My latest big mistake
I believe that innovation works better if we approach it like scientists – that we should test our ideas and build a business model around them based on experiments and data. This is really the core of the lean startup approach, and we’re starting to see evidence that this really is a more effective way to build new firms than simply treating our idea as perfect and then focusing on execution. And this works better for larger firms too.
One consequence of this belief is that I try to learn from mistakes, and recently I made a big one.
I thought that my friend Jason Tangen was putting too much time into his teaching.
How do academics spend their time?
Academics divide our time into three activities: research, teaching and engagement. You probably have a reasonably good idea about the first two, but the last one has changed over the years. For a long time, the third activity was called service – and it covered things like helping to run the universities, reviewing and editing for journals, and so on. As more of the administration responsibilities have shifted to professional staff, many universities now call this category engagement. This includes all the things in service, but it also covers activities that reach outside of the university – things that help us translate research into real-world outcomes.
This has two important implications:
- Academic promotion is based on your performance across some mix of all three activities. If you are in an Ivy League university, then it is based almost entirely on research. Teaching well can actually be viewed as a negative – it shows that you’re not paying enough attention to research. In other places, the mix is more even.
- Academics often judge the performance of other academics based on whether or not the activity breakdown of those being judged looks like the breakdown of the judges.
It’s the second one that led me astray with Jason.
Jason puts a lot of time into his teaching. And he is an awesome teacher. I was concerned about the effort he was putting in there, because it seemed like maybe he wasn’t putting enough into research (where he’s also really good).
Well, I was wrong.
Think101 proves me wrong
Last year, UQ signed up with EdX to provide some Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). This year, we’re delivering four – including one by Jason called Think101: The Science of Everyday Thinking. He got the gig because it is based on his incredibly successful undergraduate psychology course on how to think more effectively – the one that he was putting all of that effort into.
As part of putting together the course, Jason, his PhD student Matt Thompson and their producer Emma MacKenzie traveled the world to interview people, including many of their intellectual heroes like Daniel Kahneman, Susan Blackmore and the Mythbusters guys.
They’ve had more than 55,000 people sign up for the course so far, and for those that put in the effort, it’s going to have a huge impact on how they think and make decisions.
So, clearly, I was wrong about Jason and the effort he’s been putting into teaching.
Lessons from my big mistake
There are several important innovation lessons here, including:
- We make our own map. Everyone builds their own road to success. Jason’s will be different from mine, which will be different from everyone else’s. Nilofer Merchant calls this “onlyness”:
Onlyness is that thing that only YOU can bring to a situation. As you see yourself, others can see you and the value you bring.
We succeed when we build upon our onlyness, not when we try to conform with everyone else.
- Build on strengths, don’t shore up weaknesses. This is the key point in Youngme Moon‘s book Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd. That book included this outstanding graphic:She points out that if you are ahead in one area, you make a bigger difference when you build on that strength. If you try to improve a weakness, everyone just ends up looking the same.
- You can never tell how someone will make their dent on the universe until they’ve done it. I’m not sure if Jason was aiming to do something at this scale all along – and that’s the point. We often can’t tell what people are trying to do until they’ve done it. If we’re too quick to judge while people are building their foundations, we might never see the structure that goes on top.
Learning from mistakes is a key innovation skill. If you do it by design, we call it experimenting. If it’s just random, it’s a mistake. In either case, it’s the learning that provides the value and makes us better.
I’m sure there’s some cognitive bias that explains why I made this mistake. I might have to take Jason’s course to figure out what it was, and how to avoid these mistakes in the future.
Maybe you should too.