Innovating for show

It's unusual to succeed at sustaining innovations within established institutions and enterprises. The odds are against it. As we'll explore in this post, it goes against human nature and group dynamics. It's far more common to go about innovation in the wrong way and suffer the consequences. This is almost inevitable for "disjointed solution shops" like most colleges and universities. MIT's experience with the TEAL innovation provides valuable forewarnings to other colleges. Here's are some quotes from the students who commented on the NY Times article -- to set the scene for the pattern of flawed innovations:
19> Don't be fooled by this expensive gimmick. I'm already ashamed my alma mater has been hoodwinked into buying into this sham. (Chris, MIT '08, San Francisco, CA)
26 > I suspect that the lower failure rates under the new system are attributable largely to the fact that attendance and homework now account for a larger portion of the grade. None of this would be a problem if it weren't for the fact that there really is no alternative to TEAL. (C, MIT '11, Cambridge, MA)
32> Of course, this is done so that the university will increase revenues and has nothing, obviously, to do with best practices for student learning. (Van, Idaho)
33> The atmosphere of the classroom makes it much harder to focus than that of a traditional lecture hall. While lauding the shiny new style of the "round table with computers" system, the article fails to mention that since the professor cannot help but be in only 1 point at any time, 50% of the students are constantly twisted in their seats, trying to operate computers, take notes, and punching clickers while maintaining attention on the instructor. (Y.M., MIT '09, Cambridge, MA)
35> Freshman Sarah Levin ’09, currently a TEAL student, said that “all of TEAL is so unmotivating because it’s so tedious that I don’t put any effort into the class and because of it I’m losing a good percentage of my grade just by lack of attendance.” (Mike, San Jose, CA)
41> On fridays, you are to complete a small quiz with these people and all three of you recieve a grade for it. What ends up happening is the one person in the group does the problem and has no real motivation to explain it to you other than common courtesy. (Deepa, MIT '09, MIT)
45> In addition, "individualized," hands-on instruction slows the entire classroom down to the speed of the slowest learners. It dumbs down the average class session by only permitting time for a few points to get across. So what if 95% of the class get the three teaching points offered (for example) in an individualized classroom versus 50% of the class getting the ten major teaching points in a traditional lecture? (Mark Zelinka, Santa Maria, CA)
47> All those fancy expensive computers the students are clustered around are only ever used for checking email (i.e not paying attention to the professor). I never once saw them incorporated into the lesson. (Laura, MIT '09, Cambridge, MA)
Misguided innovations begin with the leadership's fear of stagnation, falling behind rivals or gaining a reputation in the market space as a "dinosaur". These fears alter brain function and impair the right brain cognitive abilities necessary for success. The left brain patterns then dictate how the opportunities appear, which responses appear viable and what decisions make the most sense. The challenge is perceived in dichotomies and categories. The mind cannot handle paradoxes, tradeoffs and creative alternatives when surviving a dangerous situation.

The innovation under consideration cannot begin with the customers to be served by it. Rather the drivers to innovate come from a bundle of money to spend or some new technology to deploy. By failing to respond to the users who are under-served, over-served or not served at all, there will be no testimonials from satisfied customers. The value proposition is self-serving to the institution. The effort will be done for show and announced via press releases. Naive journalists with column inches or time slots to fill -- will jump at the "news of innovation" while the groundswell of blog comments, tweets and text messages will expose the "emperor's new clothes".

Those who are supposed to be served by the innovation get dealt with as difficult personalities, small minded adversaries or chronic complainers. It's assumed they may be placated by the show of innovative changes while anticipating that "nothing every satisfies those grumps". This sets up a self-fulfilling prophesy of adversity while passing up opportunities to listen, collaborate and respond the users effectively. There is no basis for learning from feedback, constituencies, setbacks or unexpected outcomes. Closed minded advocates on high alert jump to conclusions about the users' lack of satisfaction. They entertain no reflections on how the hostility was set up from the start, asked for in so many words and then delivered to their doorstep accordingly.

The uprising of antagonism toward the useless or counter-productive innovation spawns escalated internal conflicts. A "house divided against itself" emerges from the opposing views of the innovation. Those who see the good in it are valued as loyal, compatible and progressive. Those who see the innovation as flawed, problematic and counter-productive get framed as traitors, entrenched enemies and detractors. Getting close the customers becomes a "kiss of death" and delivering news from the front lines experiences "shoot the messenger" syndrome. The proponents are then kept in the dark, driving blind and poised to take a nose dive off a cliff.

The innovation is getting done for the sake of making a highly visible change. The improvement makes a token effort at solving problems while actually solving the wrong problem. The ability to address the underlying and chronic problems is offline due to the fear-based approach that's been widely adopted. The solution makes the real problems worse like pouring gasoline on a fire. The attempt at relieving a symptom exacerbates the underlying problems that are disregarded with intense determination.

The users feel gamed by the innovation, not understood, respected or well served. This abuse inspires their retaliation, cheating and contemptuous conduct. There's nothing to lose by losing out on what the contrived innovation offers. Instead of feeling like they are being given tools to use, skills to deploy or solutions to their actual problems, they feel used for a misleading show of effort. Their conduct appears to obvious lack responsibility, ambition, commitment to those who only see good in the flawed innovation.

As all these group dynamics take effect, more than the innovation usually fails. Entire enterprises have closed their doors when they went about innovation the wrong way.

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