12 CEO Leadership Tips

Everyone moving into a leadership position should closely read these 12 tips, from the experienced CEOs of Northwestern University and Lewis & Clark College. They resonate with all of the other advice I’ve heard (and read) from CEOs over the years:

  1. Think first, talk later. Everything you say will be taken literally.
  2. Talk less, listen more. This is especially true for a new leader brought in from outside.
  3. Show up. Every constituency wants you to be physically in the room on important occasions.
  4. Engage veteran employees. You want them on your side and you’ll learn from them.
  5. Don’t ignore the staff.
  6. Customers want to be consulted. You don’t always have to do what customers want, but you do need to seek their input.
  7. Answer nearly all messages. Sending a reply will save you trouble down the road.
  8. Use the board of trustees or directors. The board is your boss, and if you don’t like that, keep your resume up to date.
  9. Community relations matter. Bad relations with the local community can interfere with everything. Any effort you make will be graciously accepted and rewarded.
  10. Don’t take things personally. Many bad things are going to happen, and you will be blamed for most of them. Most of the attacks have more to do with the attacker than with you. Don’t beat yourself up.
  11. Don’t believe the hype. Hyping short-term success can undermine long-term progress.
  12. Don’t neglect your health. You will be fed constantly at meetings and events. Reserve time to enjoy your life. Act like a president and take control of your schedule.

From Barry Glassner, Lewis & Clark College, and Morton Schapiro, Northwestern University. WSJ April 29, 2014, p. A15.

No More Books, No More Schools…Predicted in 1951 by Isaac Asimov

Everyone working in ed tech should read the brilliant short story by Isaac Asimov titled “The Fun They Had.” Here are some excerpts:

On the page headed May 17, 2157, Margie wrote, “Today, Tommy found a real book!”

It was a very old book. Margie’s grandfather once said that when he was a little boy his grandfather told him that there was a time when all stories were printed on paper. They turned the pages, which were yellow and crinkly, and it was awfully funny to read words that stood still instead of moving the way they were supposed to–on a screen, you know. And then, when they turned back to the page before, it had the same words on it that it had had when they read it the first time.

And then:

“Well, I don’t know what kind of school they had all that time ago.” She read the book over his shoulder for a while, then said, “Anyway, they had a teacher.”

“Sure they had a teacher, but it wasn’t a regular teacher. It was a man.” “A man? How could a man be a teacher?” “Well, he just told the boys and girls things and gave them homework and asked them questions.” “A man isn’t smart enough.” “Sure he is. My father knows as much as my teacher.” “He can’t. A man can’t know as much as a teacher.” “He knows almost as much, I betcha.” [In their future, the teacher is a computer.]

And later:

She was thinking about the old schools they had when her grandfather’s grandfather was a little boy. All the kids from the whole neighborhood came, laughing and shouting in the schoolyard, sitting together in the schoolroom, going home together at the end of the day. They learned the same things, so they could help one another on the homework and talk about it.

And the teachers were people…

Margie was thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the old days. She was thinking about the fun they had.

As they say, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. A cautionary tale for futurists everywhere.

 

 

 

Educational Technology and Venture Capital in Arizona

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Central networking hub at ASU GSV

I’ve spent the last two days here in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the fifth annual ASU GSV summit, which likes to call itself “Davos in the Desert.” It brings together ed tech entrepreneurs looking for funding, and venture capitalists looking for the next new thing. Quite often, they meet and do deals. Based on my experience here, I would say the organizers have accomplished their goal of “bringing together the world’s most visionary, passionate, and energetic players in the education innovation space”. I’m a bit fuzzier on their mission statement, which is “to become the fulcrum of activity and influence on the current and future states of global education. We’re creating a platform for advancement.” That’s a bit too mission-speak to mean much.

So what really happens here in Scottsdale?

What I saw was a lot of very serious people primarily interested in making money. They are all super-smart, connected, and knowledgeable. Michael Lewis would call them “the smartest guys in the room.” Five years ago the event began as an investor gathering with about 40 venture capitalists. The GSV in the title refers to Global Silicon Valley Advisors, a VC firm playing in the education space. In subsequent years, entrepreneurs followed the money and started to come here to pitch their new venture ideas.

