Friday, April 13, 2007

Innovation, Failure, and Learning

(originally posted to Tata Interactive Systems' blog)

CNBC has started a new 5-part series on Innovation called, "The Business of Innovation".
The first episode ("Innovators and Iconoclasts") has already aired, but is available online here. It's really quite good, with interviews with many well respected figures from the business and innovation arena. Well worth the time to watch the 4 segments...

So what does this have to do with learning?

Although the series is hosted by Maria Bartiromo, she is assisted by Roger Schank, well-known educational provoker and Artifical Intelligence/Cognitive Science expert. From my perspective, he steals the show (full disclosure: I studied under Schank at Northwestern's Institute for the Learning Sciences).

Consider these snippets from the episode's opening:
  • Innovators don't really fit in very well (with others)
  • Nearly everyone starts out as an Iconoclast (a rule breaker) - little kids don't know the rules; they do what they want to do.
  • Failure is KEY! You have to be failing and failing again.
  • Big companies are always trying to hire people who were in the top 10% at Harvard, under the assumption that they are good. What Harvard graduates are good at is... Harvard.
  • You want someone original from Harvard? Try the BOTTOM 10%. Those kids are smart enough to get it, then decided they weren't playin' the game.


The connection here (among others) is that we need to be willing to experiment and fail in order to break the mold of "what everyone else is doing" or "how it's always been done". If we aren't willing to reach out beyond what's known and assured, then we'll just get more of what we've got.

Failure has such an unfairly bad rep - companies (generally) hate it, employees (mostly) avoid it, recruiters rarely ask about it. Yet it's the home zip code of where learning occurs. If you do something and succeed, all that tells you is that what you already know works - it provides confirmation, but no growth/learning.

The primary time real learning occurs is when we do X, expecting Y, and Z occurs instead.


Discomfort and surprise result! Motivation to find out what the hell happened arises! A new case for your storehouse of experiences is added to your wetware! And a few new synapses are connected! - Learning has occurred!

It's exactly this kind of semi-contrarian stance that has made Roger who he is. Love him or hate him, it's tough to ignore him and the points he makes.

Do yourself a favor and do a quick Google on "Roger Schank" and read what he's written/said, as well as the responses he's generated (pro AND con). I guarantee you will find yourself shifting in your seat and thinking more deeply about some "common/accepted knowledge" than you probably have recently.

Here are a few to get you started:

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