Avoid “Culture Fit” If You Want Innovation

Some companies have started to hire only people who “fit” into their “culture,” according to an article by Rachel Feintzeig in the Wall Street Journal. Innovation research shows that this is a horrible idea.

These companies have applicants do a “culture fit test” before they’re hired. For example, G Adventures has job candidates climb down into a play pit full of brightly colored plastic balls, and then play a “spin the wheel” game where they answer personal questions, in front of three current employees.

  • Salesforce.com has tried using “cultural ambassadors” to evaluate job finalists.
  • Zappos.com gives veto power to senior company veterans. They can reject a potential hire if they decide the candidate doesn’t fit in, even when the candidate is otherwise fully qualified.

The career website Beyond.com found “that human-resources staff, when considering recent college hires, ranked cultural fit above a candidate’s referrals, coursework and grades.” (If you’re not white and male, this probably isn’t a surprise. And you’re probably not excited by the idea of playing a spin the wheel game, with three white guys, in a pit full of balls.)

These practices block innovation. We know from creativity research that the most innovative teams have cognitive diversity. That means that each person has a different set of ideas, practices, and knowledge. This drives innovation, because the most creative ideas combine very different ideas. If everyone in the group has the same cognitive material inside their skull, they won’t make those “distant combinations” that result in breakthrough creativity.

If you want innovation, avoid culture fit!

Can Colleges Be More Innovative? (And if so, why?)

It seems that everyone is calling for colleges to be more innovative. You’ve probably heard something like this: “Colleges are resistant to innovation. How many institutions have remained unchanged for 500 years? Only the Catholic church and the college. A student from 400 years ago would be right at home on today’s campus.” et cetera… This lack of innovation seems strange, because colleges are filled with innovation: research professors generate breakthrough research, engineering professors invent new technologies, and medical professors invent new drugs and surgery procedures.

I just read a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education that reports on a provocative article in the Washington Monthly, an attack on colleges for their lack of innovation. The article also describes a panel at the Washington think tank “New America” with three award-winning college innovators. Here’s a summary of the conversation.

First, most of the lack of innovation isn’t really the college’s fault. If the incentives that colleges work with don’t change, then why should they change? Incentives like public rankings, student demand and application numbers, total tuition revenue.

Second, innovation implies that you have to be the first person to ever do something. But some of the most important changes happen when a college borrows and adapts something that’s already been proven elsewhere. The pressure to innovate often leads university administrators to do something new just because it’s new, when they could get more mileage out of borrowing, adapting, and tweaking (see “incentives”–they aren’t rewarded for borrowing something that already works).

Third, many are calling for innovations in how to provide more flexibility for students. But flexibility can lead to fraud and abuse. Colleges have many legal requirements and constraints that block changes.

Fourth, when institutions change, some students benefit but others suffer. That’s why so many university administrators are cautious–they want to protect and help their students. It’s easier to get fired for doing something new that visibly hurts a student, than it is to get fired for continuing to do the same thing.

Most of what colleges call “innovation” are incremental changes, not breakthrough reinventions of the institution: things like modifying a degree requirements, or adding a new computer technology to the classroom. So, what sort of innovation do we want from colleges? What sort do we think they really need?

Finally, be suspicious when politicians call for innovation in higher education. What they usually mean is, we’re going to cut your budget. And if you complain about it, you’re just not being innovative.

Creativity is not Localized in the Brain

If you’ve read the chapter on brain imaging in my book Explaining Creativity, you’ll know that the technology has limitations. Specifically: There’s no way to use this research to claim that creativity is located in a particular part of the brain. To their credit, the researchers who do this work would never say that. However, the media tend to hear about these cautious and limited findings, and publish articles with titles like “Now we know where creativity is!”

A new article in The Economist describes these limitations:

The technology has its critics. Many worry that dramatic conclusions are being drawn from small samples (the faff involved in fMRI makes large studies hard). Others fret about over-interpreting the tiny changes the technique picks up. A deliberately provocative paper published in 2009, for example, found apparent activity in the brain of a dead salmon.

The Economist article is about a new study that identifies a serious problem with fMRI methodology. The new study’s findings suggest that the statistics programs that interpret the fMRI results are “seriously flawed.” (And there’s a lot of statistics involved; take a look at my chapter for a quick summary.) The researchers used these fMRI algorithms to compare 499 subjects who were lying in the scanner while not thinking about anything in particular. With the standard fMRI statistical software, they divided this subject pool in half in 3 million different ways, and did comparisons each time. There shouldn’t have been any findings at all. But in fact, 70 percent of the 3 million comparisons resulted in false positives. That means, in 70 percent of these comparisons, there was a statistically significant finding of elevated brain activity, in half of the 499 subjects, in some part of the brain.