Since taking my new professorship in educational innovation at UNC Chapel Hill in August 2013, I’ve seen a lot of ed tech startups and nonprofits, and I can attest that the organizations pitching here are working at the very highest level. They know their target market, they can tell you their value proposition in their sleep, their founders are connected and experienced. I have no doubt that millions of dollars of deals took place in the last two days. It is wonderful to be surrounded by people who share my mission: to improve education and learning.

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L to R: Dan Greenstein, Andrew Ng, Arthur Levine, Ben Nelson, Nicholas Zeppos

But. As a learning scientist–an expert in the science of how people learn–I was disappointed at how little of what I saw here is grounded in the science of learning. I only saw one presentation that made any reference to this forty-year body of research–by Professor Jim Stigler of UCLA (who has done very important research, and also founded multiple ed tech startups, and worked for Pearson for 4 years during a leave of absence from UCLA). At the many reception events, when I described my own mission at UNC Chapel Hill–to create new programs that will help educational innovators understand how to ground their ideas in the science of learning–a few people got it right away, but many people seemed confused about why they would need to know anything about the science of learning. And these are really smart people. So I’m trying to figure this out: Why wouldn’t educational innovators want to ground their ventures in the science of learning? Why wouldn’t venture capitalists want to be assured that what they’re funding is based on solid science?

Here’s my tentative answer, and I’d be interested to hear what you think in the comments on this post.

  • First: Everyone here is in a big hurry. They want to be first to market, they want to get to Series A, B, and C funding, they want their exit strategy (e.g. selling out to a big corporation like Pearson) to repay their investors. The problem with learning sciences research is that we know it takes time, two to three years minimum, to develop an innovation that works. The entrepreneurs and investors here don’t want to hear that.
  • Second: People here think we don’t need research, because they think markets will naturally work towards the optimal solution. Their belief in markets is so strong that they think markets essentially remove the need for scientific education research. Of course, no one would make this argument when it comes to medical innovations. You don’t start selling a bunch of new heart valves, and then wait to see which people die and which people live, to figure out which heart valve works best. We have a body of research, and a community of researchers, who can tell you that BEFORE you put the heart valve on the market. The analogy with learning sciences research is fairly direct: We have a large body of scientific knowledge that can guide the development of more effective educational innovations. So why wouldn’t you want to know about that BEFORE you go and design an ineffective app or curriculum?
  • Third: Learning sciences researchers largely stay inside the Ivory Tower, and do academic research. They generally don’t know how to commercialize their innovations, and the incentive systems at universities don’t reward that anyway. They don’t have backgrounds in business and they don’t have the skills to create entrepreneurial ventures. There are exceptions, of course, but overall the learning sciences community hasn’t done an effective job of making the case for the value and relevance of this research.
  • Fourth: People in the finance and technology space generally think they are smarter than people who work in education. I can say this because I used to be one of them: My undergrad degree is in computer science, and I worked in two high-tech startups back in the 1980s. We always referred to squishy social scientists as making “hand wavy” arguments (that’s pejorative and means “arguments full of holes with no scientific backing”). But after editing two editions of the Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, I can attest that this body of research is solid and rigorous and has powerful implications for how to design educational innovations. Smart people generally are good at paying attention to solid scientific evidence, but I think there’s a cultural blindness among the finance and technology people here that makes them tend to discount education research.

The good news is that lots of people get it right away. Among them are my colleagues, working at several top universities, who are also creating programs for educational leaders, including at Johns Hopkins, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Southern California. And of course, there’s my own new MA program at UNC in educational innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship. I’m confident we’ll get there eventually, to a cross-fertilization of learning sciences research with the innovative energy of the entrepreneurship and VC community. Then we’ll move more quickly toward the goal we all share: to improve education for everyone.

ZIG ZAG Book Review (By a Ten Year Old)

My 2013 creativity advice book, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, is dedicated to my 10-year-old son, Graham. He just returned the favor by reading and reviewing the book for his 5th-grade book review assignment. The teacher used good arts integration pedagogy: she had the students do their review in multiple media (decorating a brown paper bag, and then filling it with items related to the book). Here’s the report my son turned in. First, the front, with title, author photo, and the 15-shape invention exercise from inside the book:

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On the back, his short review:

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“My favorite part of the book” is the 15-shape invention exercise, where he writes “the object you make normally seems cool!” And, here’s what he says under “My opinion on the book”:

I liked the book because it helps you use your creativity. It encourages you to move forward, and gives you 8 steps to follow for creativity. It has games in it as well to enhance your creativity. It made me want to keep reading it because I couldn’t wait to find the next game. Another reason I like it is because my dad wrote it, and he dedicated it to me! This books explains the who, what, where, when, and why.

