At Milpitas public school district on the outskirts of San Francisco, 10,000 students enjoy the kind of innovative, student-led, technology-assisted, inspiring learning about which many educators can only dream. Students suffering from poor educational outcomes have seen their schools change from didactic, teacher-led classrooms to enquiry-based learning supported in school and at home by over 3,500 new Chromebooks, with more on the way. Attainment is on the up. This wasn’t a decision from on high, though: it came from the ideas and plans of their teachers.

 In the spring of 2012, Milpitas’ Director of Education, or Superintendent, Cary Matsuoka was inspired by the process of design thinking as a means to involve a community in innovation. He asked his district teachers and head teachers one simple question: ‘If you could design a school what would it look like?’ After a three-month design process, Milpitas teachers were ready to pitch their new models to Matsuoka, his executive team and the union.

 “[Local authorities and Governments] usually take years to plan and produce a binder that sits on a shelf. But binders do not change the system,’ Matsuoka says.

 The design thinking process is normally found in luxury fashion houses, global tech, media and telecommunications companies, and small tech startups. It provides broad parameters that encourage divergent thinking and a human-centred approach to rethinking the way things are done, the way things are built, and how people might use them. It’s incredibly powerful. For example, by refocussing on people, rather than strategies, nearly two-thirds of Milpitas’ schools have been able to recalibrate learning, creating engaging, happy places with improved engagement. In a high-performing school in Asia with whom we work, some departments have decided to stop issuing grades in place of better critique. In Barcelona, Collegi Montserrat took our design thinking process to create their own common language of learning across school, helping students make more connections between subject areas, and improving attainment.

Each week, I get to work in both schools and creative companies, and there is much for each group to learn from the other when it comes to leading innovation. In the time I spend with school leaders and teachers, I see many struggling with overload, rejection and abortive attempts at innovation. Why does the formal education sector seem to have so much pain in creating fast change, resistance to it even? And are the challenges faced in education any different to those faced by the fashion, media or telecoms companies?

In today’s schools, what is it that really counts? What is it that we want to change so badly with our strategy documents and vision statements? There is a gulf between what schools say counts – increasing children’s creativity, responsible citizenship, confident learners, workers and entrepreneurs-to-be – and what appears to count: getting through ‘stuff’ or meeting the test criteria of today can end up taking all precedence in the end over what we could achieve tomorrow.

Of course, previous attempts to bring big business’s way of working to school have been tortuous failures. But bringing creative attitudes and divergent ways of thinking from small companies that have evolved so rapidly in the past decade is proving different. There are interesting differences between these nimble design-thinking startups and flabby incumbent corporates, and lessons for how school innovators develop their own ideas.

First – a small team, not an innovative individual, owns the idea. Too often, innovation is associated with a bright light, an innovation leader, a lighthouse. A person. But leading innovation is not about running every innovative project yourself, writing grand strategies, ‘stakeholder involvement’ and five-year plans.

Second – the team understands from the get-go that they need to find, nurture and involve their community to help build and scale their idea quickly enough to succeed.

Third, the team is nearly always the David to an existing, decision-making Goliath. School leadership teams and Boards are always perplexed when I suggest that a teacher- and student-based team will set out the existing landscape of the school on which to build the next plan. “Who will make the decisions?” is the frequent reply. The fact is: a small team without the pressure of having to make decisions nearly always develops more creative ideas to fuel future development than a Board that feels the pressure to deliver weighty decisions. They can hold their ideas lightly, kill the poor ones earlier, develop the promising ones faster, and have less fear of feedback.

A shared language of innovation such as design thinking, has created a myriad of ingenious and powerful learning in the schools with whom we work. Education organisations with an innovation strategy built on it can create powerful and empowering learning environments that evolve naturally with the changing world around us.

Adapted from Ewan McIntosh’s How To Come Up With Great Ideas And Actually Make Them Happen. Available in Paperback, iTunes or Kindle:

Ewan McIntosh is founder of NoTosh, a company with learning at the heart of everything it does, in schools and in the creative industries. It has offices in Edinburgh, Melbourne and San Francisco.