I am writing to announce the project that has consumed me for at least a year, but probably much longer. Innovation Box is a process for unlocking innovation in schools by harnessing the knowledge of the people closest to the problem: teachers, administrators, and students. For the past several years I have watched as ideas, many from outside schools, are celebrated as the next great innovation that break through and change schools forever. The vast majority of these innovations are solutions in search of a problem and provide no measurable impact on students. Schools spend extravagantly to buy the newest piece of technology, travel to the cutting-edge conference, or adopt an approach that seems too good to ignore. It's true, many of these ideas are novel inventions, but are they really innovations?
I think it is important to establish a clear definition of innovation. I prefer the way Saul Kaplan of Business Innovation Factory defines innovation in this interview from 2016:
"My simple definition: innovation is a better way to deliver value. In my book, it's not an innovation until it delivers value or helps someone solve a problem in the real world. It's important to differentiate invention from innovation. Too many conflate the two. It is also important to clarify an organization's innovation agenda to separate out incremental improvements to today's business model from exploring entire new business models."
Several years ago I saw a video describing the Adobe Kickbox, which is an internal innovation incubator at Adobe that aims to invest in lots of ideas to identify and develop new products. The gist of Kickbox is that Adobe allows any employee to opt into an innovation process that includes a small seed grant, training, and network of colleagues also working on projects. The goal is to empower employees to rapidly prototype and test ideas that are solutions to problems that customers, internal or external, experience all the time. Instead of investing loads of capital in a few projects, Adobe change their strategy to invest in the people that are closest to the problems to test solutions on a very small scale. This idea of start small and learning quickly was not common in education circles. In fact, about the same time I learned about Kickbox I attended a presentation by a senior administrator at a very large urban school district who bragged, "we believe pilots are for airplanes. If we think it is going to work for kids we are going to implement as widely as possible."
Later I became of obsessed with design thinking through the work of David Kelley from IDEO, improvement science through Don Berwick at IHI and Anthony Byrk at Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and entrepreneurship through the work of Eric Reis of Lean Startup. There were three big ideas that came through in all of this work that inspired Innovation Box.
First, an innovation must solve a problem. It seems like common sense, but if you take a moment to think about some of the biggest "innovative" ideas in education today it is often unclear what problem they are trying to solve. The Innovation Box process dedicates considerable time and energy to ensure that problems are clearly framed and are within our control to devise solutions.
Second, we should trust teachers more to be engines of innovation in our schools.
Third, we seem to seduced by big ideas when small is probably the way to go. Many times innovations are not the big exciting break through, but instead a simple and unremarkable change that get results. We need to encourage educators to look for little changes that can result in positive outcomes for students. Test these ideas and improve them.
I just completed my prototype of Innovation Box for education. I have started to share with my friends and colleagues to request feedback. I hope that you will take a moment to give me your thoughts or share this site with a friend or colleague. You can leave a comment below or email me directly (joe @ think-strategy.net). Encourage your friends and colleagues to sign-up for the mailing list. Or, post to Twitter or Facebook or wherever you exert your considerable influence.