When Innovation Gets Difficult

A summary of the core argument of my recent keynote at the Midwestern Higher Education Compact (slides at http://slideshare.net/opencontent/).

Throughout the late 20th century, and into the early 21st, when we spoke about “innovation” we largely meant impressive technical feats. Think Jobs and Woz creating the Mac, or Larry and Sergey creating Google, or the kinds of things Tony Hirst and Jim Groom seem to pull off regularly. We made heroes of the two geeks working in their mom’s garage… We made heroes of the lone coder, working late at night armed only with Emacs and Mountain Dew. These legends engaged in mythical man-versus-nature battles, subduing the wild frontier of source code and bending the Internet to their wills. They’re just plain cool.


The kind of innovations these legends produce – technological innovations – are the easy kind of innovation. They are innovations that manipulate inanimate entities free of agency. During John Seely Brown’s visit to BYU last week, I heard him say that while the 20th century was a time of technological innovation, the 21st century must be a time of institutional innovation. This is the most insightful statement I’ve heard made in recent memory. It impacted me deeply, as it neatly summarized a frustration I’ve been feeling more and more keenly.

Anyone who has worked to reform an institution will readily admit that the more people are involved, and the more they are invested in maintaining the status quo, the harder it is to affect change. Even something as small as a stepwise incremental policy change can be a multi-year battle. I can hear you now thinking, “Just burn it down and plant a new institution in the ashes,” or “Just punch out and create a new institution to compete with the first.” Sometimes these are legitimate approaches to getting things done, but sometimes they aren’t. I seem to keep finding my interests lie in problems and institutions where these more radical methods simply don’t seem to apply. This seems to portend many difficult years ahead for me.

Imposing your will on bits and bytes is “easy.” Leading an established institution through the valley of the shadow of reform and up the opposite bank toward innovation is “hard.” But it is absolutely critical work, and precious few people are in positions that afford them opportunities to provide this kind of leadership.

10 thoughts on “When Innovation Gets Difficult”

  1. Excellent post. And I couldn’t agree more. Some of my recent projects within the educational space has provided experience that supports all you say here. What I also find interesting is how newly created institutions begin to trend toward the traditional.

    And yes, it is critical work that has to be done. I look forward to opportunities where I can support the leadership willing to walk in the valley of the shadow.

  2. Nicely stated. Here’s a shorter version: “Crossing the Red Sea was a technological innovation – but even the Lord needed 40 years to prepare the Israelites to cross the Jordon. THAT was an institutional innovation!”

    Hopefully we won’t have to wait for another generation to die off to transform learning. I work with K-12 companies (mostly) and feel the pressure since close to 5 million kids enter (and exit) the system each year in the US. Incremental change isn’t doing them much good 🙁

  3. What an excellent post. Wow! So congruent with all the things I have been observing in the world. Life has shown me that by bringing together or at least identifying two polarized sides of something, then a big bang of innovation can occur. Humanity / technology are the two that most interest me. How can we make our technology more human, and help humans learn how to think more scientifically.

  4. Hi David – Whether to stay within traditional institutions (eg, universities) and help them change OR whether to help drive the forces that underlie that change, well, this is a decision that each of must make. We need good decent people making each decision and pursuing each course of action. And, goodness, a decision made today is not irrevocable. In my case, I simply got frustrated with the intransigence and glacial speed evident in most universities. From the other side, I wish you well. … Gary

  5. Teachers teach, and leaders lead. The first is leading people to the path of self improvement, called learning. A leader without followers is in bad shape, and it’s the people’s choice whether or not to follow.

    It may be that we will have to create a network of small groups that interact and build a whole “institution” for the sole purpose of motivating and enabling individuals to create small pockets of change.

    I have plans in that direction, but little ability to proceed with them. Edubacon.com is one of my steps in building up to it. My blog (blog.IgenOukan.com) was the first. I’ve talked with Jim Groom about my ideas and took the Mozilla open education course this last spring to help facilitate the networking needed. However, those who have goals to help education generally have a very narrow focus for what they want to do that includes working with other almost solely on their project. I’m interested in getting more interdisciplinary projects going that have focus groups within them.

    Perhaps an online “course” on communication could help get people to interact more effectively to bring about the institutional innovations.

  6. Right on @David, and I love everyone’s comments here, too. This thread loops into one of the unexpected effects J. Seely Brown’s BYU pres had on me, namely depression. Describing workplaces like Google as exemplifying innovation cultures is nice, but not really useful for those many who may be working in stratified, often monolithic institutions with little interest in the true causes of innovation–suspicious that creative approaches = risk = potential loss (of reputation, revenue, control, etc). So that particular message is for those who can make an impact (“leaders”), but there’s a more important, day-to-day message for the rest: change from within, or get out, or shut up and sit out.

  7. Thank you thank you thank you.

    I had a particularly rough day today — got really excited about a well defined plan to put CELT’s focus on two major, easy to grasp initiatives in stead of splitting it across 50 little projects — and then I was brought back to earth and told to be careful, it will seem like we have too much of a top-down agenda. [and the person told me this as a favor, mind you — worried about the reception].

    If we are not effective, people say what the heck are we doing with our time. If we are effective they circle the wagons.

    Anyway, I really appreciate this. Tomorrow I’ll be back rolling eggs through the minefield, but it’s nice to be reminded it is not for nothing.

  8. I dunno, most of me wants to agree, I get paid by them too. But I’m yet to see something like what you describe. Leadership equaling innovation? Not sure. Leadership being deliberate, going to plan, and remaining principled, it doesn’t exist but in afterthought. What and wherever we see change, those who are outside that particular institution need to do more in acknowledging and celebrating it. Because one thing we probably would agree on, is the impact a big OUTSIDE voice has on the actions going on inside.

  9. In his seminal 1972 work, Management, Peter Drucker issued a prediction. He said that the biggest challenge facing the science of management was to find a way to manage nonprofit institutions and government bodies as efficiently as businesses. In business, market pressures tend to compel performance. For “too big to fail firms,” it can take almost geologic time before a succession of mistakes leads to collapse but in small to midize companies, market pressures ruthlessly force performance or failure. But institutions and governments lack natural market pressures. Drucker said it was up to us all to figure out substitutes that would create the same kind of incentives and feedbacks, because institutions and government would play an increasingly powerful role in society going forward.

  10. Estoy de acuerdo en que la mayoría dominante tratará de mantener el status quo. Por eso, en esta reflexión que enlazo: La Web 2.0 y la construcción social de la universidad pública. Dificultades para innovar y planificar el cambio (http://www.aprenderenred.net/?p=129) planteamos un proceso de guerra de guerrillas para afrontar y dinamizar los procesos de cambio institucional.

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