Thank you, Graham, for this impartial and unbiased review. 😉

Ed Catmull and the Secrets of Pixar’s Creativity

You’ve seen his face staring at you from the cover of the April 2014 Fast Company magazine as you pass the airport bookstore: It’s Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, behind the words “How to Unleash Creativity”. Anyone would love to have this kind of news coverage: He’s called “A great leader” and “The master” (and that’s just the magazine cover). The issue contains excerpts from Catmull’s new book, Creativity, Inc. It’s a great title. (But it’s been used already: it’s the title of a 2003 book by Jeff Mauzy and Richard Harriman, Creativity Inc.: Building an Inventive Organization. I have a copy and it’s a good book. But kudos to Catmull for creating a new a ten-year statute of limitations on book titles, I’ll support that.)

I’m a huge fan of Pixar’s innovative processes, culture, and leadership, so I’m going to buy Catmull’s new book no matter what it’s called. Inside the magazine, Rick Tetzeli calls it “the most thoughtful management book ever” and “a deeply realistic philosophy of how to best manage a creative organization.”

Here are the excerpted passages from the book that stood out for me:

Candor is the key to collaborating effectively. Lack of candor leads to dysfunctional environments… This part of our job is never done because you can’t totally eliminate the blocks to candor. The fear of saying something stupid and looking bad…it has a way of reasserting itself….You don’t want to be at a company where there is more candor in the hallways than in the rooms where fundamental ideas or policy are being hashed out.

Early on, all of our movies suck. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so–to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck.”

Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process.

You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when challenged.

People need to be wrong as fast as they can….People say they want to be in risky environments…But they don’t actually know what risk means, that risk actually does bring failure and mistakes.

At some point, with any film, the idea you started off with will not work.

In my 2013 book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, I use Pixar as one of my case studies, to make this same point: that creativity always takes a wandering, unpredictable path (the “zig zag”) and that successful innovators know how to trust in that improvisational, emergent process. My book gives advice for how to learn to succeed, and Ed Catmull understands the same core principles of creativity and innovation.

The Airplane: Not Invented By the Wright Brothers

One of the most fascinating stories in patent law is now over 100 years old: the story about how the Wright Brothers tried to lock up all legal rights to human flight. I told this story in my 2007 book Group Genius, and I’ve just learned that Lawrence Goldstone has told a new version–in his forthcoming book Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss and the Battle to Control the Skies, excerpted in the Wall Street Journal April 9, 2014.* In Group Genius, I use the Wright Brothers’ legal battles to demonstrate how “collaborative webs” are always more innovative than solitary lone geniuses. The Wrights tried to lock up the rights, and it ended up killing their own creative potential:

[In 1903] They didn’t get a patent for “flight”; they were granted a patent for their key innovation, a lateral control mechanism that steered by warping the entire wings forward or backward….Instead of showing off their new invention, they holed up in Dayton, refused to do press interviews, and wouldn’t let photographers near the farm field where they tested small improvements. On September 30, 2007, Alexander Graham Bell donated $20,000 to found the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA). Their goal was to win Scientific American magazine’s prize for the first plane that could fly a kilometer in a straight line. Their first plane was tested on March 12, 1908. It looked a lot like the Wright’s plane, but to avoid infringing on the Wright’s patent, it didn’t use wing warping for lateral control; instead, it used a system of trusses to curve the whole wing up or down. Casey Baldwin, an AEA member, designed the next plane; for lateral control, it used ailerons–small pivoting surfaces at the trailing edge of the wing. The third AEA project was Glenn Curtiss’s June Bug, and he flew it a mile and won the Scientific American trophy. The Wrights couldn’t even enter because their plane didn’t have wheels (they launched their plane from a special railroad track) and couldn’t take off from the field. When Curtiss started getting a lot of press attention, the Wrights filed a patent infringement lawsuit. They claimed their patent controlled all lateral steering mechanisms; if true, then no plane could ever fly without infringing the patent. In 1913, a federal court sided with the Wrights and ordered Curtiss to cease making airplanes using ailerons. Curtiss then built a different plane, based on an 1899 design by Samuel Pierpont Langley; now Curtiss could claim his idea came before the Wright’s patent, and the case dragged on into World War I. (pp. 189-191)

