Innovation Compression

A tiny little robot busies himself. Seemingly alone on a planet he collects rubbish and scrap and compacts it. Neatly stacking thousands of these efficient little cubes in an effort to clean up. Efficiency is the order of the day and all the mess is taking up too much space. Collect, compact, stack. Repeat.

Cleaning the planet for humanity’s eventual return

You may remember the scenes from Wall-E, as he goes about his business on an error strewn planet left behind. When it comes to rubbish, compacting is good, we don’t want the discarded to take up space we could use for other things. When it comes to great ideas and innovations the opposite might be true. We need to expand and spread ideas, we want innovations to impact far and wide. We want them to be known, understood and in the open.

And yet all too often they get compacted.

How much is on your plate right now? Are those who bought the crockery removing stuff as well as piling things on?

Innovation compression might be when good ideas or innovative programmes are introduced [forced] into a space still occupied by previous innovations.

Programmes get compacted as nothing is removed, nothing is freed up.

When little Wall-E compacts and compresses, the items he collects have to change and bend to fit the new shape. When our ideas get compressed they also may suffer from such a change. They may have to, in order to actually exist in that crowded space. We keep them alive on a resource diet, we lament the time we wish we had to devote to them.

This is about new and old(er) innovations attempting to co-exist and it typically leads to a reduction in efficacy of the newer innovation. I suppose the incumbent might hold existing ground and resources. In many ways this concept is most applicable to overlapping programmes. Let’s imagine an example.

In a school you might have a range of literacy support programmes that are both general offerings as well as interventions that support the individual needs of different children. Literacy improvement is the category, and yet the writing, reading, speech and language programmes all overlap to some degree. As time passes a number of reading support programmes begin to overlap very closely, they have the same intended outcomes but the “innovation” might be different: using technology, home-school partnership, one to one support, phonic development etc. The school might be loathe to abandon or hospice the innovation due to sustained financial and emotional (human) investment. And yet new literacy improvement ideas emerge from research or professional development courses, even marketed products. When new programmes are introduced, that draw down on the finite energy and effort from those involved without stopping other parallel ideas and releasing resource reserves, we get innovation compression, and a potential weakening of the original ideas.

Of course we are not looking for a single idea to solve them all. Far from some Tolkeinesque improvement strategy, we need to understand how we avoid unnecessary compression of programmes and how to prune those innovations in schools or across your organisation that can (should) be succeeded by alternatives.

Run through some of these questions to discuss with your teams as new ideas and improvements are developed and as you review developments.

Status quo

How do we measure the impact of our current programmes? What impact have they had over the longer term? What gaps are there? How much investment have we made so far in these existing ideas?

New ideas

How are we identifying new innovations or programme ideas? What overlaps do they have with existing working ideas? What gaps do they address? Will they require “as much”, “more” or “less” resourcing to implement?

Clearing the way

How might we fully appreciate the resources needed to introduce these new ideas and what they overlap with? How can we create space for people to make the most of this idea and for it to have the impact we want? Which programmes or existing innovations might be discarded to release energy and resources?

As with most complex organisations like schools, efficiency cannot be the only value you abide by. When improving such organisations we need to strike a balance between Wall-E type efficiency and implementing unique hard-to-scale ideas as well.

Importantly though we need to lead with a deep appreciation for what is on people’s plates. We need to avoid innovation compression by clearing the way, closing existing programmes and providing people the resources they need to make things work.

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