Innovating To Learn: Tapping Into Experimentation

“Adaptation does not happen without experimentation.”  -Juan Carlos Eichholz Adaptive Capacity: How Organizations Can Thrive in a Changing World

If we never ask what if…we will never be able to move past what is.

And yet,  how often do we ask what if?  

Do we create the environments and spaces in our organizations for what if’s to even exist?

What we fail to acknowledge or understand, is that creating pockets of innovative disruption and creative experimentation in an organization, which are often deeply grounded in stasis and status quo processes and structures, requires an intentional act.  As Michael Schrage shares in The Innovator’s Hypothesis, “The real innovation investment potential of experimentation has yet to be tapped.”

It is in that intentional tapping, in the willingness to be intentional towards experimental and discovery learning, that we not only grow and learn, but learn what works and what doesn’t work for us as individuals and as organizations.  Or as Eichholz adds from his work Adaptive Capacity, “Experimentation increases an organization’s adaptive capacity by enhancing its responsiveness, because experiments force you to continuously look at reality to test new options.”

But seldom does experimentation and discovery learning scale in an organization haphazardly.  It requires intentionality, both in creating the processes and structures, as well the aim in regards to intent and outcomes.  Organizations and the people within need not only the ability to innovate and experiment, they also need permission and a purpose.

As shared in Scaling Creativity and Innovation, “Permission provides the authority and license to try, to engage the new.”  To add,Accountability and standardization have all but obliterated and wiped permission off of the educational landscape and map. Scripted curriculums, rigid pacing guides, high-stakes tests, and value-added evaluation systems have done little to embolden teachers or administrators to engage more creativity and innovation across our campuses.  In fact, it has been quite the opposite.”

As Scaling Creativity and Innovation adds,

“Permission opens the door to possibilities.”

To add to this need for permission to open up the door to more experimental, discovery learning, “When you have an organization that has deep understanding of their goals and commitments, when permission is provided, when autonomy is granted, you will have set a foundation for more creative and innovative endeavors and work to be initiated, at all levels of the system.”

For which I will leave you with these thoughts, in regards to creativity, innovation, experimentation, and discovery learning from Scaling Creativity and Innovation

“If we are going to heighten the creative and innovative thinking in our classrooms, schools and districts, we are going to have to grant permission:”

  • Permission to experiment and engage trial and error discovery learning.
  • Permission to take chances, at the risk of failure, to further student and adult learning in our classrooms, schools and districts.
  • Permission to look at learning and school in new, novel and exciting ways that extend learning across the entire community.
  • Permission to engage ideas and thinking that open up possibilities, rather than present obstacles.

“Permission provides the consent and authority to engage the ideas and creative and innovative thinking that has often lain dormant and unexplored for far too long.”

Networks: An Engine For Scaling Learning And Innovation (Part 2)

“Our destination is a future whose form we may not find comforting, but which has just as much beauty and potential as the straight lines and right angles of the past century of reductionism: this future will take the form of organic networks, resilience engineering, controlled flooding – a world without stop signs.”  -via McChrystal, Collins, Silverman, Fussell Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

We don’t just live in the time of the learner, we live in a time where the very idea of learning has expanded.  And our very ability to tune into that expansion remains at the heart of growing into the future in a much more dynamic and relevant manner.  For, it is no longer enough to be a learning organization, you must also be a learning individual.  It cannot be one without the other, they have to work in tandem, each pushing the other past the boundaries of the present, in a constant dialogue with the emerging future and the unknown that it provokes, and how we influence that emergence and learn from it.

Very often, our individual and organizational ability to come to terms with the growing anxiety, ambiguity and uncertainty of this emerging future, as well as the intensified turbulence and pace of change that is driving it forward, is quelled and muffled by our individual and organizational awareness (to the signals of changes to come), access (to relevant resources and ongoing flows of new ideas) and connections (to a diversity of ideas, thinking and people who can continually challenge our thinking, ideas and mental models).