Because this legal fight blocked American innovation, the collaborative web instead kept innovating in Europe, where the Wright brothers weren’t able to enforce their patent. British, German, and French airplane industries were booming, with constant innovations leaving the Americans behind. In my public talks, I often show photos of the airplanes being built in Europe; they look like modern planes. Then, I show a 1914 photo of the Wright brothers’ plane; it has barely changed from 1903. In 1917, when the U.S. entered the war, the U.S. government forced the Wright and Curtiss companies to form a patent pool with open sharing.

Goldstone’s new book tells a portion of the story; I got many of the above details from Shulman’s 2002 book, Unlocking the Sky: Glenn Hammond Curtiss and the Race to Invent the Airplane. Goldstone notes that the Wrights were indeed granted a extremely broad patent, and the court upheld it in 1913. (I’ve read the court decision, by Judge Learned Hand; it’s, fascinating and it has lessons for today’s patent fights.) Goldstone concludes:

Nowadays, both the number and the nature of lawsuits involving software, hardware, and even design minutia are testament that patent law remains the damper on innovation that it was when airplane development was nearly grounded in its infancy.

*Goldstone, L. 2014. “How a Patent Fight Grounded the Wright Brothers.” Wall Street Journal, April 9, p. A13.

Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and the Evolving Education Marketplace

I’ve just spent the past four days at one of the biggest annual conferences in any field, the American Educational Research Association annual meeting, with over 13,000 researchers gathered in Philadelphia. The high point, for me, was an invited Presidential session called “innovation, entrepreneurship, and the evolving education marketplace.” A high-profile group of connected education leaders engaged in a wide-ranging discussion up on stage, and I’ve quoted below their comments that leaped out at me.

First, the participants were:

  • Christopher Swanson, Education Week
  • Shilpi Niyogi, Pearson
  • Bobbi Kershaw, University of Pennsylvania (formerly of Big Chalk, now working to commercialize faculty education research and develop an entrepreneurship ecosystem)
  • Kevin Bushweller, Education Week
  • Matt Pittinsky, Parchment (and formerly, was the founder of Blackboard)

Their discussion was spot-on with today’s cutting edge; listen in:

Niyogi: “The lines are blurring between entrepreneurs, educators, and service providers with respect to research and development.”

Kershaw: “Faculty research needs to impact practice… we very rarely see it have a significant impact… lots of programs that are being used in schools now do not have proven efficacy from research”

Bushweller: “Policy makers are looking for quick nimble research. A research project that takes three years, the market and environment will have changed by then.”

Pittinsky: “For profit ed tech has tended to stay out of the instructional core of the classroom. This is beginning to change. Faculty are used to the traditional model (of NSF funding). They are afraid of business coming into their research sphere. They are evaluated on publishing, not on demonstrated impact on schools and students.”

Bushweller: “Most organizations in the education space have an advocacy agenda. We really want truly independent research (of the sort that university researchers can provide).”

Kershan: “There are very few examples of companies commercializing university research. Reading 180, from Vanderbilt, is one of the few. My role at Penn is to help faculty do this.”

Niyogi: “We need to work toward social, collaborative learning. Opportunities in this space are untapped, because we are stuck on individual learning.”

Pittinsky: “We face a paradox. Because innovations are measured by learning outcomes, providers need to be even more top down and controlling, school leaders need to be top down, to ensure uniform positive outcomes. The problem is that this means you can’t just release enabling technologies, like I did with Blackboard, because some people will use them in good ways and some in bad ways. And yet, enabling technologies are what enable bottom-up innovation to flourish.”

This last statement is the crux of the matter, and this is always the paradox of innovation: How to balance top down structure with the need for bottom-up innovation to emerge?

Niyogi extended this line of thought, arguing for more bottom up innovation: “Teachers will become free agents, and that will cause dramatic cultural and organization change in schools.”

And finally, here are the BIG IDEAS that the panelists think will drive educational innovation:

  • Big data visualization
  • Open education resources
  • Aggregating content, evaluating it, and sharing it
  • Formative assessment
  • Interactive multimedia online learning
  • Simulations and games

These panelists are on the front lines, and it was a pleasure to watch them discuss the future of learning and schooling.