It’s no secret that I am always looking for examples of innovation. Since moving to Tanzania I have been frustrated about having to use cash with most of my transactions. It’s even more difficult here in TZ because $1 USD = 2,230 TZH. I leave the bank with stacks of 10,000 TZH bills. I had heard a buzz about M-Pesa but had no idea how it worked. My first instinct was to search the App store for M-Pesa. I later realized that if this service was an App, it would not have succeeded. That’s because tens of millions of cellphone users in Africa use basic cellphones.
I just returned from a small local store where there was a line for people to either deposit or withdraw cash through M-Pesa. I just deposited money into my wife’s cellphone number so that she can pay her hotel bill in Karatu, TZ. According to my wife, Karatu is in the middle of nowhere near the Ngorongoro Crater.
M-Pesa was launched by mobile operators Safaricom and Vodaphone in 2007. Neither company is in the banking industry but this innovative has become the world’s leading money service. The system simply transfers money from one phone to another. If the statistics above aren’t convincing that this innovation has had a huge impact and changed the way that users do business, take a look at this study by Professor Tanveet Suri from MIT.
The developers created software that could be used by existing cellphone technology to transform the economies of countries throughout the developing world.
“If you only deal with innovations. You become Scotland’s national animal, the unicorn. You know a unicorn but you never see them.”
In trying to dig deeper into this concept I found Mark Payne’s book How to Kill a Unicorn. The book trailer explains unicorns as “visions that are beautiful to think about, but doable and profitable only in some remote, imaginary world.”
My takeaway is that we can still try to find unicorns but you have to think about the practical aspect of development and creation. The ideas can’t just remain pie in the sky dreams that have no chance of coming true.
My daughter, Maya, loves unicorns and, to my knowledge, she hasn’t seen one yet. Actually, she and I are still trying to find one.
Just over a year ago I read George Couros’s post, Ignoring the Status Quo and after this I have been campaigning against best practices. I was in search of alternatives to looking at “best practices”. Unfortunately I’ve been doing a poor job of communicating the concept that best practices keep up the status quo without taking us to a new level. Thanks to Brett Jacobsen at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School I started reading Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath. They clearly explain the benefits of best practices mixed with “bright spots”.
“They’ve long since learned to “benchmark” competitors and absorb industry “best practices.” While these habits are useful, they are rarely transformative. Good ideas are often adopted quickly.”
In Decisive, they give the example of how Sam Walton replicated practice that Ben Franklin was using where customers paid for their items at one location at the front of the store. In the past customers would pay separately in the respective departments. As more stores starting adopting this strategy it became common practice. Walton would frequently ask, “Who else is struggling with a similar problem, and what can I learn from them?” I find that we do this all the time in schools. In the international school community, The Principal’s Training Center listserv is buzzing with colleagues who are gathering information on what others are doing (“best practices”). This type of sharing is necessary and very helpful. For example, about a year ago we asked schools (see The Best Time – Design Thinking Part 2) how they were organizing their classroom without walls trips. We received some excellent ideas and ended up piloting trips based on the best models that we found.
The Heath Brothers present a case for a combination of best practices and “bright spots.” The bright spots are solutions that come from alternative thinking within the organization. Thinking that is tailored to meet your needs and takes the solution to the next level. This type of thinking can lead to mash-ups or innovative practices.
“The search for options might lead the manager to search first for best practices. In a world with thousands of other organizations, someone has surely faced this problem before. Next, she might look for bright spots within her own organization, …”
Using the classroom without walls trip example. We’re basically at a point now where we need to develop brights spots that will improve our school trips. Based on the feedback that we received from teachers and students, the pilot trips were excellent, but they weren’t innovative and we didn’t quite accomplish our objectives. We’re now in the process of developing a new iteration for next year’s learning experiences and we plan to take them to another level. A level that better meets are needs and will hopefully be seen as a “next practice”. Notice that I said “learning experiences”. We’re realizing that the activities for the week don’t have to be trips.