One of the ways to tap into greater this awareness, access and connections comes through the networks that we create and engage within, both internally and external of our organizations.  The more expansive our networks, the greater the learning and ideas that we open ourselves up, too.  As Alex Pentland shares in Social Physics, “In the last few years, however, our lives have been transformed by networks that combine people and computers, allowing much greater participation and much faster change.”

In many ways, our networks require us to hold the tension of two ideas at once, to being both open (idea flows) without being overwhelmed (action paralysis).

Not only does network learning allow opportunities for great awareness beyond our current conditions; it provides a platform for enhanced diversity of idea flow, both individually and organizationally.  Networks provide an arena to play with and gain feedback on new ideas and thinking; which not only leads to new learning that can cascade across individuals and the organization, but provides a more dynamic environment for engaging in greater exploration and experimentation towards the growing need for more creative and innovative thinking, ideas and action that move individuals and organizations past static and status quo thinking, processes and structures that diminish learning and growth.

However, it is not enough to engage in network learning, how individuals participate in that setting is important to how effective that engagement process becomes for enhancing learning.  As Pentland shares in Social Physics, in regards to “star producers” utilizing and gaining from network learning, “First, they maintained stronger engagement with the people in their networks, so that these people responded more quickly and helpfully.  As a result, the stars rarely spent time spinning their wheels or going down blind alleys.  Second, star performers’ networks were also more diverse.  Average performers saw the world only from the viewpoint of their mob, and keep pushing the same points.  Stars, on the other hand, had people in their networks with a more diverse set of work roles, so they could adopt the perspectives of customers, competitors, and managers.  Because they could see the situation from a variety of viewpoints, they could develop better solutions to problems.”

Networks in and of themselves, are not fully sufficient for the collaborative and learning processes and structures necessary to transform our organizations and systems.  However, they do provide a platform and impetus for creating the awareness, access and connections that create momentum towards improving and enhancing the dynamics necessary to push individual and organizational transformation.

As Fullan and Rincon-Gallardo share in Essential Features of Effective Networks in Education, “As we enter a potentially transformative period of change for education, where innovation combined with focus and links to impact will be essential, we predict that effective networks will become increasingly critical to system success.”  Or as Bryk, Gomez, Grunow and LeMahieu add in Learning to Improve, “Large networks are powerful engines for innovation.”

As we begin to delve into networks, seeing and tapping their potential for greater awareness, access and connection for our individuals and organizations, internally and externally, we must also understand their power for learning, both in formal and informal forms.  Understanding the differences and features that accompanies each of these networks, allows individuals, leaders and organizations to determine how the power of learning and collaboration will be different, from formal to informal networks, and how we approach each of these networks will require different perspectives and positions, if we are to engage networks as a powerful force for learning, innovation and transformation.

As we consider the necessity of awareness, access and connection, realizing the power of networks can be an impetus towards the learning and idea flow that pushes individual and organizational transformation.

“By harvesting from the parts of our social networks that touch other streams, that is, by crossing what sociologist Ron Burt called the “structural holes” within the fabric of society, we can create innovation.  When we choose to dip into a different stream, we bring up new habits and beliefs; in some cases, they will help us make better decisions, and our community will thrive.  I believe that we can think of each stream of ideas as a swarm or collective intelligence, flowing through time, with all the humans in it learning from each other’s experiences in order to jointly discover patterns of preferences and habits of action that best suit the surrounding physical and social environment.”  -via Alex Pentland Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread-The Lessons from a New Science

In Consideration Of Continuous Improvement: Part 2

“Improvement is a challenge of learning, not implementation.”  -Forman, Stosich, Bocala The Internal Coherence Framework: Creating the Conditions for Continuous Improvement in Schools

We live in very interesting times…

The pace and acceleration of change and the digital disruption we are experiencing is no longer just about change, as it is no longer enough to just change.  It is much deeper than that…

We have to learn.

We must learn in order to adapt to a world that is shifting around us in exponential ways.

Or as the CEO of AT&T recently stated, “Your skill-set is 2 years, max!”

