Our Compulsive Obsession with the Impossible Sexy

I ran across an interesting article on the Fast Company website today detailing the work of Method — a wildly successful startup selling ecofriendly soaps and detergents. 

In it, Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry — the minds behind Method — make a point that I think schools working towards sustainable change often fail to understand:  Sometimes the most successful innovations start from thinking at the edges of the box

To the Method guys, edge of the box thinking is called "soft innovation." Here's how they explain it:

"Soft innovators establish new standards for quality, experience, and sales in their categories without actually doing anything profoundly innovative. Think Ben & Jerry's, which introduced the ice cream pint to the world as a more personal alternative to the half-gallon or gallon tub."

In their own work in the personal and homecare marketplace, soft innovations have included tinkering with everything from the scents that they use in their products to the feel of their labels and the quirky shapes of their packages. 

These kinds of evolutionary steps are essentially risk free, argue the Method guys, and risk free innovation is a good thing:

"Don't get us wrong, we love big innovation…but many companies underestimate the power of soft innovation, which can enhance the consumer experience and drive massive differentiation within a category.

The advantage of a soft innovation is that it treads lightly on the R&D budget, requires less marketing support because consumers "get it" right away, and is predictably successful because the idea is familiar and the consumer learning curve is quicker."

Couldn't we revise this thinking into a beautiful statement about successful innovation efforts in schools?  It would look a little something like this if we did:

Don't get us wrong, we love big innovation…but many schools underestimate the power of soft innovation, which can enhance the student experience and drive massive differentiation within a category.

The advantage of a soft innovation is that it treads lightly on the PD budget, requires less marketing support because teachers "get it" right away, and is predictably successful because the idea is familiar and the learning curve for everyone is quicker.

What does this all mean for schools and their leaders?  Most importantly, we need to take active steps towards implementing soft innovations in our schools.  What simple and immediate changes can you make to:

  • The ways that your teachers collaborate.
  • The ways that your teachers assess and report on student learning.
  • The ways that your students interact — with ideas and with other people.
  • The ways that your students communicate what they know. 

Sure, completely reimagining schools is sexy.  But the simple truth is that sexy isn't always doable — and our compulsive obsession with the impossible sexy means most of our change efforts are ridiculous failures.  

_____________________

Related Radical Reads:

Sustainable Change in Schools is Evolutionary

Evolutionary Lessons for PLC Principals

Make Like an Obstetrician and Deliver

 

6 thoughts on “Our Compulsive Obsession with the Impossible Sexy

  1. Bill Ferriter

    Hey George,
    First, it was GREAT to meet you at Educon too! Im completely bummed that I missed your session, though — and equally bummed that we didnt get more time to hang out. Next time Im in the DC area, well have to sit down and have a real dinner.
    Second, your example of Skype as a soft innovation is perfect. It was only a small change — both digitally and instructionally — for everyone involved. The idea of guest speakers isnt new. Neither was the technology.
    What worries me is the hoops that you had to jump through in order to make it happen. That is an innovation killer for most teachers. While you were persistent enough to make it happen, the vast majority of teachers that I know probably wouldnt have pushed beyond the initial no.
    Some districts go even further in making what youre doing impossible, too. I know of one that forces teachers to fill out a form three weeks in advance of any potential videoconferencing project. The potential speaker then has to be approved by THREE different people at three different levels of the system. Finally, the speaker has to go through the same visitor clearance process that someone who was physically on campus would have to go through.
    #whatajoke
    Anyway…definitely looking forward to catching up again someday, friend. Youve been an important part of my digital life for a long time and I miss seeing you around.
    Rock on,
    Bill

  2. George Mayo

    Hi Bill,
    Sometimes, I read about new ideas for “rethinking” schools that are so far from reality that the arguments are almost self-defeating. It’s like trying to go to Mars before landing on the moon. I think teachers who want to experiment with new ways of doing things in their classrooms instinctively understand the power of “soft innovation.”
    Quick story from my own classroom: A few years ago I convinced my school district to download Skype onto my classroom computer and buy me a webcam. It took a few months actually to get this done and had to be approved by various people in the chain of command.
    Skype is nothing new, and this wasn’t an unreasonable request. However, having Skype on my classroom computer has had a huge impact in my classroom. We have been able to Skype in dozens of experts, connect with students and teachers across the country, and sometimes other countries. We use Skype regularly and I couldn’t imagine teaching without it at this point.
    I think this is an example of “soft innovation.” Skype is a well known tool with a good reputation and it’s free. In the end, there was no reason to turn down my request. Not a lot of pain involved for anyone, but yet my students and I have gained tremendously as a result of having this tool available.
    Great to finally meet you at Educon. I just wish I had the chance to talk to you a little more!

  3. Bill Ferriter

    Thanks, Pal.
    And Im with you: The Ben and Jerrys example is incredibly approachable. Nothing terrifically new in their innovation. Ice cream is ice cream, right? But the size of the container and the quirkiness of the label and flavor names made Ben and Jerrys wildly successful.
    Innovate at the edges of the box. Adjacent possible.
    Anyway…good seeing you in this space,
    Bill

  4. Kristenswanson

    As Steven Johnson says, we need to “chase the adjacent possible.” I really liked the specific example you used. I think this could make the idea of soft innovation highly approachable for my teachers!

  5. Bill Ferriter

    Bob wrote:
    Your point seemed to be think small (soft) and dont make it complicated. the change is more likely to happen.
    Thanks for sharing what you learned from the article
    _ _ _ _ _ _ _
    You got it, Bob. In my experience, schools dream big — and while dreaming big is a beautiful trait, it often results in change efforts that are unsustainable or poorly implemented. Thats one of the reasons that teachers are so convinced that change isnt even possible. Weve seen too many examples of change going nowhere.
    Focusing on smaller innovations — or innovations at the edge of the box — gives us a greater chance of actually successfully implementing meaningful reform. And success breeds new momentum.
    Good to see you here again. Hope youre well!
    Bill

  6. Robert ryshke

    Bill:
    Love the way you took this article and adopted soft innovation to our school model. I think you are on to something. Big, sexy innovations seem glamorous but if they aren’t doable then the change doesn’t impact student learning. Your point seemed to be think small (soft) and don’t make it complicated. the change is more likely to happen.
    Thanks for sharing what you learned from the article.
    Bob

Comments are closed.