Friday, December 2, 2011

Can you innovate and focus at the same time?

You can't bump into an education sage or a political pundit without hearing that the United States needs to be more innovative.  Steve Jobs was hailed as a heroic innovator at his death, Arne Duncan is calling for innovation in fixing college costs, Colorado's Governor John Hickenlooper has created an innovation initiative, and President Obama has argued that America must innovate its way out of our economic doldrums.

Institutions of higher education are particularly susceptible to the innovation argument, because they are under fire for being irrelevant, because they are the major location for research in the American economy, and because they have an overwhelming desire to distinguish themselves from each other.  But there are at least four major concerns with pushing innovation as a major value in education.
  1. Confusion--though colleges and universities talk about innovation--renewing an older thing to make it better and more meaningful--they often are hoping for invention--the creation of something almost entirely new.  The conflation of innovation and invention means that small innovations often lack the appeal and funding they would need to get established, while big sparkly new things get the go-ahead on the basis of their inventiveness.
  2. Integration--as my colleague Ian Symmonds has pointed out, without integration, innovations will lose their luster, remain isolated,and eventually wither rather than change the institution.  But unless institutions are purposeful about integration, it doesn't happen. 
  3. Leadership--Often innovation is associated with a leader (think Steve Jobs again) rather than an institution or a set of processes.  But as with other large institutions, higher education leaders come and go.  If innovations are tied to them, or sparked largely in their offices, the spirit of innovation may leave with them, or take on their own idiosyncrasies.
  4. Focus--At the same time that schools are being called on to innovate, quieter voices are calling on them to focus.  There is logic in this call, since without focus, many schools on limited budgets will fail to allocate resources wisely or pursue risky new activities to their detriment.  And in a crowded market, institutions that lack focus will get lost. Unfortunately, higher ed loves the lack of focus (we even have a name for it--the university).  But as Jim Collins argues in How the Mighty Fall, lack of focus is one of the major sins that lead healthy organizations to collapse.
Can organizations innovate and focus at the same time?  Of course they can, but to do so, they have to have a particular sort of innovation discipline.  The sources of innovation--those institutions, ideas, passions, practices that the institution will apply to a new context--have to be focused as well.

Here is what I mean.  Innovation is essentially taking something old and reworking it to be something new.  If an institution goes to the same few sources as birthplaces of its innovations, it can count on the innovations having at least some focus at the end.  So if a religious university wants to innovate it should comb the memories, writings, speeches, and histories of its religious tradition, looking for some idea that is analogous to the current situation.  If a teaching college wants to innovate and focus it needs to go back to the same well again and again--the same philosophers of education, say, or the same peer institutions, or the same sort of pedagogy.

Here Apple and Steve Jobs are instructive.  They have few products, all with the same look, feel, and appeal.  They have been innovative to be sure, but their focus is even more impressive.  Few colleges and universities have that same sort of limited product line and common design.  Instead they work incessantly on creating a brand--a logo, a color scheme, a tagline--to somehow make it seem like their sprawling programs and new initiatives feel like they come from the same place.  Most brands cannot live up to that task.


David G. Pace said...

I like your colleague's stereo system example of integration: "Remember when you had your first record player or turntable? And, then you acquired a cassette tape player. Soon, we realized these advances would be best if served up together, so we created a stereo system, pulled together by an amplifier that served as a hub that several other components plugged into. This was followed by the integration of the cd player, then the massive leap into video with the addition of the TV. And, now we are seeing the computer and Internet jumping into this family entertainment system. Innovation drives integration."

As my organization continues to innovate--or try to--I think we are struck by the challenge to advance this notion through the terrority of buzz (as in buzz word) and to integrate as well.

The language we use to describe it is often, "how do we keep the lights on while 're-inventing?'"

Thanks also for making the useful distinction that I realize I've conflated between innovation and invention. As a group, I think a more precise vocabulary always helps us move forward toward a concept or an idea that we can buy into and thus feel some energy toward.

This in what can be a long, drawn-out and rattling process.

Bryce said...

This is a great post, Gary. I appreciated your thoughts about the importance of looking to particular sources for innovative ideas. It's a bit counter-intuitive (i.e. looking to our histories and traditions); however, it ensures that we maintain our organizational identities and stay true to our missions--something that I don't see happening very often in big organizations trying to be innovative. Too often in our attempts to innovate, we lose sight of who we are. And, at that point, it doesn't matter how "innovative" we are because we've lost our way.