A number of years ago, I was in a meeting with a group of colleagues to work through an emerging problem at the University. We spent time defining the problem and exploring the causes of it. We eventually got around to devising a plan of attack to address the problem. True to form, I jumped right into asking questions that I thought might help us innovate our way through the problem.
Of course, innovation is not the only way to solve a problem. Some problems are quite easily addressed by using longstanding practices in our organization. Others can be addressed by drawing from best practices in the field or learning from what worked for others. Still others can be addressed by looking to solutions in parallel fields. However, there are problems where existing solutions will not work, and those call for innovation if we are going to find a viable solution.
As one colleague noted when I started with my innovation questions, “When it comes to solving a problem, Bernard’s default approach is to innovate his way out of it.” That can be a strength, but it can just as often be a weakness. If that description of me is true, then I may well try to innovative my way out of a problem that could be more simply, quickly and inexpensively resolved with a more standard solution.
As such, I interpreted the statement as neither a compliment or a strong critique. I know this about myself. For one reason or another, I seem to have an initial bias toward the unconventional or innovative solution. That doesn’t mean that I have to go with that strategy each time a new problem arises, but it is certainly a good thing to know about yourself. Others have an initial bias toward the standard solution or toward finding out and imitating what others are doing to solve a similar problem. Each of these three have their benefits and drawbacks.
Yet, for the sake of this article, I’d like to make a case for innovation as a form of problem-solving in education, not because it is necessarily the superior option, but because I often see organizations struggle because they are not willing to consider it as an option. They are intimidated by it. They see it as reckless and risky. Or, maybe they just don’t consider it. The problem is that the same old strategies are likely to produce the same old results, and that can be dangerous given the rapid rate of change in education today.
There is a very important caveat to this. When it comes to innovation, we don’t want to put students at risk. It is always important to assess the risks of failure and how this could impact our primary mission of serving students and families. We certainly don’t want to turn students into guinea pigs, although there is something to be said for inviting the students to turn the school itself into a guinea pig (more about that in a future article).
At the same time, just falling back on what we have done and what everyone else has done brings plenty of risks too. First, what works in one situation or context doesn’t necessary work in the next. So, there can be just as much risk trying to play it safe. While we might like to think that we have much of education down to a science, there is still a great deal of art to the enterprise.
Consider this example in higher education. Universities think about student enrollment quite a bit. Selective schools with large endowments think about enrollment much differently than small, tuition-dependent private schools with a limited endowment; but they both think about enrollment. Yet, when it comes to the strategies associated with recruiting that freshman class, there is a large set of rather standard approaches; and that is where almost everyone turns when we face an enrollment problem. They look for what worked in the past and what works for others. Yet, that might be part of the problem.
This became clear to me over the last several years with the growing number of schools starting online degree programs and competing against one another for students or a certain type of student. Because a handful of large for-profit schools set the standard for online recruiting through certain digital advertising strategies, so many people have followed suit. It has certainly been a boon for companies like Google. Yet, as more people started to complete with one another, the competition increased and so did the cost per click. This led to a massive increase in the cost of recruiting a new student. Some pay thousands of dollars to enroll just one student. Yet, if you want to grow by five hundred or a thousand students, using that strategy, you need millions of upfront capital that you can invest in digital ads. Given that many schools were not prepared for that type of an investment, they gladly hired outside for-profit companies who were willing to make an upfront investment in turn for a significant piece of the tuition pie.
So, if you experience an enrollment drop in such an online world, what do you do? You can go with what worked for you in the past and try to spend more money to recruit students. You can look at what others are doing and imitate it. Many of them are doing the same thing. You might assume that the standard cost for recruiting a new student is the only way forward.
The problem is that this is a dangerous cycle. The more people who do this, the more we raise the cost of recruiting a new student. Eventually, the cost gets so high that only a few players can compete, or it starts to take away money needed to improve the academic quality of the program.
Yet, that isn’t the only option. This is where the third way comes into play. Instead of just doing what worked in the past and looking to the example of others in the space, you can start to consider alternative pathways. What if you challenge the assumption that it should cost thousands to recruit a new student and explore completely different ways to connect with students who might want and benefit from what you have to offer? What if you brainstorm new strategies? You don’t have to disregard the old ways. You just build a more balanced portfolio. You invest some in what works for you. You invest some in what works for others. You invest some in what is more experimental. This is a lesson highlighted for me by a valued colleague.
I happen to think that this approach can work quite well when we face any number of problems or issues in education. We can approach it with this sort of a portfolio investment mindset, making sure that we leave room for some experimental endeavors that might have a bit more risk. Yet, it might also have a huge return for the students and school as well.