Innovating Around the Candle

“Spending all day innovating around the candle does not get us to the light bulb.”

I stumbled on this quote from Daniel Rasmus’ 2010 Gilbane Conference Opening Keynote a few months ago, and it has resonated with me since.  It’s something that fits well in a tweet and still manages to say something.  It encompasses all the messiness of innovation in 15 words.

Innovation is Messy

Innovation isn’t just one thing.  It’s many different things lumped together.  Innovation can happen around process (produce the candle faster) or the outcome (make the candle brighter).  It can happen as an iterative, evolutionary experience, but every once in awhile innovation comes as revolution (the light bulb).  The process of making a light bulb isn’t anything like making a candle.  And the light bulb itself is a completely different thing.  While I’m sure that first light bulb didn’t light the room much better than the candle, the light bulb was a revolutionary new platform that launched a new set of evolutionary innovation.  The revolution, then, changes not just the process OR the outcome.  It changes BOTH the process and the outcome.  At the end though, all these things are innovation.  When someone says they’re going to innovate, you should probably figure out if they know what they mean.  Innovation is a great idea, but it’s messy in reality.

Higher Education is Messy

Higher education isn’t just one thing.  It’s many different things lumped together.  There are different foci for inputs (from open access to selectivity).  There are different kinds of outputs (from vocational preparation to liberal education).  There are even different pathways to get through to the end (from seat time to competency based).  You can mix and match the inputs, processes, and outputs in an almost infinite variety and have only slightly more variations in theory then exist in practice.  All these things are higher education.  When someone talks about higher education, you should probably figure out if they know what they mean.  Higher education as a singular entity is a great concept, but it’s messy in reality.

Innovation in Higher Education in Messy

If I take two messy things and shove them together, I’m not likely to get something less messy.  Not every collision can make a peanut butter cup.  Innovation in higher education is SUPER messy.  Even evolutionary innovation in higher education requires that you pick you inputs (underprepared students who need lots of guidance all the way to autodidacts who will succeed no matter what you do) before you can figure out how to move the needle on process or outcome.  The input you pick will radically change the focus of the innovation.  Where evolutionary innovation has a complicated set of choices, the potential foci for revolutionary innovation are the devil child of a Gartner magic quadrant and a Rubik’s Cube.  The problem isn’t finding a place to start, it’s that there are TOO MANY places to start.  Looking at revolutionary innovation in higher education can easily lead to analysis paralysis.  We’ll spend so much time looking at potential options we won’t actually DO anything.

Everything is Messy

Innovation is messy.  Higher education is messy.  Innovation in higher education is messy.  And that’s good.  This messiness allows us to look at changes that don’t shift the whole model but still make a difference (innovating around the candle) while providing space to think about the process and the outcome in radically different ways (the light bulb).   Innovating around the candle certainly isn’t going to get you the light bulb.  I think we can all agree on that.  But I still have candles in my house that are good for some specific situations.  Light bulbs and candles aren’t a zero sum game.  They coexist. The same can be said for higher education.  Innovation in higher education that can take a given set of students and change both the pathway (process) and completion (outcome) in higher education are coming, and they will be revolutionary. But that doesn’t mean we have to get rid of the Harvard model.  We just have to understand the specific situations where that model makes sense.

Where it doesn’t we need to stop innovating around the candle so we can get to the light bulb.

melts burning candle on blue plate

flickr photo by Maria Keays shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license


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2 Responses

  1. pumpkin says:

    Great post. Lots of good stuff to reflect upon…

  2. Kyle, thank you for the kind words. I’m glad my tweet echoed out to you across time. If you want to read some longer-form thoughts on innovation, further musings can be found here:

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