Pick a unique problem to solve, then innovate (only) when you must
A few thoughts from Jim McKelvey's "The Innovation Stack"
Businesses should copy whenever they can and only innovate when they’re solving a problem that's so different—so outside of the walls of what's known and standard—that they have no other choice.
That’s the perspective of Jim McKelvey, cofounder of Square and author of The Innovation Stack: Building an Unbeatable Business One Crazy Idea at a Time.
Aside from being one of the most readable business books I've seen in a while, I thought McKelvey’s concepts were different enough from standard talk of innovation and creativity to challenge frameworks and encourage fresh thinking.
So let’s go back to the idea that you solve a problem, copy where you can, and innovate only where necessary. Typically in that case, you solve one problem, which leads to another question that demands another innovation. Piece by piece these (by necessity, not just for change's sake) build into an innovation stack.
McKelvey’s thesis is that there are some businesses (like Square) that have stacked innovations that keep other competitors from being able to compete because they won't (or can't) create every separate innovation to fully replicate what makes the first business unique. He says that's what saved Square when Amazon went after their product. He compares it to stories of Bank of America, Southwest, and Ikea, showing similar progressions.
Here's an excerpt that summarizes this well:
You can have a great life copying other people who have great lives. Copying is such a supremely powerful tool that it bets the question: why would someone choose to do anything else? Given the safety and predictability of copying and making incremental improvements, why risk total failure by taking a transformative leap? But some do choose to leave that walled city. Are they crazy? What is their motivation?
For those who choose to leave, two types of motivation matter. The first type is the motivation we all know—let’s call this perseverance. Perseverance powers us to finish tasks, to get going and keep going. There are entire industries dedicated to perseverance. You can attend weeklong seminars to improve your perseverance. It is the key to success in most endeavors. We also call it work ethic, follow-through, grit, determination, or some other universally respected term.
The second type of motivation, however, applies only to entrepreneurs and artists and is rarely discussed—let’s call this audacity. Audacity is the reason you decide to leave the city and attempt something that has never been done. Audacity is generally frowned upon, or at best respected in hindsight if and when you succeed. We have no glowing nouns for people who reject our trusted ways.
Once you have the audacity to walk out of the walled city and try something entirely new, you shouldn’t have any problem with perseverance. If you quit, you die. Seminar over. Fear fuels your survival instinct, and you will leap from invention to invention that necessity will mother. The “decision” to innovate is easy to make, as there is little choice.
You don’t choose to do a dozen things to survive, you just choose to survive—and are forced to do a dozen things. So the real choice, then, is about whether to tackle a perfect problem or not. Ultimately, the decision to do something new comes down to a battle between the audacity you have to solve a perfect problem and your fear of failure. How much do you care verses how much does it cost. If you care enough, failure be damned.
I see a lot of potential overlap in what it means to build educational experiences that are unique because they're solving a specific problem.
Too often in higher ed (or any other industry), we get it backwards. The call is to innovate. That’s great, but what problem are we solving?
What if, rather than innovating for innovation’s sake, we worked to find the right problem? What if we moved out of the walled city into the unknown?
Sure, we’d copy great practices wherever we could. But since we’re working on a new problem, we’ll hit areas where no one has solved that problem before.
Then, innovation is the only possibility. Through those moves, over time, we develop something that’s completely different from anything else out there. That stack of innovations, built one problem at a time, creates a position that’s difficult for anyone else to copy (or surpass).
And better yet, it provides new learning opportunities and pathways for students and families.
How Successful Leaders Think (Roger Martin via Farnam Street)
'“A great leader’s first reaction is, hmm, say more. Tell me more. ... Because it has this super big knock-on effect. One, it causes your subordinates to all think that if you’ve got an interesting thought, I’m open to hearing it. I’m not going to just shut that down because it disagrees with me. Everybody is more inclined to think about things and think about things differently, and not be afraid of that”
The Muddled World of Self-Awareness (Scott Hogan)
I’m not suggesting that we give “applause and opinion” power over our lives. I am suggesting, however, that there’s a significant difference between delivery and delivering. Leaders without self-awareness fret about how they came across. A self-aware leader wonders, did I come across? Therein lies the riddle of modern self-awareness theory: to be successful at self-awareness a leader must lose their awareness of self by replacing the common question Was I interesting? with the better question Were those present impacted?
Authoritative mentors: Demanding and supportive is a powerful combination (Angela Duckworth)
Of all the blessings in life we have to be thankful for, it’s hard to beat the good fortune of having a supportive and demanding mentor—someone who cares about us unconditionally but, at the same time, asks us to do things we cannot yet do.
Well, it is possible. I call the meeting a ‘round-robin retro’ and it’s the most important meeting you aren’t regularly having with your team.
Part 1: ‘What went well?’
One-by-one, each person gives a single, specific, one-sentence answer to the question, ‘What went well?’ Once everyone in the room has done this, go around again . . . and again, until people have voiced everything that’s gone well.
Part 2: ‘What didn’t go well?’
You can follow exactly the same format for this question. Remember, the objective is to listen, not solve, and the facilitator’s role is to make the environment safe enough for everyone to share their grievances without the risk of being shot down.
Part 3: ‘What will we change?’
You won’t have time to solve everything in a 60-minute meeting. So instead, ask the team this: ‘Based on everything you’ve heard, what could we change next week that would most improve our team dynamic?’
Why Higher Ed Futures? (Add your voice)
In this newsletter, “futures” is intentionally plural. With any challenge, there is more than one way to move forward. A thriving educational system will require a network of focused, differentiated colleges and universities that meet the variety of student needs.
My hope here is to avoid binary thinking and create a community where people passionate about higher education can think, dream, and challenge assumptions together.
If you have an idea that challenges or refines the thoughts above, please reply to this email and share! With your permission, we may include it in a future email.