Innovation vs. Education

When you’re looking for someone to hire or promote into a key position, how closely do you look at their level and type of education? If not formally, informally? Many businesses must be paying attention to such things. Otherwise, why would so many people go to the trouble to get advanced degrees like an MBA? Plenty of research confirms that it pays.

Yet when it comes to creativity, risk taking and being entrepreneurial, there’s very little correlation to level of education. It’s not that being academically successful means someone is not creative, it’s just not a very good predictor of who is and who isn’t. Some studies have found that those who perform less well in school are actually more likely to find success in business.

I don’t mean to sound anti-education. (I have two degrees and some post-graduate work.) Education is necessary and important—to business. Yet our educational system does not seem to be very good at fostering business success, or at least not very good at gauging the skills that are necessary to achieve it.

Maybe that’s because what we consider to be education consists mostly of teaching students a bunch of stuff that someone else has already figured out, rather than how to figure it out for themselves. Every time we test for the “right” answers, we condition students to “know” stuff, to add it to the list of what they count as “settled” and “true.”

Life is not a multiple-choice test and neither is business. The insights we need are not found in brief lists of options. Knowing what worked last time isn’t the same as knowing how to face a new challenge or find a new solution. It doesn’t give someone the courage to experiment, or the confidence to chart a new path. Indeed, the surest way to short circuit innovative thinking is to conclude that you already have the answer.

Are we taking our best and brightest and conditioning them to think in a closed loop? To act on only what they already know, instead of seeking fresh answers? That’s a question that one could argue should be posed to academic leaders, not businesses—unless businesses perpetuate those same practices.

It’s easy to complain that our schools are not providing what modern businesses need. But it’s harder to argue that case when businesses promote the same behaviors, by using many of the same performance measures and management techniques. Is “hitting the numbers” qualitatively any different than scoring well on a quiz? At review time, are you seeking fresh insights and suggestions, or grading people on whether they got their assignments finished?

Thinking expansively, seeking solutions instead of conclusions, exploring promising possibilities. Those things require a different mindset from the one our schools and most businesses reward. Are you promoting an innovative mindset, or are you looking for people who already think they “know” what they’re doing?

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