Because this study was just published, we can’t yet be sure what it really means. But my advice is: Be skeptical if you read an article claiming that creativity is located in a particular brain region. Creativity is a function of the entire brain, working together.

Be More Creative Every Day

Tips for creativity from entrepreneurs:

  • Practice doing something risky every day
  • Get to know travelers, people who like unusual music, people who play charades
  • Talk with children and try to answer the offbeat questions they ask
  • Try a new boardgame with your family
  • Make a holiday meal with your family, with each person preparing a different dish
  • Pretend to be a stranger in your own town
  • Break at least one rule every day

*Stephen R. C. Hicks, “What entrepreneurs can teach us all about life,” WSJ, May 6, 2016, p. R6.

Zigzag Inventions

Amanda Foreman, in the Wall Street Journal, describes a list of inventions that followed a zigzagging path:

In 1875, Thomas Edison invented the electric pen. It was a motorized stylus that worked like a stencil: it could punch words through a stack of up to 100 pages. This was supposed to replace copying, which back then was really time consuming. Edison said “There is more money in this than telegraphy.” But users hated it; it was almost impossible to use.

The zigzag: In the 1890s, tattoo artists started using the pen technology for the first electric tattoo needle.

In 1860, the first mechanical carpet brush was invented. But it was horrible; it just threw dust and dirt up into the air. In 1898, John Thurman of St. Louis invented a gas-powered carpet cleaner with a canvas bag, designed to catch the dust as it was thrown up into the air. This idea turned out to be even worse; huge clouds of dust filled the room.

Hubert Cecil Booth learned about Thurman’s invention, and had the idea of turning it into a sucking mechanism instead of a blowing mechanism. This was the first vacuum cleaner.

And check out this zigzag: Thurman’s gas-powered blower became the technology behind the leaf blower.

It’s the path to all great inventions: The zigzag that transforms the original idea into something completely different.

My Omaha Accordion Adventure

I’ve just arrived in Omaha, Nebraska, to buy a collection of twelve accordions.

Why drive 1,200 miles for accordions? Because they’ve been lovingly refurbished by legendary accordion repairman Stan Galli. He’s worked for decades repairing accordions all over the United States. Now he’s retired from the business, and he’s ready to part with his collection. Accordions are too fragile and expensive to ship; driving them is the only way.

Stan offered to teach me some of his accordion repair techniques, and that’s what we’ll be doing today. My new hobby is repairing accordions, and it’s really complicated. There aren’t many people around who know how to do it. I started teaching myself because the closest shop was 250 miles away, and my own accordion needed some work. It’s just as hard as finding a mechanic for my 1982 BMW motorcycle. (The next thing you know, I’ll be writing a book called Zen and the Art of Accordion Maintenance.)

Accordion repair has nothing to do with my career as a professor and creativity researcher. I’m just doing it because it’s fun. But who knows? In my book ZIG ZAG, I tell readers you’ll be more creative if you do something totally different from your main profession. Perhaps, in my subconscious mind, the intricacies of the accordion’s internal mechanism will prompt a surprising analogy, and I’ll have a new idea about how to help organizations foster more collaborative cultures. But even it doesn’t, I’ll still have a lot of fun.

(I originally found out about Stan when I read this poignant story in the Omaha World-Herald.)

Why Educational Technology Isn’t Working

The OECD has just released a report that concludes

There is little solid evidence that greater computer use among students leads to better scores in mathematics and reading.

Researchers tracked students in 31 OECD countries (including the U.S.) and measured their educational outcomes, as well as their use of technology at home and at school (including computers, Internet connections, and educational software).

I’ve been arguing for years that most Ed Tech is useless, and it’s because the companies that develop the apps don’t know anything about the learning sciences. The problem isn’t computers, or the Internet; the problem is with the pedagogical techniques and theories that are embedded in the new software. The OECD report supports my argument:

We have not yet become good enough at the kind of pedagogies that make the most of technology; adding 21st century technologies to 20th century teaching practices will just dilute the effectiveness of teaching.

The report doesn’t say much about how to align new educational software with the new science of learning, and with the reformed pedagogical approaches that work best to provide students with the deeper learning and thinking skills that graduates need. That’s why I’ve created a new master’s degree to teach how to combine learning sciences research, innovation, and software development (applications are open right now!) This study shows that we have to change the way we develop educational software, and ground technology in the science of learning.