I Can Name Innovation In Three Notes....

One of my favorite songs of all time is “Creep” by Radiohead.  I dare say it’s my anthem, if sung to my wife.  (Stand back ladies….I’m taken.)  The song speaks to my soul.  The chords, the words, the whole thing is just mesmerizing to me.  From the first moment I heard it, I thought it was one of the coolest pieces of art I had ever experienced, despite being one of Radiohead’s least favorite numbers.  But just because it was successful, new (to me), and covered a lot over the years, was it innovative?  Before you answer, you should know one more important thing.  Radiohead was sued by The Hollies who claimed that “Creep” was essentially stolen.  Their song, “The Air That I Breathe” is…well, let’s say it’s awfully similar.  (The Hollies won the lawsuit.)

But back to my question.  Can Creep be considered innovative?  What about Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now?”  It’s awfully similar to Alan Parson’s Project 1983 hit, “Eye in the Sky.”  Or what about Beyonce’s “Halo” vs Kelly Clarkson’s, “Already Gone?”  These songs aren’t just similar due to chord structure, which could be said of hundreds of thousands of chords.  Instead they seem like one artist took the other artist’s song and just changed some words.  (Check out Pin Eight’s cool wiki about songs that sound alike.)  So, knowing that a song was potentially taken and reworded…is it innovative? 

In fact, forget the sound-alikes.  Is any song innovative?  Again, there are typically only a few hundred chord structures that are pleasing to the human ear.  So, there are thousands of songs that use the same basic structure.  The words may change and instruments may evolve, but the saying, “There are no new songs” is out there for a reason.  But can a song be innovative?

I have had an enjoyable few weeks dialoguing with friends and colleagues alike.  My blog post, “Is ASU Innovative” had 7K imprints and really seemed to get some people talking.  I appreciated the messages via LinkedIn and Twitter from folks with whom my thoughts resonated.  But despite loads of agreement regarding the University, I have also had a number of conversations with people about what constitutes innovation at all.  It’s a really important question that I believe people (and universities) should thoughtfully consider, if they are going to call themselves innovative.  So let’s be thoughtful for a moment.

A few defenders of ASU felt I had been unfair by implying the things which the news said were innovative were actually not.  The Starbucks deal was discussed a lot.  Is that innovative?  My very real answer is that I don’t know.  Is it educationally innovative?  Probably not.  It’s more of an enrollment initiative than an academic one.  ASU is going to get a new wave of students, paid for by a company.  But those students don’t have any greater or lesser chance of succeeding than non-SB students do.  So perhaps in terms of admissions it is innovative.  But truthfully, I don’t care.  I mean, good for Starbucks helping their people.  That’s awesome.  But at the end of the day, ASU is going to get more money and more students by partnering with a company.  Those kinds of deals have been done for decades. 

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Which leads to the second most common point made.  A few people pointed out that ASU brought eLearning successfully into their portfolio of academic channels, AT SCALE.  That was always the sticking point for people.  My assertion that ASU hadn’t brought much of any innovation to scale was defended. 

Two important things.  First, please remember that at the end of that blog I concluded ASU was indeed innovative.  But second, while I agree that they have done a nice job with online learning at scale, I do not think it to be innovative.  Why?  Because ASU wasn’t even close to the first college or university to try it.  I could likely point to almost 100 institutions who brought eLearning to scale prior to ASU.  Some argued that their OPM model was also innovative, but again, I don’t think it was.  They were not first, nor second, nor third to that party…they were not even close. 

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I don’t have to beat you up with the point.  You get it.  I don’t think that a person who implements a solution for the 100th time is innovative.  Perhaps you disagree.  I purposefully put the song gambit up front to stir the pot.  I actually DO think that songs can be innovative, despite having no new chords to explore.  But I don't see a new song as the same thing as replicating a solution between campuses...

So, let’s finally get to it.  What is innovation?  First, let’s remember that innovation is not the same as invention.  Creating something, never imagined before is invention.  But for our conversation, a simple definition search shows that innovation is a new method, idea, device, or process.  But I think we’re all better served with a stronger definition.  I look at the Innovator’s DNA as a very good reference.  Those guys did a fantastic job researching innovator’s and innovative companies.  But at the end of the day, while Innovators have 4 unique qualities, only two of them are really observable.  Associative thinking and experimentation are really the keys to innovation.  I won’t belabor experimentation as you all know what that means, although a key concept held within is a lot of failure.  If you don’t find a place that fails a lot (albeit potentially safely), you won’t find an innovative place.  But, the other concept – associative thinking – now that matters. 

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The idea is complex, but can be explained fairly simply.  Take a solution from a context other than your own and bring it to bear within your context.  So, perhaps you note that in Banking, profiles of success are determined by affective behaviors.  So, you find a way to measure affective behaviors of students and use that to determine risk and success.  THAT is innovative! 

But…it begs a question.  What is context?  Is taking a solution used at another school…or maybe a hundred other schools, and implementing that solution at your school innovative?  You can argue that every school is a completely unique context.  After all, your school has your own ecosystem filled with nay-sayers, accreditation concerns, nuanced courses, niche enrollments, etc.  So, if that is your definition of context (instead of education vs health care, etc), then I guess EVERY school is innovative.  But that seems like an incredibly watered down version of innovation to me.  I don’t think that is innovative. 

Look, I wasn’t bagging on ASU.  I like ASU.  I think the Freshman Global Academy is super innovative.  (And the failures that have come from it may just prove my point…)  My point was actually about this blog.  Be intentional about what you call innovation.  (I’m looking at you US News & World Report.)  If we start reporting higher ed innovation to the world, without it being genuinely innovative, we’re all going to suffer. 

I’ve heard VPAA’s tell me that the creation of a new Nursing program is innovative.  I’ve had VP’s of Advancement explain that they were going to create a LinkedIn group for a specific group of alumni because it was innovative.  Professors have told me that using Smart Boards is innovative. 

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I’m sorry, but I don’t agree.  Those things may be progressive!  But I don’t think that they are innovative. 

Let’s save the innovation moniker for those things that actually fit the bill.  Who knows?  Maybe we’ll start to see more real innovation and as a result, our students will find better targets to hit when they are asked to be innovative.  (CEO’s want innovation above every other “soft” skill by the way….just sayin’)

Good luck and good learning.