Yesterday Steve Blank posted a humorous example of innovation killing-by-committee titled “Why Innovation Dies”. I want to expand on several key points as they specifically relate to our educational institutions. Why? We tend to think of ourselves as foundries of ideas and creativity, when in fact we tend to be largely inert. If we are not honest about this, we are going to lose the bet on an evolving marketplace.
Blank’s story revolves around adaptation to the market penetration of online courses. He argues that online education is not an evolved existing market and therefore there is not a single grand strategy that will compete effectively. The first lesson to be learned, he says, is that innovation in the presence of new markets “does not come from overarching strategies”. Big strategies require big bets, and everything we know about betting and taking risks suggests that they fail at least as often as they succeed. Even when they succeed, adjusting away in the face of new market conditions is difficult since we have so much invested in them.
In the presence of still-evolving market threats, Blank points out, we need to adopt a more nimble innovation approach of “opportunity, chaos, and rapid experimentation”. This is uncomfortable ground for many schools. Educators tend to be risk-averse, comfortable within traditions that have been successful in the past. We tend to take a long time to make decisions, usually after allowing all stakeholders to weigh in. We tend to look more inwardly than outwardly, so fresh opportunities are limited. We don’t like chaos; that is not a word that goes well with lots of young children around! But these are the characteristics we will have to adopt if we hope to compete in evolving markets like online education. The market does not wait, particularly when the evolution results in a dramatic decrease in the cost of providing a service.
Solutions, Bank proposes, will arise out of “betting on a portfolio of low-cost experiments” instead of the grand moon shot. This portfolio carries baggage, which we don’t like. Someone has to keep track of multiple efforts, justify expense, create time for pilots, articulate goals, and assess outcomes. Why? Because that is how we do things at schools. We do not have a tradition of rapid-fire experimentation and quick decisions based on our best instincts; that is how high-tech companies innovate but it is not embedded in our K-12 system of education.
This is where we have to change our cultural DNA, by intentionally adopting new, faster, messier pilots before we have either full consensus or an assessment report. We will also change the cumulative DNA by hiring people who have demonstrated ability to work in this paradigm, rather than hiring only based on previous experience or future potential in a traditional teaching (content delivery) role. We then need to support the process with a vastly more distributed system of responsibility and freedom to test and adapt, without necessarily requiring that each substantive innovation become an all-school decision. Leaders must become comfortable with this process, and facile at knowing when, and when not, to reign in rapidly changing responses to evolving markets. Otherwise we get caught in the Committee Hell that Banks wrote about, which is only funny for those very few of us who have never been caught there.