colored much more by the day where we met women living in a rehabilitation and corrections environment (as opposed to serving time in it).  The most important innovation may be the most simplistic idea, which is that ORW, while demanding compliance, treats these inmates as people by encouraging their talents, rewarding their creativity and promising them that they are not a grand mistake, but STILL a person of great value, who made a mistake.  The mightiest innovation may be that they reward strong compliance with a variety of creative opportunities, demonstrating they value their people by investing in their personal growth.  So often, organizations on the outside divide people into groups of workers who comply, and the creatives who innovate, when perhaps a more mundane, “innovation as incentive approach,” may end up yielding profound results as it does at ORW.

The leadership (utilizing a powerful mentorship model of two Wardens - the mentor recently promoted from ORW to oversee multiple prisons, and her mentee now promoted to oversee ORW itself) does this, not because of empathy alone, but also because it produces unparalleled results.  In speaking to members of the staff, ORW greatly under-performs average recidivism rates that are uniform across the nation, and it is clearly because they offer a variety of innovative programs that arm these women with skills, discipline and self-confidence through reinforcing layers of accountability. Literally, the ORW approach to those serving on the inside, ends up serving them quite well on the outside.  

A few examples (of many) are a high-end horticulture program, a beautician school, a jewelry shop, a designer fashions outlet, dog training services, web design programs, a children’s nursery, multi-faith spiritual studies and, Tapestry, a communal living project designed for chemically dependent women, which has been featured on many news outlets and recognized by TEDxColumbusWomen.  The sheer volume of opportunities available at ORW demonstrate that this innovative environment is NOT the product of a Warden alone, but rather a culture of innovative leadership that now exists within these walls…and this is a very important distinction for two reasons:

- One, just like in businesses, organizations and societies, a culture of innovation is far superior to having a singular innovative force at the top, BUT, in order to establish such a culture, those initial sparks are needed to enlighten the masses (both inside and out) that these leaps of faith deliver exponential returns, as can now be seen in their extraordinarily low rates of re-offense, and

-  Two, these are still very real walls, and this innovative environment should NOT be confused with “Club Med,” or any other type of place that one would “want” to be; strong performance is not an easy thing to accomplish, and the reward of new opportunities, both for the inmates, and for the leaders of this institution, must be repeatedly validated by results with little recognition available on par with external society standards of gratification.

These opportunities available to most women at ORW, like the innovations themselves at their inception, are only possible because there is a near-perfect balance of passion and creativity, coupled with a strict enforcement of order, accountability and respect.  No environment thrives on innovation alone, and it is, in fact, a reward for understanding the traditions and history of an organization that leaders rise to places where they can take risks, try new things and be allowed to fail safely.  It is by doing things well within the existing parameters of an organization that leaders are entrusted with the resources required to take the leaps of faith that result in, what we eventually call, successful innovations. Thus, the moral of the story from ORW may be that our societal institutions and organizations should take a fresh approach to incorporating innovation into their culture by viewing it as an incentive program.  Perhaps, when people demonstrate their respect for the traditions of an environment they should be encouraged to apply their brightest passion and creativity toward finding new ways to achieve greater results.  

By doing things right, we should then allow people to try doing things new.  

-By Ian Schwarber, Co-Founder & Chief Strategy Officer, DriveIT | Leadership Ohio Class Of 2019


Please note all blogs are the sole opinions of their authors and do not claim to represent the views of Leadership Ohio.