During this election season, the topics of education and innovation are in the forefront. All of the rhetoric has made me start to think more critically about the intersection of education and innovation. On one hand, it stands to reason that the two intersect — innovation becomes more likely if education has properly fed the inventive mind.
But in this intersection is there also a hindrance? Do some of the ways and means of a formal education hinder innovation? I believe they do.
Before I begin, let me state that I am not by any stretch anti-education. I am a firm believer in formal education and have certainly benefited from being highly educated. Nor am I an education expert. I hold no education degrees. My expertise is limited to only about a decade of university teaching and executive training.
However, my innovation consulting practice focuses on Fortune 500 companies and puts me in contact with a great many highly educated people, many with impressive degrees from impressive institutions.
The issue is that I don’t always see the connection between fine educations and innovation. In fact, I sometimes see the opposite.
Below are some disconnects between formal education and innovation:
Linear vs. Radiant thinking: Formal education, particularly business education and the sciences, emphasizes linear and logical thought. “A plus B does and will always equal C”.
However, innovative thinking is not linear. It is radiant and gathers insight from disparate points, connecting them in new ways. Innovative thinking involves breaking the rule of A plus B equals C and posits the possibility of A plus 1,2,3 may equal G. (If you had to re-read this last sentence, you are experiencing a struggle against linear thinking!)
Whole vs. Part: Formal education breaks things down into parts. For example, a business major studies the individual parts of business: economics, finance and marketing. However, innovative thinking is whole to part. Innovation requires a broader thought and vision where the whole adds up to more than the sum of the parts. Innovation may even require a part which hasn’t existed before and now plays a critical role.
Adaptation vs. Innovation: The formal education system can over-emphasize adaptation vs. deviation from the norm. Do things the way they are prescribed and a student is rewarded. The system tends to applaud those who conform and discourage those who do not. Innovation, by definition, lies in not conforming.
Focus on math and science: I agree that these two skill levels need to be significantly improved and that they can play a significant role in innovation. However, I argue that there needs to be an equal focus on understanding of the arts and social sciences — creative expression such as writing and art, sociology and psychology. Innovation requires both a high IQ and a high EQ (emotional quotient). You can’t just be intelligent to be a great innovator.
In a highly connected world, you have to be able to work very effectively with teams, understand various perspectives and express yourself in a variety of ways in order to make innovative connections.