Failure and Innovation

You’ve read it in the business press a hundred times: Failure is necessary for innovation. You’ve read it, but you probably don’t believe it. Or at least, you don’t believe that failure is the way to get promoted or to get a big salary increase, or to get that dream job down the road. And, it’s not exactly true that failure leads to innovation; it’s how failures are handled that determines whether innovation results.

This morning’s Wall Street Journal has an article, “Better Ideas Through Failure”, that contains stories from several companies that have figured out how to manage failure.

Grey New York, an ad agency, gives out a “Heroic Failure” trophy once each quarter, to the person who takes a big, edgy risk and fails, even though the idea had clearly seemed like a good one.

At SurePayroll, a payroll services company in Illinois, they now give out a “Best New Mistake” award: If you are trying hard, make a mistake, and learn from it, you’re eligible for the $400 reward.

In my book Group Genius, I give a few more examples of how innovative companies integrate failure into their culture. I talk about how the Italian design firm Alessi has a “museum of failed designs” that they proudly display; how the California design firm IDEO has a similar room filled with failed product ideas. I also describe the research that shows that serial innovators always fail more than everyone else, simply because they have more total ideas than everyone else. It turns out that creativity is a numbers game: exceptional creators are people who have ideas all the time. As I say in Group Genius, “Fail often, fail early, fail gloriously” (p. 178).

International Education Reform

The Economist of 17 September 2011 has a detailed three-page story about “the great schools revolution” resulting from “a global battle of ideas.” This has resulted from new masses of comparative data, such as the PISA tests developed by the OECD and first used in 32 countries in 2000, and McKinsey consulting group’s new education research practice, which assesses which school systems improve the most over the years. And computers and the internet seem to have finally reached the point where they could actually make a difference in schools (this hasn’t been true in the past; despite spending a lot of money to put computers in schools, going back to the 1970s in the U.S. when schools bought Apple II computers, there’s been no evidence to date that computers improve learning).

The Economist story also says that “the three great excuses” for bad schools are no longer accepted. They are skimpy government spending, social class, and cultures that don’t value education. The article acknowledges the research suggesting that social class plays a big role in school outcomes, but argues that schools can still make a difference, particularly if the culture emphasizes education (with a reference to Asian cultures, where even poor children study hard and do well on tests).

Then the article identifies four important themes that work to improve schools: decentralization, a focus on underachieving students, providing a choice of different types of schools (they mention charters as the U.S. example), and high standards for teachers. They then provide examples of schools that a recent McKinsey report has identified as high performers: Ontario, Poland, and Saxony (in Germany). The most important are the last two: providing a variety of schools (The Economist‘s economic liberalism leads them to advocate “schools free of government control,” no surprise) and enhancing teacher quality. Is the U.S. ready to double teacher salaries and then grant them autonomy and professional discretion, as is done in Singapore for example? Unfortunately, U.S. schools aren’t going down that path.

The Digital Promise Initiative

On Friday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the Digital Promise Initiative, a high-profile research effort “to advance breakthrough technologies that transform teaching and learning in and out of the classroom, while creating a business environment that rewards innovation and entrepreneurship”.* The reason why classrooms and business innovation are in the same sentence is the belief that new education technology requires “a more efficient market” and support for software developers to reach customers “on an economically valuable scale.”

I’m excited that school reform and technology is receiving such attention. We have a long history where the promise of educational technology never delivers any real change. I’m sure that some of my education colleagues will be skeptical about the private sector involvement in the initiative; today’s Wall Street Journal article was co-authored by Duncan and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, and the program’s board includes John Morgridge, chairman emeritus of Cisco, and Irwin Jacobs, co-founder of Qualcomm. But to the contrary, I welcome the participation of leaders in information technology. After all, we’ll never have effective learning technologies in schools unless there are companies willing to invest in developing and marketing products to schools.

The key will be to get serious learning scientists involved with the initiative. Computers are wasted if their introduction to the classroom is not based on serious, substantial research about how children learn, both alone and in groups. Learning scientists are working to change that. The National Science Foundation is providing the Federal seed money (see their press release) of $15 million through its Cyberlearning program, and their web site shows that Janet Kolodner is the Program Officer; that’s promising, because Kolodner has been involved with learning sciences since its foundation, and was the editor of the field’s journal from 1991 to 2009. (And she was on the advisory board of a book I edited, The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.)