I’m changing my campaign in support of best practices and bright spots.
We were fortunate to have Ben Nelson and his team present at Graded this month and we got a first hand look at The Minerva Project. It was also a pleasure to be able to meet Ben at Transformar 2014 the day before.
Michael Horn was also at Transformar and it didn’t dawn on my until yesterday that Minerva is an excellent example of what Horn and Christensen refer to as disruptive innovation.
The theory explains the phenomenon by which an innovation transforms an existing market or sector by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability where complication and high cost are the status quo. Initially, a disruptive innovation is formed in a niche market that may appear unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents, but eventually the new product or idea completely redefines the industry.
This seems to be a textbook case study for innovators to follow. Here’s what their press release states.
Minerva provides a reinvented university experience for the brightest, most motivated students in the world. Combining a redefined student body, a reinvented curriculum, rigorous academic standards, cutting-edge technology, and an immersive global experience, Minerva is committed to providing an exceptional and accessible liberal arts and sciences education for future leaders and innovators across all disciplines.
Nelson is definitely an outsider to the higher education scene. He talks about the initial ideas for Minerva came while he was an undergraduate at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. It was then that he realized that the learning experiences could be dramatically improved. After leaving Penn he went on to several business ventures but most notably Snapfish. Hardly the path that university founders typically take.
Tuition for Minerva is USD$10,000/year. The total estimated costs for housing, student services, food, books supplies and health insurance is $28,850. This is far below the $50,000+ that it costs to attend the Ivy League universities that Minerva is trying to compete with. Nelson is adamant that Minerva is going after students from throughout the world who are Ivy league talent. Minerva will not have athletics programs, student services facilities, teacher tenure and many of the other amenities that universities provide. Instead they are strategically locating their housing in exciting cities around the world.
Minerva is targeting students from around the world and the low tuition and their quest to provide students with financial aid will attract students from around the world. Nelson reported that 80% of the inaugural class is from outside of the United States.
We believe drive, talent and hard work should be the only factors that determine access to an extraordinary education. Minerva is committed to ensuring that all accepted students are able to attend.
While Minerva has put together an impressive lineup of professors and they are recruiting the best at the brightest, it’s hard to imagine that the initial product will rival the Ivy League schools. The curriculum is also new which means that there will certainly be wrinkles to be ironed out. The initial cohort will be small which means that the thought partner pool will be small. I’m guessing that the university will attract risk-takers which will make for an interesting mix of students.
With students and professors at various places in the world Minerva has developed the Active Learning Forum to facilitate learning in the virtual classroom.
As we deeply think about innovation and what it takes to create an innovative culture we’re seeing the real challenges and barriers that organizations face. In February 2013 Graded hosted the Innovate 2013 Conference and Fabio Gandour, IBM Brasil Chief Scientist, was one of our panelists. He presented a wonderful metaphor for what inertia looks like. He says that this metaphor can make people feel a bit uncomfortable.
Organizational inertia is the tendency of a mature organization to continue on its current trajectory. This inertia can be described as being made up of two elements — resource rigidity and routine rigidity. Resource rigidity stems from an unwillingness to invest, while routine rigidity stems from an inability to change the patterns and logic that underlie those investments. Resource rigidity relates to the motivation to respond, routine rigidity to the structure of that response.
In the face of rapid or discontinuous external change, it is the organizational inertia that must be overcome if a firm is to survive. In a competitive situation where new players are entering the industry, it is the incumbents that are particularly susceptible to the downside of this inertia. In this case it is often referred to as incumbent inertia.
Overcoming organizational inertia — Threat perception in organizations experiencing discontinuous change is often thought to be the impetus necessary to prompt organizational change, a change in inertia, by decreasing the current inertia through changes in resources and routines. While threat perception is a response catalyst, it has been found to decrease inertia in some cases, a good thing, but increase inertia in other cases.