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A favorite session for me at NAIS 2010 was Tina Seelig’s session, Innovation as an Extreme Sport. (The video is above is not her actual session, but it does introduce you to her).   It was terrific to see her reframe the practice of innovation away from the limitations of the science lab, or robotics workshop, and take it into the world as a collaborative, fast moving, and competitive activity.

This post is not going to try to recapitulate the narrative of her presentation, (there is a great version of that here, and I highly recommend it to those who missed the session) but rather comment upon it with some highlights.

1.  Myself, I was conflicted about Seelig’s tone and attitude at first.  I loved her energetic slides, but it seemed she was making light of this important human quality– that she was reducing it when she called it an extreme sport (think skateboarding).  But as I sit with it, I am broadening my world-view: there is still much to me that needs to be treated seriously about innovation, but there is an absolutely fine place for fun and levity.   As Dan Pink says, we will be more successful in today’s era if we play more. Seelig wants us to play more with innovation, to have fun, be silly, be exuberant, and run with our ideas and imagination, and that is great.

2.  A small query: much of the way Seelig “teaches” innovation is to set groups of students working on a task or challenge, and give them limited resources and time to experiment and then create.   Fine.  What was less clear to me as a I watched her presentation was the role of competition, and whether the team were motivated by rewards or prizes.  Whether in the “make as much money with $5 project,” or the what can you do with a post-it or rubber band contest, she showed students frantically and furiously coming up with new ideas and new solutions, and she seemed to reference briefly prizes and awards, but I couldn’t quite tell.

The lurking question then, for any of us who have read Dan Pink’s latest book Drive already, is how to reconcile Seelig’s enthusiasm for these innovation competitions with Pink’s counsel that rewards and prizes diminish innovative creativity, they narrow the focus to the prize and in doing so result in less open-minded discovery.   I’d love to hear Seelig explain this further, and I will admit maybe the team contests she describes really were not framed so much by rewards– I had a hard time discerning.

3.  I am eager to see, and to share, the video she described in her session, Imagine it. It seems the film is divided into short segments, and I might try to share them with in installments with my students, to try to carry forward my project of introducing innovation to them.  I also want to bring to my school these kinds of contests, and maybe work to make them a regular part of what happens at our school!

4.  Seelig really opened my eyes with one little discussion: innovation is often hampered by incrementalism, and our failure to see beyond what are already good ideas.   I loved this stunt: she asked students, when addressing a problem, to come up with a list of the best ideas to solve it, and the worst.  Then she RIPS up the good ideas, redistributes the worst ideas, and tells students to key off of the bad ideas to make a good idea.  That is a way to break through the incrementalism and really start thinking fresh.

5. She was very fun on the twin subjects of problems and failure, both of which are GOOD things, to be valued and appreciated.    Problems, she explains, are opportunities, and she waxed eloquent and enthusiastic that without problems we would have no role and no opportunities for innovations, and no way to create new value (and make new money).   “Don’t run from problems, run TO problems.”  Failure too is a blessing: Fail fast and frequently.  Write a failure narrative, a failure resume, and explain how you failed and how not to repeat your mistake.   The session opened with a concern: are our best students being cheated because in our schools, our best students rarely encounter failure?  How can we better empower and extend our best students’ creativity by giving them more experience of failure?

6.  As she described her “classroom,” and I put that in quotes because her students seem very rarely confined to any single room, she spoke to me powerfully about her pedagogic approach.   Set a challenge (start with a problem!), empower and enable and facilitate students collaboratively tackling that challenge, require them to present their solutions to each other, and then, debrief.   As much time as spent on the debriefing, she says, as on the exercise.  This is a quality learning environment, and how can we implement this Stanford innovation approach more widely in our schools?

7. Seelig welcomed visitors to use her website platform for resources and ongoing attention to this important topic.  It is something I definitely want to spend more time at: ecorner.standford.edu.

8. I’ll end with this : the key points of innovation as an extreme sport to keep in mind:

  1. Identify opportunities
  2. Challenge assumptions
  3. Leverage resources
  4. Value creation
  5. Execute a plan
  6. Teamwork
  7. Take risks
  8. Learn from failure
  9. Creative problem solving