Rock-Solid Hunches

I received a mailer from a research firm suggesting that innovation must be based on “rock-solid evidence.” They were obviously offering to conduct this research and were quoting Jim Shelton in a recent webcast where he was discussing i3 grant criteria. Jim was speaking specifically about grant requirements for a couple $50 million grants. He’s actually made room for a bunch of smaller grants based on promising ideas. But the mailer suggested that “rock solid evidence” should guide all innovation.

I hope you appreciate how ridiculous this statement is. Most innovation comes not from evidence but from a hunch—a guess that there might be a better, cheaper, faster way to do something—and a lot of tinkering. MP3 players didn’t arrive because there was evidence that we needed them. Miracle drugs start as an informed guess or are an unintended benefit of an investigation. The newest flavor of Doritos was first a hunch in a lab. Sure it was focus-grouped before deliver, but it hit store shelves well before there was “rock-solid evidence.”

There’s little evidence that learning games and social networks will be central to most learning environments of the future, but I have a strong hunch they will. There’s a little evidence that online learning works better, but you have to be able to envision the next generation of adaptive content to develop a sense of how we’ll derive productivity from new tools and formats—an informed hunch not randomized controlled trials.

Hunches are often a function of lateral thinking—the ability to apply an observation from one sector to another. It takes a mixture of imagination and insight to develop a hunch. It takes persistence to tinker your way from hunch to a breakthrough. There’d be more persistence in search of real innovation in learning if there was more venture capital. There’d be more venture capital if the sector was serious about innovation over incremental improvement.

Drucker said, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” In education, management is executing around proven practices. Leadership is creating a shared vision of a desired future state—and that’s based, at least in part, on rock solid hunches.

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Tom Vander Ark
9/7/2009

Good related post by Arthur Markman
http://blog.oup.com/2009/08/analogy-innovation/
If innovation is going to save the economy, it has to be repeatable. There has to be a consistent method for finding sources of good new ideas. The funny thing is, being creative requires using the knowledge you already have. New ideas are often old ideas wrapped in new clothing. This process of finding new outfits for old ideas is called analogy. Analogy is the ability to find similarities in two different areas of knowledge that don’t seem similar on the surface.

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