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.

However.

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.