Tag Archives: new ideas

The Hopper and the Innovation Pipeline

30 Jan

I want to talk a little bit about something we’ve done recently in the Northeast Regional Computing Program (NERCOMP). NERCOMP, like any organization, is faced with a tension between doing things now and doing things later. We’re trying to direct our energy and attention to existing, operationalized activities, while still making sure we save a little bit for new ideas that may one day become wonderful and important activities in their own right. This is trickier than it seems, because it takes a different quality of mind to keep things going than it does to recruit and envision and cultivate new things to do. But you need to do both, because you need to be successful in the present, of course, and you also want to be successful in the unpredictable future.

There are two basic knots of problems you face when you try to both have new ideas and maintain existing services. One relates to the new ideas: How do get them? Where do you put them? What do you do with them? How do you turn them into something real? The other comes from the antagonistic relationship between new ideas and existing operations. How do you keep the crazy, zany, emotional, fad-like, breathless quality of new ideas from disrupting the staid, responsible, serious work of operations, and vice versa–how do you keep the harsh noon-day realism of what exists from prematurely scorching the delicate nocturnal tendrils of the new thing being born?

The solution, in my mind, has two parts: first you need a place to put ideas, and second, you need a process that tells you what to do with them. NERCOMP, I’m proud to say, is working on both.

The Hopper

How do you get these ideas? Who knows when an idea is going to pop into someone’s head, and who knows whose head it will pop into? Apart from those rare people who continuously sprout ideas regardless of how they’re received (I’m one of them), how do you make people comfortable even saying their ideas out loud, given that new ideas tend by definition to sound somewhat crazy? How do you create a culture that says proposing ideas isn’t just OK, but expected?

Well, we’re not totally sure about the answers to any of these questions. But here’s what we did: we thought we might at least lower to the minimum the work someone had to do to get an idea from their head into ours, such that while they’re still in the thrill of the moment, and before they’ve thought better of it, they can dash it off, and we can capture it. We took a simple, one-text-box Google form, put it online, and tested it with our board members, by having them pull it up during board meetings and other NERCOMP activities. Anytime they had a thought or suggestion, they could put it right into the form. We called it the Hopper, because that name made some of us envision a kind of rotating tube full of crazy ideas, like the cylinders of ricocheting ping-pong balls used famously in lottery drawings or bingo parlors. And it worked. We gathered over a hundred ideas in a matter of weeks; too many to process, really, so we stopped encouraging it for a bit while we come up with a way to regularly review and process the contents. Now we have such a process, so we’ve made the Hopper open to all NERCOMP members (here, if you’re a member) and are poised to announce it beginning with our upcoming annual conference.

The Innovation Pipeline

Getting the ideas is the first part of the battle. But then you need to know what to do with them. Here we were influenced enormously by the work of Dr. Min Basadur, whom I’ve written about before. He breaks creative problem solving into four stages– Generating, Conceptualizing, Optimizing, and Implementing. In the first step you think of the idea; in the second you flesh it out, as it were, in theory; in the third you begin to take that theory and make a plan for its implementation in the real world; in the fourth, you implement the plan.

We took Basadur’s stages as a kind of growth chart for our ideas, if you will, and let the stages tell us what we should be doing for and with ideas as they evolved. We added transition points or firewalls between phases–places you have to check in with the board to move on to the next phase. We made these check-ins progressively more difficult. Moving from having an idea to developing it (or “conceptualizing”), we thought, really only required an interested person willing to think it through. But moving from development to optimizing (which we renamed “testing”) required a legitimate plan for the test. And moving to the final phase–implementation–required data from a successful test as well as some clear ideas about where the resources would come from to operationalize the activity. We called the whole thing the “Innovation Pipeline,” and you can see one of our early (somewhat silly) versions as we were developing it.

The Innovation Pipeline has a lot of great benefits. Most importantly it addresses aforementioned problem knot number two: it protects new ideas from operations and operations from new ideas. It trains us to modulate our expectations and behaviors and feelings towards ideas as they grow–we’re gentler on the new ideas, and we ramp up the prosecutorial rigor as they come closer to operationalization, as is only appropriate. We delay, as they say, our evaluation of ideas–we don’t burden them with premature expectations of perfection. By the same token, there are three check-in points that an idea has to get past before it can really be considered operational and thus rightly become part of our routine activities, and, effectively, force us to drop or reduce some other activity to allow for it. These three check-in points are like police road blocks. Nobody gets by who shouldn’t, thus protecting our fragile operations from the threat of disruption by frivolous novelty. A secondary benefit of the pipeline is that, surprisingly, it helps people get along better. A key flashpoint in every organization is between what the creativity researchers call the ideators (people who generate cascades of possibility and love brainstorming meetings) and the evaluators (people who say no to everything new in order to continue to say yes to what they are already doing): in our pipeline the ideators get their space to think of and develop ideas before they hand them off (at stage 3) to the testers and implementors, who are ruthless. But the ideas by then are ready for reality.

In any event, there you have NERCOMP’s approach to the age-old problem of new vs. existing activities. We’re implementing it now, and we expect some iterations and tweaks before it’s perfect. A key test will be when our rank-and-file members embrace it and put ideas in the Hopper that really challenge us to grow, be creative, and innovate. Will we be able to rise to the bold new vision they propose? Only time will tell. It’s a start, and we’ll report along the way.

As a P.S. let me give a shout out to the Learning Organization Academy–NERCOMP’s intensive new professional development program. It was LOA thinking (“how can we learn better as an organization?”) that led us to tackle the problem in the first place, and research for a LOA workshop that pointed us to a solution.

