A Model Educational Entrepreneur’s Pitch from 1969

Whether you agree with public funding of radio and television or not, May 1, 1969 is one of the more impressive pitches from an educational entrepreneur that I’ve ever heard. It was Fred Rogers speaking before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications. It was at a time when Nixon proposed to cut part of the Public Broadcast System budget in half, from 20 million down to 10 million. As such, Fred Rogers had 6 minutes to convince the subcommittee to reconsider these efforts and it was wildly successful. Take a moment to watch the following video. Then I’ll offer 7 things that made this one of the best educational innovation pitches that I’ve ever heard.

Impressive, right? What makes it so? I notice the following 7 elements of his “pitch.”

He Respected and Expected

How often do politicians actually read all the briefs and documents that get to their desk? As such, Fred noted that he had a 10-minute document but started by respected the time of the people by not just reading the entire thing. Instead, in an incredibly genuine and heartfelt way, he “trusted” people to read it after the fact.

He set the frame for the conversation from the beginning. It was a moral frame. He was going to speak about what he saw as a social and moral good and was calling upon others to join him in that.

He spoke from a place of deep passion and concern.

Regardless of what you think about Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, this guy was all in on it, and it shows up in the way that he talked about it.

He identified a problem and a solution.

He spoke to the presence of much less than wholesome television focused on children and contrasted it with what he was trying to do. Does the world need more of that? Or, does the world need more of this? He framed his show around large and important social issues that people will find it hard to deny. He focused on children. He focused on challenges in daily life and the family, and then he invited the listeners to support him in the cause.

He put the cost of his work in perspective.

He was asking for millions but never explicitly did so. He did, however, contrast the cost of his show with that of 2-minutes of a cartoon. This is the cup of coffee pitch. For only the cost of a cup of coffee each day you could help _______. Yet, Rogers compared his positive messages and the costs with what he framed as the far less helpful and positive messages on television. He framed his work as frugal compared to the rest of the industry.

He established his authority and credibility.

Several times he spoke to the length of time that he spent in this work, not the work of television, but the work of helping children and studying child development. He didn’t come on asking for them to save his show. He was heartfelt, but also informed and established himself as one equipped to help tackle such a problem. Not only that, but he showed himself to be one who listens to the needs of children themselves, explaining how his show was informed and shaped by the challenges and words shared directly from children.

He gave specific examples.

He didn’t just talk about his show in generalizations. He listed a series of specific topics that they address and issues that the help young people explore. He didn’t get technical, but he gave enough information that any listener would have a good idea of what to expect from his work and why it matters.

He invited them into the show.

He also gave them a taste of the show by reciting lines from the closing song. In doing so, he realized that this was not just a matter of the mind, some cerebral decision. It was a matter of the heart as well, and he closed his talk with that in mind.

There are many books and videos about how to craft the right pitch for your project or idea, but this one from 1969 remains a model.

Are you an Educational Innovation Tortoise or Hare?

In Aesop’s Fable about the Tortoise and the Hare, people focus on the fact that the tortoise won because of it was “slow and steady” to the finish line. The hare’s overconfidence and flaws were not enough for the tortoise to win the race. The tortoise had to run the race. He had to stick his neck out and persevere despite the huge odds against him. As James Bryant Conant is quoted as saying, “Behold the turtle. He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.” That means moving beyond our safe and protected shells, taking risks, and agreeing to run the race in the first place.

What are the implications for educational innovation? There are certainly hares at work, the fast-moving innovators who experience early wins or or achieve “firsts” in the field. However, sometimes they find themselves so far ahead of the “competition” that the drive for innovation and new ventures diminishes, and they rest on their past accomplishments. Other times they don’t have the resources to persist. They are quick off the blocks but don’t have what it takes to bring it home. Perhaps we can think of the tortoises as the steady, persistent, determined, calculated risk-takers who are in it for the long haul. They don’t resist change. They have the courage and confidence to get in the race in the first place. They recognize that education is a dynamic, ever-changing endeavor. They may not move the fastest but they persist and keep their eyes on the goal.

Of course, there are other perspectives. Anita Brookner wrote, “In real life, it is the hare who wins. Every time. Look around you. And in any case it is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market. Hares have no time to read. They are too busy winning the game.” While many think of this fable as teaching about the superiority of perseverance over speed, it wasn’t the speed that led to the tortoise winning. The hare’s natural capacities gave it a huge advantage, if it were not for its character. Whenever you can find the sweet spot that blends optimal capacity with optimal character, the chance of success is greatly improved.

