Innovation requires an openness to trying something new. But what if you grow up in a world where you are educated to get the best exam score rather than to think broadly about a problem and debate possible solutions? And what if, in addition, your culture teaches you to learn by listening and accepting, rather than by asking questions? How do you learn to innovate if you are risk averse, and you can’t get the input you need to know how you are really doing?
Ami Dror faced that problem when he moved from Israel to Shanghai to launch an educational start-up, LeapLearner. I had a chance to meet with Dror on a recent trip to Asia. His experience has lessons for anyone who cares about developing the next generation of innovative thinkers.
“What if we could unleash the potential of everyone to innovate?” he asks. Rather than just dream that dream, he’s doing something about it.
LeapLearner, started in Shanghai in 2015 by Dror, Leo Zhao and Aaron Tian, challenges children to create a video game; at least, creating a game is the stated purpose. What Dror and the team really accomplish is to teach kids how to innovate by teaching them how to write computer code.
Says Dror, “When you write a string of code, you test it by hitting “execute.” If it works, you achieved the goal. If it doesn’t, which is more often the case, you must go back through your lines of code to figure out where the problem lies. That means every time you hit “execute,” you are asking for and receiving feedback on how well you have accomplished your task.”
According to Dror, the Chinese educational system follows a thousand-years-old tradition where the student’s main goal is to have the highest score on a test. The traditional learning process was not designed to encourage innovative thinking. This is clearly changing in the last few years as China becomes one of the most innovative cultures in the world.
“China historically mastered the ‘improvement innovation’ by taking what is already good, and making it fantastic,” Dror says. “The view of ‘Made in China’ implying substandard goods is very dated. Like anywhere, in China there are lots of second-rate products, but the ones that are good, are as good as it gets and we see more and more international companies following the Chinese lead on innovation.”
In some cultures, including Dror’s native Israel, “pride of authorship” encourages individuals to find their own paths to a solution, but not always in an organized fashion. “In Israel, kids don’t analyze. Instead, they usually follow the “trial and error” method, taking guesses and pursuing success diligently, but haphazardly.”
But in Israel, he says, “People are very comfortable taking ‘reputational risk,’ being willing to try something new.” The challenge in Israel is, he says, “They don’t have enough people to execute on innovative ideas.” That is definitely not the problem in China. “China has a huge advantage – lots of people who can execute.” But China’s population, by and large, is not taught to innovate. “In schools here, most kids do not ask questions. They do what they are told. They aren’t encouraged to be inquisitive, to ask, “Why?” Dror see a huge potential in China, assuming the innovative potential can be tapped. He thinks he’s found a fun and engaging way to help unleash the innovation in everyone.
The first step is to free people from the fear of failure. Coding is the perfect tool for doing that. “The feedback loop in coding is so fast that you get accustomed to asking for and receiving feedback very quickly. When your goal as a kid is to build your own computer video game, you’re fully engaged. You know you need the feedback and the guidance to fix your problems, so you’re not afraid to ask for direction.” Coding helps with critical thinking and problem-solving skills, all while teaching kids to innovate.
The second step is to make sure you’re creating a culture where innovation is rewarded. In LeapLearner classes, the reward for the kids is intrinsic in the process, since the kids are creating videos games. But Dror encourages innovation as an employer as well. He rewards employees who take risks by promoting them to management roles, and he makes sure other employees are conscious of what led to someone else’s promotion. He defines “taking risks” as “doing something I didn’t tell you to do,” certainly a modest step, but you have to start somewhere.
The third step is to make that risk-taking a more consistent behavior. Dror feels there is still a lot of work to do in China to make that happen, but he sees hope. “The government knows it’s an issue and is starting to incorporate innovation skills into the school curriculum. They recently mandated that coding be taught in all schools. This is an amazing step toward getting people comfortable with feedback, and rewarding the behavior of being innovative.”
How does all of this apply to you?
If you manage others, you can create a culture of innovation by applying the steps achieved by LeapLearner.
- Speak openly about times you tried something new that didn’t work, and what you learned from the process. That will let others on your team know not to fear failure.
- Celebrate the small changes people make to the way they work that lead to better performance. The public “pat on the back” at a meeting or through email to acknowledge someone’s new idea or revised process helps everyone know that you value people thinking more broadly.
- Incorporate discussions of new ideas and approaches into meetings as often as possible. Your team needs to hear that encouragement more frequently than at an annual meeting. Frequent, and consistent communication is more likely to lead to a change in culture.
Regardless of whether you are in management, what can you do to develop your own innovative behaviors? Take a step back from what you do, and reflect on how you do it. Analyze the tasks and the roles you perform. Ask yourself a few questions.
- Has the organization implemented any changes recently that I didn’t understand or that seemed arbitrary? If so, who can I ask about the “Why” for the change? There may be something I can learn from someone’s else’s innovative idea.
- Which processes have never made sense to me, and I know could be done better? How cumbersome would it be to implement that change?
- Is there a committee at work dedicated to improving the organization’s efficiency or effectiveness that I can join?
Once you have found a likely avenue for critical thinking, evaluate the level of risk you and your organization find comfortable for trying something new. Make that effort at change public to whose around you. People are more likely to notice the change if you make it evident. Then, seek feedback on how you are doing. Is the change – the innovation – working? If not, that’s not failure; that’s encouragement to innovate further until you find new and better ways.
“My core innovation principles are very simple no matter if I share it with my students, my employees, or my kids,” added Dror. “Have more dreams than achievements. Chase your dreams as fast as you can and fail fast if needed, but always, always ask ‘WHY?’.”
For Dror’s students at Leap Learner, that leads to a new computer game. For us in the workplace, it leads to broader thinking and greater business success. Not a bad payoff.