Alan Kay, Systems, and Textbooks

17 Apr

Alan Kay give a talk called “Is Computing a Liberal Art?” yesterday at the 2012 NITLE Summit. Here I discuss his key idea: that systemic thinking is a liberal art, and I explain a corollary idea, that textbooks suck.

Kay is attuned to how ideas evolve and are instantiated in the culture and the mind. For him a key piece in this process is the relationship between ideas and the categories we have for them; the relationship is this: if you don’t have a category for an idea, it’s very difficult to receive that idea.

Kay says we’re born with 300 or so preexisting categories that the species has evolved to know it needs to think about to survive, and we’re wired to be looking around for thoughts in those categories (food, shelter, pleasure, etc.). But the story of the last few hundred years is that we’ve quickly developed important ideas, which society needs to have to improve and perhaps even to continue to exist, and for which there are no pre-existing, genetically created categories. So there’s an idea-receiving capacity gap.

Education’s job should be, says Kay, to bridge this gap. To help, that is, people form these necessary new idea-receiving categories–teaching them the capacity for ideas–early on in their lives, so that as they grow they are ready to embrace the things we need them to know. Let me say that in a better way: so that as they grow they are ready to know in the ways we need them to know.

Said he, “If you have a new idea come in and education won’t teach people it from birth, you get a pop culture.” Pop culture! A harsh but fair critique of our society. More on that pop culture below.

For now, what are the ideas or categories, or what capacity for ideas should we now be teaching? Kay has one major thought in mind. He wants us to cultivate the ability to conceive of, work with, create, understand, manipulate, tinker with, disrupt, and, generally, appreciate the beauty of systems. This he hails as perhaps the most important of all the liberal arts.

It is the zeitgeist of the last 100 years that everything now appears as a system that was but a piece of a system before–or everything is now multi-dimensional that was linear before—thinking of the body as a system, the environment as a system, economics as systems, computers as systems. It’s why we talk about gamification so much–because a game, or a simulation, thought of as a thing we might create (rather than a thing we only act within), is a visceral example of systems thinking. (If this sounds familiar to readers of this blog, it’s because I’ve written about seeing systems before, in The Age of the Gums, or in Errol Morris and Spirals of Learning, or in Pieces of an Ecology of Workplace Learning, or even in The Conduit Metaphor, for instance. It might be all I write about.)

Seeing systems is an epistemology, a way of knowing, a mindset. As Kay said, “the important stuff I’m talking about is epistemological . . . about looking at systems.” It’s the Flatland story–that we need to train our 2D minds to see in a kind of 3D–and Kay’s genius is that he recognizes we have to bake this ability into the species, through education, as close to birth as possible.

One main point implied here is that we’re not talking about learning to see systems as an end point. Systems thinking is to be conceived of as a platform skill or an increased capacity on top of which we will be able to construct new sorts of ideas and ways of knowing, of more complex natures still. The step beyond seeing a single system is of course the ability to see interacting systems – a kind of meta-systemic thinking – and this is what I think Kay is really interested in, because it’s what he does. At one point he showed a slide of multiple systems–the human body, the environment, the internet, and he said in a kind of aside, “they’re all one system . . .” Compare that to the advanced stages in Bob Kegan’s constructive developmental psychology: “At Kegan’s sixth and final stage . . . there is a dawning awareness of an underlying unity that transcends human and environmental complexity.” (That from Philip Lewis’ work on Kegan, The Discerning Heart: Just happened to read that on the Metro on the way back to the hotel, as I was passing through Arlington National Cemetery).

Kay’s complaint is that higher education does not cultivate the particular epistemology of systemic thinking. We don’t teach integrative ways of knowing; we instead dwell within our disciplines, which dwelling you can see as being trapped within an arbitrarily chosen system. The point is to be able to see connections between the silos. Says Kay, the liberal arts have done a bad job at “adding in epistemology” among the “smokestacks” (i.e. disciplines).

Ok, so we’re not teaching systemic thinking. So what? What happens if you don’t teach people systemic thinking?

Then, Kay says, you’re allowing them to be stuck in whatever system they happen to be in, without thinking of it as a system. What happens when you’re stuck in a system? You don’t understand the world and yourself and others as existing in constant development, as being in process; you think you are a fixed essence or part within a system (instead of a system influencing systems) and you inadvertently trap yourself in a kind of tautological loop where you can only think about things you’re thinking about and do the things you do and you thus limit yourself to a kind of non-nutritive regurgitation of factoids, or the robotic meaningless actions of an automaton, or what Kay calls living in a pop culture. He sees this problem in higher education, where even faculty, experts in their own fields, are uneducated, in the sense that they can make no meta-connections among the fields, such that (as he said) hardly anyone exists who can understand the breadth of thought in a magnum cross-functional opus like the Principia Mathematica. And yet our future will be built on such integrative meta-connections as Newton’s.

By way of conclusion, I’ll now tell you why textbooks suck, according to Kay. A downside of being epistemologically limited to thinking within a system is that you overemphasize the importance of the content and facts as that system orders them. If you’re a teacher, you limit your students to processing bits according to a pre-ordained structure, to being a program, if you will, instead of learning to write a program. It would be better to use the system itself as the information students act upon when they construct their knowledge, and to find a way to get students to build new systems and even systems of systems. We teach students vocabulary within one set of grammatical rules, with the rules as the endpoint, say, but if we were disciples of Kay we would allow students to make grammars of grammars and languages of languages, with spirals of increasing complexity of thought looping into infinity and no endpoint in sight. That’s the order of consciousness Kay is after. Most textbooks, however, are on the stuck-within-the-system and vocab-and-grammar level. Which is why they draw Kay’s ire.