As such, some argue that the humble, determined, well-resourced and focused hare is likely to beat out the hard-working tortoise almost every time in the real world. Yet, that is often not what we see in educational innovation. I’ve been involved with plenty of “firsts” in the education sector, providing a glimpse into what was possible. Pretty much every time, however, I did not have the human or other resources to amplify and refine the innovation. I gladly accepted my role and allowed other organizations to take the ideas, refine them, scale them, and even monetize them. These other organizations were on the front end of the innovations, but it was their resources and capacity to execute and scale that gave them the advantage. They were really good at focusing, persisting, putting in the hard work (and resources), and reaching the target audience.

While some still look at it as a competition, education is social entrepreneurship and the end goal is for the best ideas to spread and have the greatest positive impact. That means that there is plenty of room and a valuable role for hares, tortoises and any number of other participants.

10 Ways to Infuse A Spirit of Innovation & Entrepreneurship in Your Learning Organization

In Bold, Peter Diamandis and Stven Kolter wrote, “If you don’t disrupt yourself someone else will.” I don’t treat this as an absolute, but it is a proverbial truth. The eduction space is one of tremendous innovation and entrepreneurship today. This doesn’t mean abandoning every practice or tradition, and given that education is a collective social good, it doesn’t even mean that every learning organization needs to be deeply innovative and entrepreneurial. There is plenty of room for different types of learning organizations in the K-12 and higher education, and also in the massive education space beyond these formal organizations. With that said, if you aspire to be an innovative and entrepreneurial organization, it probably means making a few changes. Following are ten tips. They are not a recipe for innovation. There are plenty of ways to nurture a culture of innovation. However, in my work with various learning organizations and education companies, paying attention to these ten tips is a great start. Each one is not something you just do and check off a list. Each one takes time, organizational and individual soul-searching, persistence, a thick skin, and a fervent commitment to the task.

1. Celebrate innovation and entrepreneurship.

I’m not talking about just saying it. I mean really celebrate it. Lift it up. Encourage it and back up your encouragement with the resources for people to do it. The top people in the organization need to be behind it. They don’t always need to lead it, but they do not to celebrate it. This means giving people the space to innovative because entrepreneurs and innovators wither with micro-management. They need support, encouragement, celebration, and empowerment.

2. Hire or raise up people who are passionate about being deeply informed about the possibilities.

C. E. M. Joad wrote that, “The height of originality is skill in concealing origins.” Ideation and innovation are both fueled by a deep and broad sense of the possibilities. There is a certain breed of person that craves exploring and discovering the possibilities. Sometimes they just seem obsessed with discovering diverse sources, models, examples, and frameworks. They read, observe, connect… They are building this deep well of insights from which they can pull when they begin to innovate. These are valuable people to have around if you want a culture of innovation. When it comes to the education space, we are talking about finding people who are not just interested in replicating and imitating what other organizations do. Look for people who can keep the mission of your organization in focus, but they explore the world for ideas, some of which might have an interesting application in your organization.

3. Match your entrepreneurs, innovators and edupreneurs with people who love being part of innovation but are great at making things happen and attending to the details.

If you add detail people who are intimidated, overwhelmed or even defensive about innovation; that will not work out. However, if you can match your innovators with these “get it done and done well” people, watch out! They can be a powerful combination. Sometimes it is the same person, but often (even most often) it is not.

4. Include system thinkers.

When you start to innovate, all sorts of things can be affected. It is extremely valuable to have people who understand all parts of the operation instead of just an organization full of specialists. If you find an innovator who is also a systems thinker, grab them and empower them. These systems thinkers don’t just think about how one thing impacts another in the organization. These people get under the hood. They want to know all aspects of the operation. They don’t just play or dabble. They dig deep, while not mistaking their digging for full-scale expertise. They can be critical resources in understanding what will work and what will not, or how to work toward conditions where something new can work. Oftentimes, the organization obsessed with specialists and tidy divisions of labor miss the wisdom of these system thinkers with disastrous results. These people see things that others just don’t get, and if they have a track record of using their capacity for systems thinking to get things done well, trust them with it.

5. Embrace wonderfully lopsided people, giving them freedom to grow their strengths…while helping to minimize or manage their limitations.

Especially in some education organizations, there can be this idolatry of the well-rounded person..the employee equivalent of the student who got straight “As” in all subjects, played multiple sports, and was loved by everyone. If you only look for those people, you are going to miss out on some world-class talent. Some of the best people in the world in various domains are what I call “wonderfully lopsided.” They have a huge strength. They build on it and use it to do extraordinary things. They also have gaps and limitations. You can focus on those limitations or you can embrace the whole person and then help them manage the limitations while letting them do amazing things in the organization with their strengths. Keep pushing them back to working on their weaknesses and you risk preventing them from creating their next masterpiece.

