Monday, January 25, 2016

Innovators R Us

    Preschool is the perfect place to begin growing the next generation of innovators, and we have some really smart researchers to back us up on that.

     Harvard business school professor, Clayton Christensen has made a world-wide reputation on analyzing what makes businesses succeed and fail and he uses the Kodak corporation to illustrate that the future belongs to innovators.  Kodak was the world’s biggest name in cameras and film and now it’s verging on bankruptcy, even though it kept making better and better film.  What happened?

     Digital cameras made film obsolete.  Innovation was more important than doing a good job.

     The Innovator’s DNA was written for adults in the business world, so what does all this have to do with children who are two, three and four years old?  Actually, I think preschool families are the perfect audience.  Waiting until you are 35 to learn to be creative and innovative is way too late. Some of Christensen’s research is outlined in The Innovator’s DNA, written with Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen. Their conclusions are that innovators have five traits that they exercise well – notice how these are traits you would want your child to learn early on, say, in preschool: 

     1.  Associating, which the book defines as putting things together in new ways.  Innovators who associate think differently by connecting the unconnected.   (A long talk with a preschooler will give a good example of connecting unconnected things.)
     2.  Questioning.  Innovators ask lots of questions, and a good question is valued even more than a good answer.  (Kids ask questions.)

     3. Innovators are intense observers. (Kids look at things in a different way than adults do.)

     4. Good at networking, especially with people with different backgrounds and perspectives.  (Some kids do this naturally, other kids not so much and need guidance trying it.)

     5. Experiment and try out new experiences and ideas. They explore the world intellectually and actually. (Kids will eat gum off the sidewalk, listen to anyone who smiles at them, and climb anywhere. Adults sometimes need to temper some of a child's desire to experient while trying not to squash the impulse.)

     Dyer, Gregersen and Christensen state that “Creativity is not just a genetic predisposition, it’s an active endeavor.”  No one is more active than two, three and four year olds and they are ripe for being introduced to the skills of innovation. The future belongs to innovators, and I think that the seeds of innovation are best planted in our children in their preschool years.  That way everything they do going forward in their education can build on those skills.

     Children don’t know about the future. They don’t even know much about the world they live in now.  They need us to show them.  We can help them learn to observe, ask questions, associate and experiment and network.

     I had a grandfather who took me on long walks and we stopped to look at everything.  We picked up horse chestnuts that had dropped from the tree, and examined the veins in their leaves and the shape of the needles on the pine tree next to us and counted the legs on the bug on the sidewalk. And on Grandpa’s dining room table there just happened to be a box with wires, batteries and buzzers for my brother to fiddle with when we came on Sunday nights.  Touching, experimenting, observing all delighted Grandpa.  He would have really enjoyed meeting Clayton Christensen.

     In the book, the authors report that “innovative ideas flourish at the intersection of diverse experiences.” Family traditions are wonderful.  Going to the same spot at the beach, or the same place on the lake each year can build wonderful warm memories.  But, do you always go to the same park, same restaurant, same library?  The comfort zone needs to be tempered with some crazy new experiences so our children become comfortable with new places and people and ideas.  Diverse experiences can be a great goal.  Dirt roads, strange food, and discovering you put up your tent next to a dead cow make for fun family memories, too. (It was dark when we put up the tent, what can I say?)

     Do your family friends all look and think and act just like you do?  Would your children be comfortable with someone new and different at the dinner table who talked about different things than you ever talked about?  We can help them learn how to network and experiment by stretching our own world and experiences.

    In his book Christensen quotes Steve Jobs in saying, “Creativity is connecting things.”  At the preschool level that means a whole box of different kinds of lids in the storage room so milk jug tops can become eyes on an owl, wheels on a Jello box tractor and regularly get hammered onto scrap pieces of wood.  We can help children look at the world and connect what wasn’t connected before, and see possibilities in new things.   Do you make room in your world for your children to experiment?

     All of our children won’t grow up to be Steve Jobs, and we may not want them to. But the future really does belong to innovators of every sort, and what we do in families and preschools can make a difference in how our children face a future of constant change.

© Diane L. Mangum 2011