Saturday, March 16, 2013

What have I learned about innovation (as of March 2013)?

For the last eighteen months, I have been investigating innovation in my school district.  I interview teachers who are trying interesting things in their classrooms.  I started reading all sorts of books on innovation (in education and elsewhere) even before I landed the job.  Here is a list of what I learned about innovation so far:
  • Innovation is elusive.
  • Innovation starts with discomfort.
  • Innovation has a random chance element.
  • Innovation goes back and forth between the individual and the group.
  • The hardest part about innovation is implementation. 
A caveat: These are not absolutes.  You can exchange the word "is" with "can be" or stick the word "mostly" into these statements somewhere.   The list above is a collection of patterns I've seen in innovation. 

Innovation is elusive. 
When I first started putting the Bright Ideas Gallery website together, I had a really tough time using the word, "innovation."  The word has become so overused that it doesn't mean anything anymore, but on the other hand, when I didn't use it, people didn't know what I was talking about.  Is it innovation if the idea is not new?  Is it innovation if the idea is new, but not push thinking forward? etc.  It is really hard to come up with new things in education that have never been done before.  Timing is everything which is why some innovations have a shelf life and why others aren't accepted because they are so far ahead of their time.  This is why innovation can be so elusive.

Innovation starts with discomfort.
I love this idea.  It turns something bothersome into something useful.  Some problem or issue sticks in a person's head until they have to act on it.  Sometimes that irritation is sitting in the background waiting to be dealt with, and sometimes in the foreground and can become all-consuming.  In either case, the psyche is primed and ready for ideas.  The mind becomes open to solutions. 

Innovation has a random chance element.
In almost all the innovators I talked to, there is one part of their innovation that came from a seemingly random event.  When I came up with the idea of the risers, it came from 3 chance events: being given a new teaching partner halfway through the year, storing my teaching materials in an ugly classroom, and visiting the Museum of Anthropology.  When Scott redesigned his class with couches on casters, it was because kids kept fighting over a couch that someone donated.  When Kristi reconnected homeless people with Christmas cards to their families, it was supposed to be about a one day field trip.  When Greg started doing tech ed and rethinking how to teach everything, it probably wasn't until the long-standing tech-ed teacher decided to retire.
It seems like a chance encounter with some experience or meeting someone spurred on many innovations, teaching and otherwise.  Think of Archimedes who saw the water rise as he sunk into his bath and realized the concept of water displacement.  We still use this innovation today as we, for example, cook (not soggy Greek philosophers, but more palatable, hard to measure things like butter). 
So why is it that randomness plays a role in innovation?  Some might say that these things weren't random at all.  They had to happen.  It was just a matter of time until someone figured these things out and that the random element is a minor distraction.  Me, I'm of two brains on the issue.  On the one brain, as I mentioned in the last section, discomfort caused the innovator's brains to be open to any kind of solution.  They might have missed the opportunity for solution in other circumstances if their brains had not been ready due to their irritation of the problem.  My other brain says that the random act of inspiration is intrinsic to the very notion of innovation.  We can't see out of our normal routines until some weird chance occurrence happens to us.    We can't see a new way of doing things until something falls out of the sky and drops on our heads.  Innovation can't be innovative unless they seem to come out of left field because there is no natural progression of innovation.

Innovation goes back and forth between the individual and the group.
Sometimes inspiration falls on one person, but she doesn't know what to do with it, so she brings it to the group where suddenly, someone else sees where it can go.  (See: Shark's Tank or Dragon's Den).  Or a group is playing with an idea or a bunch of ideas, and someone takes something from the group session and distills it into an innovation.  (See: Xerox basically gave Steve Jobs the mouse controller concept because the company didn't really see an application for it). 
The hardest part about innovation is implementation.
There are so many great ideas, but most of them will never see acceptance until other people can see a personal and useful application for the idea.   That is why a lot of the innovations that really spread are simple, flexible, and have an open structure that can't be locked down to one narrow application.  People need to be able to answer, "What's my place in this?"  Some innovations allow high-end users more sophistication by taking a simple idea and allowing users to explore the complexity.  But wide-spread innovations tend to take a more elegant approach: take something complicated and make it so simple you don't even have to think about it.

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