It is in that ability to learn and adapt, both as individuals and as organizations, that we are able to not only remain relevant, but move towards a mindset of continuous improvement.

This idea of continuous improvement is very different than the mindset from which education has often worked from for many years.  Or as Edwards Deming shared in 1991 in regards to education, “We as a field are characterized by miracle goals and no methods.”

Continuous improvement is a move away from those “miracle goals” to looking at the strategies, processes, methods and structures that allow for ongoing learning, growth, and improvement.

Or as shared in The Superintendent’s Advisory Task Force from CDE,

Continuous Improvement: A continuously improving education system is one that learns from experience by carefully measuring the effectiveness of different policies and practices, supporting the intrinsic motivation of educators and stakeholders, sharing best and promising practices, cultivating a culture of reflection and learning, encouraging innovation, and making changes based on learning.”

Which is a very different proposition than Demings reference to “miracle goals” and “no methods.”  

And while continuous improvement is not new to the business world (be that as Six Sigma, Kaizen, Kanban, Lean, Agile, Scrum, Toyota Production System), it is just beginning to take root in education.

To better understand the ideas behind continuous improvement, the KaiNexus Blog shares the core, or 6 Principles of the Continuous Improvement Model:

Principle 1 – Improvements are based on small changes, not major paradigm shifts or new inventions.

Principle 2 – Ideas come from employees.

Principle 3 – Incremental improvements are typically inexpensive to implement.

Principle 4 – Employees take ownership and are accountable for improvement.

Principle 5 – Improvement is reflective.

Principle 6 – Improvement is measurable and potentially repeatable.

When looking back at Demings reference to the issue with education being “miracle goals” and “no methods” we can begin to see how this mindset/shift to a continuous improvement model reverses Demings concern, as it moves us away from a focus on “miracle goals” towards a push for “methods,” processes, strategies, and structures that lead us towards continual and ongoing learning, growth and improvement.

As with any strategy or shift in the way our individuals or organizations operate, learning has to be at the heart of the change process.  Far too often, especially as we move into the unknowns and uncertainties that accompany any change, we often revert to compliance over creativity and implementation over innovation in pushing the initiatives that we initiate.  We choose control, in place of capacity and autonomy.  Rather, we must learn to understand where each of these has their place, and where each is appropriate to effectively support our individuals and scale it across the organization not only efficiently, but effectively.

As Ron Ashkenas adds in his article It’s Time to Rethink Continuous Improvement from Harvard Business Review,  when approaching the idea of continuous improvement across an organization, we need to consider:

“Customize how and where continuous improvement is applied.”

“Question whether processes should be improved, eliminated, or disrupted.”

“Assess the impact on company culture.”

For which Ashkenas adds, “Continuous improvement doesn’t have to be incompatible with disruptive innovation.  But unless we think about continuous improvement in more subtle, nuanced, and creative ways, we may force companies to choose between the two.”

In closing, when considering this idea of continuous improvement, both as individuals and organizations, and as we learn to move away from “miracle goals” and “no methods,” it will require that we keep continuous learning and adaptability at the center of this improvement shift.  Both as individuals and as organizations.

“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.”  -Benjamin Franklin

 

Finding The Future Signals In The Chaos

“Can accelerating technology disrupt our entire system to the point where a fundamental restructuring may be required if prosperity is to continue?”  -Martin Ford Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future

For years, in response to the coming future shifts, we’ve continually heard the mantra heralded about that we are getting students ready for jobs that are yet to exist.

A mantra that is changing…

Both in its concerns and in the questions it raises.

And while each age has had its own struggles and anxieties as technology creates new economic and societal upheaval and disruption, many tend to feel that this time may be a bit different.

Issues and challenges of poverty, unemployment, underemployment, outsourcing, globalization, robots, automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning all add into this feeling that it will be very, very different.

Just as getting students ready for an automated future is a very different proposition.