6. Create spaces for freedom, experimentation and exploration.

This means freedom from something. That something is often the standard way of doing things, the expected way of doing things, standard practice and policy, and sometimes even the “acceptable” way of doing things. Let them experiment. Learning organizations often don’t do this well because they cut their teeth on a culture of earning and a fixed mindset. Experiments have uncertain results, which is why they are called experiments. If you want innovation, then you need to have a tolerance and celebration of experimentation. This doesn’t have to mean multi-million dollar experiments. You can manage risks at reasonable and tolerable level, and that will vary depending upon your organizational culture. Without experimentation you will probably not get much world-class innovation.  Sometimes it takes months or years to benefit from these experiments but if you have the resources and patience, they can pay huge dividends.

7. Remove fear and uncertainty associated with top-down power moves and changing the rules in the middle of the game.

Fear can be a motivator, but threats, top-down power plays and top-down changes behind closed doors will kill the motivation and energy of most innovators and entrepreneurs. If you are committed to running your organization this way, you will lose some of your top talent. You’ll keep the rule followers. You’ll keep the people who are happy just following directives from above. You’ll lose your innovators and entrepreneurs almost every time. Imagine playing a game of chess and someone jumps in and starts pulling some of your pieces off the board, forcing you to play without them. Then they start changing the rules of the game on you. That sort of unpredictability will squash the spirit of innovative people and teams.

8. Ignore the “Equal Treatment” mindset of some organizations.

This is a difficult one for some people to handle, but the “equal treatment” myth is just that. Treating all people and units the same is not equal because they don’t all need the same things. In addition, your organization will need to invest in promising ideas and people who are working on the next innovation. Find ways to fund, support and empower those people. The more you can do to help the rest of the organization see the wisdom and importance of this, the better. This often means giving some freedom and flexibility to do things that might not usually be done, that might not fit in the standard policies and practices. There is a careful line to draw here. Some things are non-negotiable, but be flexible with the rest.

8. Don’t expect the innovators and entrepreneurs to color within the lines.

This relates to #7, but if you want to embrace a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, this means realizing that these people often don’t color within the lines. That can be a challenge because coloring between the lines was pretty much invented in schools.

9. Sift everything through the mission and vision, but be open to interesting twists and improvisations around the mission and vision.

This is where we draw the lines with the  non-negotiables. The mission, vision, values and goals that are core to the organization need to be standard for all people. Even (especially) the innovators need to respect, embrace, and innovate around these. At the same time, they might put fascinating and surprising twists on what that mission looks like, especially if we allow them the freedom from some of the traditional trappings while holding them to sifting everything through these core elements.

10. Partner, network, connect, beg, borrow, and steal (in the flattering, not illegal sense); but beware of disengaged outsourcing.

Outsourcing part of your operation can be an effective strategy at times, but stay deeply engaged. Learn all you can. You want to build intellectual capital for the future. Even with that (and as I and others have written or said many times before), some of the best people in the world are not in your organization. So, partner, connect, and network with those people. At minimum, try to learn from the best people, organizations, and innovations in the world.

How Education Startups Will Change Higher Education

They’re struggling. The Department of Education, state-level oversight departments, regional accrediting agencies and program-specific accrediting agencies continue to have difficulty responding to current and emerging innovations in education. Add the complex bureaucracies and centuries-old academic cultures within higher education institutions and we have a perfect storm that stifles progress and new possibilities for formal learning in a digital age. The recent conversations about direct assessment and new approaches to competency-based education highlights such a challenge. Many of these groups are slowing and hindering innovation in higher education, while often not realizing that this is the logical result of their efforts.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” While some attribute that quote to Henry Ford, others point out that the true source is unknown. Regardless, it represents the role of these agencies and organizations in higher education. They are sometimes closed to the possibility of the automobile equivalent of higher education innovation. Their comfort zone is with evaluating schools on the speed of their horses. They reward and accredit better industrial universities, while remaining clumsy when it comes to imagining or supporting visions of post-industrial, non-hierarchical higher education.

At the 2013 Educational Innovation Summit, Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University, explained that there are three types of universities: élite, industrial age universities, and innovative universities. Crow suggested that the élite schools are the most insulated from the impact of innovation. They have extremely positive brand equity. They have a financial model that does not rely on tuition. And they a have a long waiting line of people wanting to join their community (whether it is students, staff, or faculty).

