Thursday, March 22, 2012

Innovation Likes Company

In my last post, I talked about the discomfort that leads to innovation.  Sure, making changes, large or small, will probably lead to a decrease in that uncomfortable feeling. 

If you are like me (God help you), as long as you are doing something, you feel like you are moving forward.  I will drive blocks out of my way, sometimes in the wrong direction, just to avoid a traffic stoppage. I feel like as long as I am moving (not necessarily forward), I am working toward my destination.  Yes, I am not known for a whole lot of action (my action figure would be "InAction Man"), but I count thinking as part of that action; it's just not active action.  But that thinking can lead to stewing.  Stewing can lead to brooding.  And that brooding can lead to obsessing.  And that obsessing can lead to a big pile of nothing (except maybe blogging).  Eventually, you (I) have to get up and do something.  (I have a built in timer; it's called sciatica.)  So what is that something we should do?  Find a support group.

What I've noticed in my investigations in innovation is that innovators like a support group.  I was surprised by this.  I assumed that great ideas come from within, and that innovators are solitary, isolated people.  Sure, some innovators can be far out people whose ideas or personalities can push people away, but innovators seek a support group.  In my district, we have a culture of collaboration.  Teachers meet in learning teams that are driven by the teachers and supported by the group.  Almost all of the innovators I've met in my district  belong to a learning team, and if they don't, they have some kind of other support group: university cohort, on-line network, grassroots group of like minded individuals, etc.

When I first started looking into classroom design, I too needed the justification from an outside group.  I went on-line and was disappointed with what I saw.  There was so little, and the sites I found were either school construction (beyond my scope and budget) or were classroom based, but really only talked about decoration (e.g. what borders and posters to put up).  It wasn't until I started blogging and found the blogs of others that my point of view started to expand.  I learned new ideas that I wanted to try and eschewed things that I thought wouldn't work or didn't pertain to me.  My contact with others led me to books and sites that I never would have found myself.  Then I started helping people with their classroom designs, but I learned as much from them as they did from me.   

Meeting others and hearing about their ideas is valuable.  It creates some shortcuts but also new pathways in thinking.  It is this exciting synergy that propels us through the discomfort of the initial phases of innovation,  and the new ideas and deeper understanding gained from others is what continues to mitigate that discomfort.  In talking to others, we get to examine and refine our own thinking and assumptions, and expand our horizons.   

I still don't think you can create a focus group for innovation.  If you bring a cross section of people together, they will define and constrict, and chip away at an idea until there is nothing useful or original left.  Focus groups are the wrong format for innovation because they tend to cleave down to what is known and familiar, not new and innovative.  I think that a support group does the opposite in that it opens up the possibilities and justifies the concept.  Instead of, "Yes, but..." as in a focus group, support groups are expansive with a "Yes, and ..." attitude. 

I would love it if schools could adopt this attitude.  Instead of hacking down new ideas to find 100 ways it won't work, we could be finding 100 ways it could.  We could teach kids to be comfortable with the discomfort of uncertainty, and to mitigate that discomfort by finding ways to solve each of these little puzzles with the power of a support group.  It's not that focus groups are bad, it's just the wrong mechanism for innovation. 

So, to get out of an innovation rut, go find a buddy.  Or at least, a well-intentioned blog.