The Top 3 Reasons You’ve Never Been Taught to Innovate

Author: Udaiyan Jatar, Published: November 14, 2013

You’ve Never Been Taught To Innovate!

Why don’t we teach innovation in schools? It turns out that innovation is a learnable skill and that teaching students to innovate by providing them with exercises and techniques that support creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving encourages the development of this “muscle”!

At a recent innovation summit in Atlanta, the CoLab Summit, our CEO, Udaiyan Jatar, was invited on stage to encourage businesses leaders to stop relying on conventional management theory for innovation and instead learn from the real situations in which innovation has worked. It turned out that his speech shared themes with some of the summit headliners, such as Sir Ken Robinson and Thomas Friedman. But one headliner had the same message, Tony Wagner, who is the Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard.

In addition to making everyone else’s job title somehow seem inadequate, Wagner painted a poignant picture of somewhere else besides business where current ideological convention is serving us poorly in innovation. Wagner’s focus was on our current education system and how it woefully prepares us for innovation once we go to work.

Here at Blue Earth, we believe the same thing. Today’s conventional business doctrine is a mirror of that education system. There are 3 main reasons we can do much better.

1) Innovation is Iteration

You can’t innovate in a silo, and you can’t innovate in a vacuum. The greatest human thinkers from DaVinci to Edison to Einstein relied on the opportunities for collaboration and challenge provided by their peers.

In the typical k-12 education, we have lots of peers. But we are not creating ideas in school, we are proving how well we memorize other people’s ideas. We are not applying what we learn to the real world, we are showing we understand things on paper that in many cases will be used by less than 1% of the US adult population.

What percentage of our time was actually involved creating and collaborating? What percentage involved our peers challenging and refining ideas? From k-12, through college, and even through most graduate programs, the environment that fosters innovation is completely absent.

Measurements included. Your grades are yours alone, even with group work. Most forms of collaboration, unless expressly sanctioned, are actually treated as cheating. You are not graded on positive contributions to the classroom or your community.

What about business school? Surely they do better. MBAs seem to have more team projects than most, but ultimately an MBA’s success in school and out of it is presented to her as an individual effort. In teamwork the emphasis is on her individual contribution to the team, more than it is about the team coming up with something more than the sum of its parts, which would be closer to innovation. Innovation as a stand-alone subject is absent in 99% of business school curricula.

Case competitions are the exception. And what are case competitions? Students working on real world problems. Outside of the classroom.

How we work as students is not how innovation works. Innovation comes from mixing ideas and perspectives and collaboration and challenge. The innovations that we have learned from and have helped create are not siloed solutions, they are means of helping whole swaths of people bring something new to their life. Those people, through their reaction to and advocacy of the innovation are an integral part of that innovation’s success.

Even discovering a ripe opportunity for innovation requires deep interaction with those served by the innovation, let alone the execution. The best innovations satisfy deep human needs and aspirations. To understand those opportunities you require perspectives, diversity, and deep learning into what makes other people tick.

The best ideas are born of empathy for those being served.

This is how a new business idea can take hold most firmly and spread most effectively. This can only come from collaboration that holds the best intentions for the success of our collaborators in mind.

That does not sound like education. Nor does it sound like a typical management strategy for innovation which focuses on products and technology and current capabilities before it ever looks at the human level.

At Blue Earth, we start our projects with the best intention to satisfy a deep need. Start innovation with the question – how can I really help people in a new way? How can I change their lives in a way they can’t do effectively themselves?

This is how Gatorade was invented by an industry outsider despite the massive resources and drive for growth of all Gatorade’s initial beverage competitors. The beverage giants were asking, how can we grow our volume and make more flavors? Gatorade was asking, how can I help student athletes have better sports experiences and performance? Gatorade was sold for over $15 billion to one of those very giants who didn’t see it coming.

2) Innovation is Action

Innovation requires more than papers, presentations or even great ideas. It requires action and reaction in the “real world.” Of course it does. But then why isn’t real-world solution creation ever taught in schools?

Our entire education system up until graduate school is predicated on students repeating old information. Deviation from this prescribed notion of truth, often in books written years ago, gives you wrong answers. It is a small percentage of teachers that have the energy or the flexibility to supplement stogy textbooks with the real-time discoveries happening every day. Not only do students miss the excitement of what is happening out there right now as a connection to what they are being taught, they spend years practicing only one style of knowledge absorption, passive learning.

