Monday, August 25, 2014

Seeds of Innovation: Timing, Chance, and Risk-Taking.

I've blogged before about the seeds of innovation.  I studied innovation in education actively for two years during my time with the Staff Development department in my district.  I saw some incredible and inspiring things, and then documented them on my site the Bright Ideas Gallery.  But I've been curious about the nature of innovation, not just in education, but all innovation.  I investigated innovation to apply these methods back to education to see if we can nurture and grow innovation, but I noticed odd and interesting patterns along the way. 

In a lot of cases, there was no real "discovery" with respect to innovative ideas or products.  Instead what happened was that the actual invention or concept was always there, but no one really had figured out how to use it in a viable way.  Xerox gave Steve Jobs the computer mouse because they thought it was useless.  Steve ran with the mouse to create the first really personal computer, the Macintosh.  This happens in education all the time.  A lot of ideas or methods have been around a long time, but someone figures out how to use an old technique in a new way or repackages it in a way that makes sense for modern users.

This brings up another pattern: timeliness. The Paul Masson winery used to say, "We will sell no wine before its time."  They were right because there has to be a match between the idea and the zeitgeist of what is currently happening.  People have to open to what you are developing.  Handhelds came way before the iPod, iPhone, or iPad, but they never really caught on with the masses.  Even Apple came out with a dismal "failure" (by Apple standards) of a PDA*, the Newton.  Apart from techies, no one wanted to carry around a deck of cards-sized computer in their pants, and now we would not dream of leaving our homes without our devices.  (We would sooner leave our homes without our pants).

Timing was everything.  With the iPhone there is a huge convergence of technologies that even by themselves are pretty amazing: cellular phones, digital cameras, microcomputers, compact storage, powerful and small rechargeable batteries, touchscreens, flat and small displays, digital music transfer, etc. All of this had to come together, and simultaneously, consumers had to see a need for this powerful little bundle.

My favourite aspect of developing innovation is the most elusive one: dumb luck. Sometimes there is a great random chance that occurs that forces the innovator to think of things in a different way.  What would have happened if Jobs hadn't toured Xerox that day?  Surely, it was a case of right place, right time.  And without even one of those technologies I listed above, would the iPhone have even gotten off the ground let alone be so popular as it is today?  If you've been reading this blog from the beginning you know that I was looking for a striking way to redesign my classroom, and it was just happenstance that I went to the Museum of Anthropology that gave me the idea for my beloved risers.  It was also not just dumb luck but my limited wood working skills that led me to create them in a rectangular, open and highly agile design (and not the closed, curved and somewhat limited design that original inspiration was).

The one aspect of innovation that I have not written about before is: risk taking.  This summer, I read Amanda Lang's The Power of Why.  She talks about how innovation can come from curiosity, and in her examples there is risk taking involved to get the innovation to that next step.  I get that.  Because innovators are doing something new, the ideas are not always well-received because they go against the grain of what has already happened or what is currently happening.  It takes a lot of courage to break from the inertia of history.  Electric light in homes was first seen as dangerous (compared to gas or lit candles?).  Flight was seen as heretical: "If man was meant to fly, he would be born with wings."  (Something to think about the next time your flight is delayed).  Elvis was seen as lewd on when he shook his hips on the Ed Sullivan Show.  (Luckily, Miley Cyrus came on after him).

Innovators are risk takers who push the envelope.  Even if they are not successful with their innovations, they help us re-examine the limits of what we thought was possible.  Also, there is something deliciously rebellious is pushing the limits.  My whole design journey started as a joke, a prank, (see Origin).  My co-conspirator, Craig, and I were giggling like little girls when we started dismantling the storage room so we could use it as our secret clubhouse, later dubbed The Space.  It was like a non-malicious version of that movie from the 90's Pacific Heights where freaky tenant Michael Keaton drastically alters the suite rented to him by on-site owners, Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffiths (before she got her lips renovated).   Craig and I took down the curtains from the windows, and then used them to cover up the ugly storage units.  We removed or hid anything that reminded us of school.  We brought in soft lighting, couches, an espresso machine, rolling bamboo blinds, a CD player that played non-school music, etc.  It was a great private joke and we didn't tell anyone at first (except the custodians who came in to get paper towels and toilet paper out of storage).  It was a wonderful inside laugh, that we slowly leaked to the staff.  It brought the staff closer together by giving them a "null" place devoid of the pressures and reminders of teaching, and it morphed into applying the same idea for personal classroom spaces.

Sometimes, it takes a lot of bravery to not do what is expected, and sometimes, it is just plain fun to do the unexpected.  The really great thing in terms of seeding innovation, is that risk-taking is something we teachers can foster in our classrooms.  We can model it.  We can allow mistakes to happen without scorn, and even encourage mistakes as part of a constructive process.  We can encourage questions and curiosity. We can debrief what happens when things go wrong or right, and develop next steps.  We can give examples like Jobs, Edison, and the Wright brothers as innovators who made many mistakes until they found something that worked.  We can document process, and use the documentation as a blueprint for next time. 

Unlike timing or dumb luck, risk taking is a seed of innovation that is doable.  (Sewable?) 

*Personal Digital Assistant, not Public Display of Affection