Innovation 101

As I have noted in previous blogs and am fleshing out in my book, “Creating a Culture of Learning Innovation” (coming to an Amazon near you as soon as a publisher is willing to read my query….) the importance of associative thinking is crucial for innovating.  Finding solutions under other contexts and using them within your (unique / different) context, is really how innovation is sparked.  That’s why there is a distinction between innovation and invention, which is creating something new.  Instead, innovators steal like artists, reimagining their world so that the ideas can be implemented. 


But, a crucial piece of associating which shouldn’t likely go unspoken is gathering a lot of information and ideas.  In other words, it’s hard to pull ideas from other contexts if you rarely hear of ideas from other contexts!  Yes, sometimes inspiration hits at the right time / right place, but for a regular cadence of innovation, you need to have a wealth of those ideas at your fingertips.  As well, the more context research you do, the more ideas will start to surface.

For the past few months, I’ve been inundated with ideas.  I attended the Institute for the Future’s Learn+Work conference, I gave a keynote address at a math redesign workshop for the state of California, I went to the SEEDS 3 conference on learning analytics and data, not to mention OLC Innovate, ASU + GSV, and more.  Whew….my frequent flyer card is warm.

But it got me to thinking about when and where educators get their ideas.  I’ve blogged before that every “modern” teacher should have a steady stream of inputs from non-academic sources by which to feed associative thinking.  In my case, I look to magazines like Wired, Forbes, Harvard Business Review and the Atlantic as much as Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle, and Educause.  I follow as many non-academics on Twitter as I do formal educators.  My personal library contains as much about neuroscience, socialness, technology, leadership, and strategy as it does curriculum, pedagogy, communication, and administration.  I listen to podcasts and audible books during half over almost every car and bike ride, before switching to comedy, talk radio, or music.  And I make sure to watch para-educational tv like Brain Matters or TED as much as NFL football or Walking Dead.  But I also attend a LOT of conferences. 

Before I go on, I want to be clear – conferences are typically not overflowing with associative thinking moments.  In my lifetime, I have likely attended more than 500 conferences in one capacity or another and I can assure you that 90% of conference sessions are awful.  You know what I’m talking about.  The presenters (and I use that word very lightly) often read a script or their slides to the audience, verbatim; the session titles are almost always misleading and terribly impractical as speakers rarely consider how to actually extrapolate the concepts at scale, let alone under another context; and the amount of food they stuff you with leads to diabetic comas throughout the days, making people sluggish and brain-drained. 

But at the same time, I will argue that if a person attends a conference and comes back claiming they got nothing out of it….well, that speaks more about the attendee than the conference.  There are almost always a few nuggets of goodness that can be gleaned, extrapolated, and / or at the very least filed away for more consideration.  A memorable quote here, or a controversial argument from one of the presenters there should be able to spark your curiosity or rev up your creative juices in some way shape or form. 


So, take the keynote idea, the workshop initiative, the brainstorming concept, or whatever and start to work it.  You know - channel your inner Ed Harris in Apollo 13 or Matt Damon in The Martian and experiment, configure, suppose, predict, and try out.  For many academics I'm suggesting you allow your natural instincts to kick in!  Google it.  Explore if through ERIC.  Do that voodoo that you do so well!  Research the idea, the strategy, etc.  See how other schools have done it, or alternatively, see if there are reasons schools have chosen NOT to do something.  Look at the business stream in which the initiative was accomplished and then ask how it might be performed in a your specific higher education context.  Ping your network and ask colleagues what they think.  Go to Twitter or LinkedIn and create a post about it, looking for comments and feedback.  Just noodle with it.  Even if you finally conclude that it can’t work or if you never end up using it, the continual practice will help.  See, as you collect more and more of those ideas, you’ll start to have a throng of options available when the right day comes.  If you have been in higher ed long enough, you’ll know what I mean.  Suddenly a strange pot of money is made available, but you need to move on it now.  Suddenly a new administrator enters the scene and they need to work with you on a specific concept that needs a product, process, or implementation.  Your President puts out a “challenge” to all departments to fix problem a, b, c, etc. 


So, even if your job isn’t to curate and promote initiatives or strategies, there will come a time when it matters.  Even if the majority of the initiatives impact you alone, like classroom strategies or experiences solely supporting your silo of the organization, the more you do it, the better you will get at it.  (And the better the strategies will work as you weed out lesser ideas for better ones.) 

On the plus side, this also does a nice job encouraging a paradigm of change-readiness, although that deserves its own blog. 

So it’s time to associate.  It’s time to look for solutions, initiatives, programs, or ideas from outside your context and start to work on them for your context.  Doing so will help you, your department, your classroom, your college, and/or your university.  Remember, IBM’s survey of 1500 CEO’s found that innovation would be the key to success over every other skill-set.  But also remember that those same CEO’s claim to be able to find innovation less than 20% of the time in employees.  So start practicing your associating.  Or better stated, start practicing innovation. 

Good luck and good learning.