Innovate Like a Tough Teacher
Nearly everyone has fond (or not so fond) memories of a stern teacher from his or her years of schooling. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Joanne Lipman reminds us of the value of having a strict teacher using recent findings in academic studies in the fields of music, math, and medicine. Lipman suggests that “strict discipline and unyielding demands” lead to improved performance in education and calls for a return to “old-fashioned education” that leverages concepts such as “the benefits of childhood stress; how praise kills kids’ self-esteem; and why grit is a better predictor of success than SAT scores.” Indeed, the theme of the importance of discipline on child-rearing has been a topic of much conversation in the last few years, as evidenced by the controversy surrounding Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which articulates why a discipline-oriented parenting style can yield great results in terms of childhood development.
Discipline and innovation, however, may not seem to be a logical match. As innovators, we tend to focus less on discipline and more on free-wheeling and creative brainstorming sessions that generate radical breakthroughs and new thinking. However, discipline definitely has a role to play in the innovation process and by examining Lipman’s eight principles of tough teaching, we can provide insights for innovation practitioners that leverage concepts from tough teaching to improve our performance.
Principle 1 – A little pain is good for you.
For this principle, Lipman cites the well-known study by Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson that postulates that becoming an expert in a field requires 10,000 hours of practice. This notion is well-known in the business literature, as it serves as the foundation of Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book Outliers. Lipman notes that an often overlooked finding from Ericsson’s work is the observation that experts benefit from having teachers who provide “constructive, even painful, feedback.” Top performers in various fields, Ericsson comments, chose mentors who would push them beyond standard boundaries to help in their drive to succeed. For the innovator, the implications of this principle are twofold. First, an innovator should ensure that he or she identifies a coach who can push the individual to greater heights in his or her career, which could mean not being satisfied with a single great successful innovation but constantly striving to do better and make improvements even on an item that was already a big success. Second, the innovator should adopt the mindset in an innovation workshop that demands excellence from each and every participant, leveraging constructive feedback to drive improved results. Pain, per se, should not be an attribute of an innovation session, but a focus on discipline and excellence should pervade the atmosphere, similar to the difference between a classroom that where controlled learning is taking place versus a chaotic classroom.
Principle 2 – Drill, baby, drill.
Lipman highlights the importance of rote learning and memorization in this principle. She cites a study by William Klemm of Texas A&M University that calls for a return to memorization as a learning tool. Indeed, a 2008 study by the U.S. Department of Education links the lack of math expertise in American students to a lack of “drill and practice” in U.S. schools. The innovation leader should consider investing more time than usual in preparations for a workshop, including memorization of key concepts that are needed for the session, such as facts and figures. This increases the credibility of the session leader and also helps improve the flow of the workshop, as the leader will not have to pause the discussion to look up a particular metric. In today’s digital age with so much information at one’s fingertips, we tend to rely less and less on our own memory, though this comes at the cost of credibility, since any elementary school student with a smartphone could look up the same statistic. Even short sessions can benefit from a great deal of preparation. The famous Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Talks that are ubiquitous in the innovation field appear as short, simple (often flawless) speeches recorded for playback on YouTube. However, as a recent article in Inc magazine notes, these sessions are the result of months of preparation and planning. A three-minute TED talk requires numerous sessions with intense assistance from TED conference programmers to work on content and presentation style to ensure the speaker will deliver a powerful message in that short period of time.
Principle 3 – Failure is an option.
For this principle, Lipman cites studies of French students and Ohio band students that highlight the benefits of using failure as a motivational tool. Rather than diminishing self-esteem, the studies suggest, failure as a learning mechanism actually improves self-esteem and motivation in the long run. The relevance of failure to innovation is a well-trod path in the innovation literature, as numerous authors have noted that dozens or even hundreds of failures in attempted innovation led the way to eventual success. Perhaps the best example of this would be Edison’s hundreds of prototypes for the light bulb. Innovators may be better than most people at being able to handle failure, but this principle reminds us that failure can definitely be a powerful motivational tool.
Principle 4 – Strict is better than nice.
Lipman cites a 2005 study of the Los Angeles Unified School District as the foundation for the principle that strict teaching is better than nice teaching. She notes that in a five-year study of the best-performing teachers in the worst-performing school districts, the determining factor that differentiated the best from the worst was that the best teachers were those deemed “strict” by their students. The study suggests that the best teachers assumed that “every student in my room is underperforming based on their potential, and it’s my job to do something about it.” For the innovation practitioner leading a session of colleagues or clients, it may be difficult to adopt a strict demeanor, particularly in the case of a paying customer. However, a mindset where the innovator sets a tone of demanding excellence in terms of results from the session could drive improvements in performance on the part of the participants. In particular, the innovator should ensure that a session focused on generating new thinking about a process or product does not degenerate into a complaint session about how the business is operating today. In this scenario, an innovator could harken to the words of one student in the Los Angeles study who said “[W]hen I was in first grade and second grade and third grade, when I cried the teachers coddled me. When I got to Mrs. T’s room, she told me to suck it up and get to work. I think she’s right. I need to work harder.”