Because of a history of failure, some skepticism about computers and schools is justified. But when systems are designed that are based in the sciences of how people learn, children learn better. The cutting edge of educational software doesn’t replace the teacher; it’s designed to facilitate more effective teaching. And in particular, the potential is that hybrid teacher-software curricula could align with what we know about how people learn deeper and more creatively: delivering connected knowledge, targeted to each learners’ developmental level, and bringing learners together through networked technologies to foster collaboration and communication.

As Duncan and Hastings say in today’s WSJ article, “this will happen. The only question is: Will the U.S. lead the effort or will we follow other countries?”

*Duncan and Hastings, “A Digital Promise to Our Nation’s Children.” WSJ Monday September 19, 2011, p. A15.

Laugh All You Want

A new study shows why laughter is so healthy: when you laugh, your brain gets an increase in endorphins, chemicals known for making you feel good. Scientists have long known that laughter has positive benefits, but weren’t really sure why. The new study, by Professor Robin Dunbar at Oxford University, compared a condition of laughter with a condition where you felt good but didn’t actually laugh. It turns out that you only get the endorphin rush from the physical act of laughing–the muscular exertions–and not from the cerebral pleasure of getting the joke intellectually.

Dr. Dunbar (famous as the author of Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language) thinks that laughter evolved to serve a social function, of helping bond social groups together. Laughter bonds social groups together, so evolution provided a mechanism to make us laugh more: the endorphin rush. Even non-human primates laugh (but for them it sounds more like panting).

The take home message? When you feel like laughing, let it all come out. Don’t just do the “wry smile” thing and try to look cool. The louder and longer, the better you’ll feel.

*Dunbar et al. (2011). Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshold. Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Cultivating Creativity

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Steven Tepper and George Kuh start by stating that

today it is cognitive flexibility, inventiveness, design thinking, and nonroutine approaches to messy problems that are essential to adapt to rapidly changing and unpredictable global forces; to create new markets; to take risks and start new enterprises; and to produce compelling forms of media, entertainment, and design.

At this time in history, we should expect our schools to be working harder than ever to foster creativity in students. But instead:

Regrettably, as other countries, like China, look to America as a model for how to educate citizens to be creative, we are undermining creativity in K-12 education through relentless standardized testing and the marginalization of subjects like art and music.

We know from research that creativity isn’t simple, it doesn’t just magically happen when you release people from constraints. Creativity requires a certain type of long-term education and preparation. These two authors argue that art education has some valuable lessons for how schools might do this in other subjects, such as science and math:

Today a consortium of foundations is working with the National Endowment for the Arts to collect similar information about arts graduates. The vehicle for this work is the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (Snaap), an annual online survey and data-management system designed to improve arts-school education. It is the most ambitious effort yet to track the training, careers, and lives of arts graduates.

The data from Snaap show that 94% of arts graduates have jobs, and 60% work in arts related fields. Over 80% say that creativity is important in their jobs.

These authors are particularly interested in arts education and its benefits; I am, as well. But still we’d all agree that it’s possible to teach any subject in a way that better prepares graduates to engage in creative behavior that builds on the knowledge they’re learning. It could be done in engineering, science, or history. The most promising developments are in engineering education; professors at engineering schools have been very receptive to the latest research, and the National Academy of Engineering has published reports backing a move to a more creative form of engineering education. At least one school of engineering, the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, was recently founded and built from the ground up on research-based findings about how to foster deeper understanding and creative expertise.

I’m now conducting a long-term research study of art and design schools, with the goal of analyzing and documenting their unique teaching and learning practices, and extracting universal principles that could be applied to any subject area. We all have a lot to learn from what these creativity experts do every day in their classrooms.

The Art of Business

This week I participated in a fascinating event here in St. Louis, a business creativity conference called “Play @ Work.” In this photo, I’m seated and two of the keynote speakers are with me: Peter Sims at the left (author of Little Bets) and Kevin Carroll (author of Rules of the Red Rubber Ball). The two days were filled with workshops where local executives participated in dance, art, and theater workshops–all designed to foster communication, collaboration, and creativity.

The event was organized and hosted by the Center of Creative Arts (COCA) and their new “COCAbiz” initiative. Kudos to COCA for such a successful event!