Part of acknowledging the signals emanating from the turbulence of this technological disruption is not only in determining what will be important in the future, but what will stay the same, what will change, and what must be entirely transformed.

In many ways, these shifts will not only disrupt how we work and live, but the entirety of our current organizational and societal operating systems.

Out of this operating systems overhaul, we will need to determine how we best prepare our students, our adults, our organizations, our communities, and our systems to become much more agile and adaptable to these future shifts.

Which becomes our heavy lift for the future…

“We are headed toward a transition that will put enormous stress on both the economy and society. Much of the conventional advice offered to workers and to students who are preparing to enter the workforce is likely to be ineffective. The unfortunate reality is that a great many people will do everything right— at least in terms of pursuing higher education and acquiring skills— and yet will still fail to find a solid foothold in the new economy.”  -Martin Ford Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future

Transforming Tension And Disequilibrium Into Breakthrough Experiences

“Adaptive work is difficult work.  And when it takes the form of an organizational change, it can easily get out of hand and fail.  As you have surely experienced yourself, in a process like this there is disequilibrium and tension, people perceive loss and react in varying ways, different factions emerge and take positions, uncertainty is rampant, plans fail, and experimentation becomes necessary.  Guiding this type of process is highly demanding and requires a wide range of skills.”  -via Juan Carlos Eichholz Adaptive Capacity: How Organizations Can Thrive in a Changing World

We live in a world that is fueled by tension.

There is positive tension.  Negative tension.

Tension that fuels us forward and tension that binds us back.

Tension from the past, tension in the present and tension for the future.

And then there is the tension of change…

A tension stretched taut by the pull of the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and the ambiguity that accompanies and amplifies any change effort or initiative.  Pulling on individuals and the organization.  Causing chaos amidst the calm.  Noise in the quiet.  Pulling us out of our insulated silos.  Requiring leaders to seek out the signals reverberating out of these shifts, continually deciphering and determining what these signals are saying and asking what you are going to do about it?

Often leading to even greater tension and disequilibrium.

As the individual and organizational efforts of the change initiative increase, so does the level of chaos and noise being amplified, often diminishing our ability to decipher these signals.  However, it is only in our ability to gain greater awareness and understanding of these signals, that we are able to cascade deeper organizational coherence and clarity amidst those facing the chaos and complexity of the change process.  It is in that awareness and understanding, and the capacity that we choose to create, that we are able to slowly dissipate the turbulence, tension, anxiety and disequilibrium that accompanies these adaptive challenges that come with change.

However, many organizations still choose a command and control strategy to alleviate the tension and disequilibrium brought on by change.  They choose to move farther away from autonomy and capacity-building towards structures focused more on power, control, hierarchy, and linear processes as a way of dealing with the dynamics associated with change.  Hoping to create safety in the midst of chaos, but most often only diminishing the process, leading to greater frustration and dysfunction across and throughout the organization.

To effectively push through this disequilibrium, we have to determine the individual and organizational capacity necessary to loosen and push people through these bands of tension pulled taut, that we may keep our individuals and the organization as a whole from recoiling back to the status quo core of the past.  Rather, we must focus our efforts on using the tension and disequilibrium of change not as a crutch for non-action, but rather as a dynamic force for creating individual and organizational breakthrough experiences, and eventual transformation.

It is only through individual and organizational capacity that these transformational breakthroughs are achieved, and we actually achieve the epiphany of change.  It is in our capacity-building efforts that the tension and disequilibrium wrought on by change is able to be redefined and repurposed for growth and autonomy, rather than politics, power struggles and dysfunctional structures and processes.  It is only in this shift, that change can emerge as a more productive  and transformational process for our individuals and organizations.

“No two change processes are the same, but all share certain patterns.  There is always disequilibrium and tension; people perceive losses and react; different factions emerge and take positions; there is uncertainty; it usually takes more time than expected; not everything works the way it was planned; and experimentation is necessary.”  -via Juan Carlos Eichholz Adaptive Capacity: How Organizations Can Thrive in a Changing World