Principle 5 – Creativity can be learned
In this case Lipman refers to a study by Robert Weisberg from Temple University. Weisberg’s research challenges the conventional wisdom that traditional education negatively impacts creativity. In other words, rote learning and educational discipline is viewed by some as anathema to new thinking, but Weisberg’s case studies suggest otherwise. Weisberg examined the achievements of Edison, Picasso, and Frank Lloyd Wright and concluded that what appears to outside observers as breakthroughs of sheer genius actually were the result of hard work, incremental steps, and discipline. Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, rather than being a “fresh and original concept” inspired by the Spanish Civil War, in fact built upon numerous previous works by Picasso as well as those of other artists and Communist Party designs. Weisberg notes that creativity comes from discipline, and that “[y]ou have to immerse yourself in a discipline before you create in that discipline.” An implication of this principle lies in its application to workshop participants who could benefit from spending time engaging in activities focused on new thinking outside of the workshop so that creativity comes more naturally to them in the actual workshop session. Discipline through repeated work in the area of new thinking could help the participants as part of their immersion in a concept before they are expected to produce new insights in an innovation session. Likewise, a structured, disciplined approach to brainstorming in the innovation session itself can help all participants work through the process required to invent something truly innovative.
Principle 6 – Grit trumps talent
For this principle, Lipman highlights the work of Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania. Duckworth, a 2013 MacArthur Foundation grant recipient, performed research on nearly 3,000 subjects including spelling bee champions, Ivy League students, and U.S. Military Academy (West Point) cadets. Duckworth’s findings suggest that “grit – defined as passion and perseverance for long-term goals – is the best predictor of success” and, counter-intuitively, is “usually unrelated or even negatively correlated with talent.” In other words, hard work can outperform talent. An example of this is vacuum designer James Dyson. Dyson spent 15 years building over 5,000 prototypes before he perfected his eponymous vacuum cleaner. During those 15 years, Dyson noted, “I wanted to give up almost every day.” There is no doubt that Dyson possesses particular talents in the areas of engineering and air flow, but his ultimate success may have more to do with grit than those talents. For the innovator, this serves as a reminder that hard work and dedication to a long-term goal, such as solving a particular business problem or trying to realize the vision of a new product, is more important than expecting oneself to stumble across an instant epiphany that results in a great innovation.
Principle 7 – Praise makes you weak…
One of the anecdotes that Lipman uses to reinforce her arguments is her experience with a particular music teacher whose favorite commentary after a student’s performance was “not bad.” This was more insightful than Lipman originally thought in that it aligns nicely with Carol Dweck’s research at Stanford University on the implications on praise on young students. Dweck observed that a group of 10-year-olds who were “praised for being ‘smart’ became less confident […whereas] kids told they were ‘hard workers’ became more confident and better performers.” The benefits of the initial praise focused on the intelligence of the student proved fleeting because, Dweck observes, “[i]f success meant they were smart, then struggling meant they were not.” For the innovator, this principle suggests that one should be careful with the words used in an ideation session so that the participants can focus on their hard work moreso than on the brilliance of a particular idea. A comment as simple as “that’s brilliant” or “great idea” in response to a participant offering up a new concept could influence the way the other participants think about how they will be involved in the session. If only “brilliant” ideas are rewarded verbally with praise, then the goal of the session becomes finding another brilliant idea as opposed to a more incremental process of small improvements that ultimately lead to a breakthrough. While there is a need for truly brilliant thoughts in innovation workshops, the innovation practitioner should remember that his or her verbal responses to proposed concepts from participants can set the tone for how the workshop proceeds and ultimately influence its success. The innovation workshop leader should also remember that a series of incremental improvements can build on each other to reach the point of a true breakthrough, but that breakthrough may not have been possible without taking the small steps that in and of themselves did not appear to be “brilliant.”
Principle 8 – …while stress makes you strong.
A recurring theme in Lipman’s article is the importance of resilience, and this final principle highlights the value of an individual possessing the quality of resilience in his or her demeanor. Lipman relays findings from separate studies by Mark Seery of the University of Buffalo and Richard Dienstbier of the University of Nebraska that focus on the value of stress in terms of building the resilience of an individual. Seery’s study of undergraduates suggests that those who had previously experienced significant negative events in their lives were better able to handle new incidents of stress introduced in the present. Likewise, Dienstbier’s work notes that “dealing with routine stresses” makes an individual stronger. One example of a routine stress factor that can build toughness and resilience later in life, according to Seery, is having a strict teacher at an early age. As we have seen in the case of Dyson and other innovators who know how to persevere through repeated failures, resilience is a key character trait for successful individuals in the innovation field. While there are multiple ways to develop resiliency as a character trait, one experience that many of us share that can help develop this attribute is the experience of attending classes with strict teachers. The strict teacher not only excels at helping us learn the content of the course more effectively, but also imparts to us other factors, such as resilience, that can benefit us in the long run.
Sources: Joanne Lipman, Tough Teachers Get Results,” Wall Street Journal (September 28, 2013). “Secrets of a Great TED Talk,” Inc (October 2013). Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (New York: Penguin Press, 2011). https://together.mit.edu/dyson_on_failure image credit: upper lip image from bigstock
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Scott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.
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