Then there are the industrial age universities. These schools are less insulated from the changes and innovations in higher education. They function with a traditional model established amid the industrial revolution. Some of their practices clash with the emerging nature of an information and digital age, but they tend to persist with past practices. Some make grand and convincing arguments about why they should not change. Others have trouble taking many of the innovations seriously because they believe so strongly in what has been done and what they continue to do. According to Crow, these industrial universities need exemplars that can point them in promising directions.

Finally, there are the innovative universities. These are the ones exploring, experimenting and even setting aside some of the industrial practices, replacing them with new models. They are bold, imaginative, informed about current trends and innovations, and they are re-imagining higher education. They are often criticized because they challenge longstanding traditions and defined roles in academia. They are not simply replicating what the university next door is doing, nor are they trying to model themselves after the élite schools.

All three university types, but especially the industrial and innovative, continue to be largely shaped and influenced by external bodies and government oversight agencies. These outside groups set up rules and standards based upon past practice in higher education. They use measures that people understand from past generations. They have a bias toward the traditional and the familiar, and while some practices like online learning have been assimilated, they continue to set up criteria for “quality” or “excellence” based upon past models. Even so, the élite universities remain insulated. They are far more comfortable ignoring some of the regional accrediting agency standards. As one person explained to me. The difference between élite universities and the rest is this. At the average university, people dress up and put their best foot forward for visitors from the accrediting agencies. At élite universities, the accreditors dress up and put their best foot forward.

What are the possible outcomes from all this?

Shifting “Market Share”

We are in an age of democratized knowledge, information and learning opportunities. Education startups are on the rise, and more of them are offering alternate routes to learning that do not depend upon formal learning organizations. They don’t deal in credits, degrees or federal aid; so they don’t have to worry about external accrediting bodies or as much government oversight. They are free to innovative in a way that focuses upon customer satisfaction and benefit to the end user.

One possible future for higher education is that it will shrink, unable to provide what the education companies offer. These companies are more innovative, agile, often driven by end user data, and they are not complicated by hundreds of years of traditions. They listen to what people want and need, and they are less likely to condescendingly declare that, “We know what is best for you.” As such, one possible future is that a percentage of learners and organizations will no longer turn to universities for help. They will go to for-profit and non-profit learning organizations that function apart from government oversight and accrediting standards, but they will demand that we judge all according to the learning that results from their products and services.

If the outside agencies keep it up, a third to half of what colleges and universities do may be lost to companies that are not bound by such groups or rules. Is that a bad thing? That depends upon your perspective. It might mean more options for learners. Some in higher education embrace such a claim, arguing that it lets universities focus upon what is most important to them anyway. Others are troubled by it, especially those with missions and values associated with increasing access and opportunity.  It as if universities are playing a board game and someone gleefully change the rules every few turns. Yet, some playing the game don’t have to follow any of the rules. As such, I expect a branch of “higher education” to emerge within the next decade that will largely bypass many regional accreditors, and I anticipate more models like Patten University that opt out of the financial aid program so that they have more freedom and flexibility in their offerings.

The Rise of the Innovative University

We might just see the decline of the industrial university and the persistence of the élite and innovative universities. The innovative universities may well explore educational offerings that go far beyond courses, credits, degrees and programs. This has been going on for decades with some of the most robust continuing education units at schools. We see it happening with some competency-based education and direct assessment programs. Perhaps more will come from such efforts, providing a larger variety of educational formats and offerings, some of which do not require financial aid or outside accreditors. The career track programs that are already highly regulated (like many healthcare professions) may well remain tied to outside oversight, but many other offerings can flourish by finding ways to be free from time-consuming outside rules and expectations.

A Re-imagination of Oversight

Another possible future is that more accrediting agencies will adjust what they measure, looking less at minutia and trappings, and more at results. Right now there are many expectations from various accrediting bodies about the appropriate percentage of adjunct versus full-time faculty, what formal degrees faculty must hold, library resources, and any number of items. In other words, they are directing what the University should look like instead of focusing upon outcomes. As this changes, perhaps we will see universities freed to embrace the best of their past while also venturing into new models like competency-based education, learning environments that unbundle the traditional role of professor, and tracks that are tied directly to employer needs.

 The more regulated the sector, the more difficult it is to make predictions about the future. As such, any musings about the future of formal education organizations are tentative at best. Yet, we are witnessing the rise of less regulated educational offerings through innovative startups. As these unchained offerings expand, they are bound to have an impact on higher education as a whole. Either they will disruptive, decrease, or re-define the direction of colleges and universities.