You can’t innovate through passive learning, you can’t even truly innovate only by “ideating”.  You can only innovate by doing.

How often did a teacher turn to you and say, I actually don’t know the answer to this problem that people have, let’s figure out a new way to solve it, and then we’ll go try it out? That question doesn’t fit anywhere in our current education system.

This has direct implications for the business world.

Most businesses approach innovation like a classic school research report. They state a hypothesis for a new idea, then they set out to research every element of that new idea. Multiple focus groups and surveys of thousands leading to potentially endless analysis are recruited in an attempt to prove or disprove that original hypothesis.

This process can take months. Worse, this process will tell us the preferences of the average person, of the “typical” market for a potential idea. That’s the same market every competitor will see.  That’s the fast track to diluting our ideas and making then easy to copy. Sustainable inventions use new unique ways to serve deep yet specific needs.

Most often the motivation for the long term research approach is to prevent a commitment of resources towards a bad idea. What if it fails? This is a method for preventing resource loss. That sounds reasonable to any manager. The irony is that simply creating a small but effective real world test of this idea can require less resources than a typical research plan!

Entrepreneurs know that some of the greatest innovations of our time didn’t require months worth of traditional research, or even weeks. They required the innovator to create something as fast as possible and get it into the market. That is the experiment.

Nike was invented when Bill Bowerman poured rubber into a waffle iron and started selling it, not to the average person in the biggest market, but to people who he was familiar with and who he knew needed it the most, college coaches. He served them so well that they became his biggest sources of feedback and his biggest evangelists.

He had no budget for research. That proved to be an advantage, because the best way to innovate is to actively create to serve a unique need and put your creation out there.

3) Innovation is Failure

Failure is the worst thing that can happen to you in education. Literally the entire point of traditional education is to not fail and keep moving through the grades. Failure is the worst outcome. Enough failure and your traditional education ends.

This process is mirrored in the business world. Most business people agree that failure is actually one of the fastest ways to learn. Despite all the rhetoric around failure these days, in practice, failure is either overtly punished or culturally demonized in most companies. Very few companies embrace it because very few leaders embrace it.

Failure sounds just as bad to most CEOs as it does to most teachers. Despite rationally agreeing with failure as a learning tool, failure is perceived as a great loss. This can paralyze a leader. The issue is that most leaders don’t know how to fail productively.

The problem is not failure, it is how we do failure.

The faster you put your innovation out there, the faster you see what part of it fails, the faster you will get to the most successful version of your innovation. Believing that you can invent a solution that will be so perfect so as to never experience failure is the false grail of all that corporate research and the height of unproductive hubris.

The key to doing failure productively is to start tiny. Start with the smallest possible experiment, the minimally viable product, the smallest use of resources to give you learning results. Start with a small audience, the audience with the greatest need. Reduce the time, reduce the resources, and you reduce the risk. Then you fail and you learn. Failure becomes productive.

Penn State Professor, Dr. Jack Matson, describes this concept as IFF – Intelligent Fast Failure. Many other organizations have their own names. At Blue Earth we call this Rapid Prototyping.

Venture Capital firms figured out that successful start-ups require an average of 7 pivots to find their most viable product. Seven pivots technically means 6 productive failures. Despite the carefully crafted business plans, despite all the research, and despite, in many cases, the funding; they had 6 significant failures and that’s what taught them to succeed.

Failure doesn’t have to mean an end or a loss. Done the right way it can mean success.

Key Take-Aways

Traditional management doctrine was born of the traditional education system. We have seen here how they are connected and how neither serves us well when trying to create something new. It is time to drop those old habits.

That is what we endeavor to do at Blue Earth Network every day. Our process is wholly unconventional and produces much better results.

You can begin applying these ideas right now.

Take a look at your business and find the places where your culture, your processes, or your activities mirror an academic setting. See where you are striving to come up with a pre-defined answer. See where collaboration, action, and failure are being stifled or tied up in the red tape and well-meaning, but misguided, approach of conventional management doctrine.

I can guarantee those activities are impeding your best chance at true innovation.

Posted in: Innovation