This is the fourth post in a series that asks “why is Silicon Valley the Magic Kingdom of innovation, and what lessons can K-12 schools learn about how innovation succeeds in times of rapid change?” If you have a management team or board that is asking “how do we know we are actually becoming more innovative as an organization?”, here are some great places to start with your assessment strategy.
Silicon Valley is known, if not unique, as a locus of rapid product development. There are three basic modalities of companies in this highly competitive high technology market. There are the “tech drivers”, those companies that seek to invent a new technology or tweak an existing technology in ways that will drive new interest and sales. Schools and educators that fall into this group look for a new technology or new teaching methodology that will improve student performance. There are “market readers”, companies that use data and closely watch competitors to divine the direction of market interest and future innovation and get there in time with a new product or service. Schools that fall into this category benchmark themselves against local or regional competition and seek a competitive advantage relative to local alternatives. And there are the “need seekers”, companies that try to understand what consumers really want today and in the future, and create products and services that meet those needs and desires.
A 2011 study by Booz and Company found that those companies that define their strategy as “need seekers” consistently outperformed the others, and were much more effective at both the ideation and conversion stages of innovation. These companies, typified by Apple, directly engage their customers to find out what they really want, and how best to provide it, regardless of legacy assumptions about what the market of products and services might look like. They engage in truly expansive thinking and are willing to test ideas that just flat our scare others.
Schools in the past have not been “need seekers”. For the most part we have assumed that what has worked well for our customers in the past will work pretty well in the future, except maybe with some tweaking. We rarely engage in deep conversation with our customers about their needs and desires for education. In fact we rarely engage in deep conversation with our own educators about what great education really looks like! When we DO engage thusly, we find that our stakeholders, from students to parents to our own educators, think we fundamentally need to shift our approach to learning.
The lesson from Silicon Valley, the most highly successful locus of knowledge-based industries in the history of the world, is that we greatly improve our schools’ chances for future success if we build innovative capacity and strategy based on a deep understanding of customer needs.