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What Innovation Doesn’t Solve

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Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the big dreams and grand visions of my distant relative, Robert Fair DeGraff—a publishing innovator who co-founded Pocket Books in 1939. His idea was a simple but game-changing one: reprint bestsellers and classics in small paperback editions and sell them for just 25 cents apiece. The success was instant and lasting. Twenty-five years later, in 1964, Pocket Books sold around 300 million volumes annually.

But Robert DeGraff didn’t start Pocket Books because he wanted to make money. What drove him was a much deeper and larger cultural ambition: he thought that by making classic books so easily and cheaply available to masses of people, Pocket Books would eliminate illiteracy. Of course, this didn’t happen. The proliferation of accessible and low-price books did not change American literacy rates.

Why didn’t more people read just because books became inexpensive? Because they didn’t see what reading would do for their lives. Making the books accessible is only half of the project. The bigger part is showing people what major uses reading can have in their lives, how to apply reading and the skills of reading to better themselves.

The lesson is here this: technical innovation doesn’t change culture. We often assume that technology will change everything—that technological advancements will make things easier and better and solve larger problems. The truth is that technology is just one aspect in a larger web of cultural issues and changing only technology will not have an effect on these broader cultural issues.

Robert Fair DeGraff’s Pocket Books reminds me of a project I worked on with one of the largest public school systems in America that wanted to apply computer-based training to its curriculum to improve functional literacy. The assumption was that access to a computer and technological competency would enhance the education of students who otherwise would’ve struggled. This wasn’t the case. The technology we brought into the classroom didn’t bring out the kind of fundamental shift that we expected it to.

Regrettably, I suspect the same will hold true for most massive open online courses from the Khan Academy to Coursera. While some primary school standardized testing scores have improved during the last decade there is little credible correlation between the availability of laptops and tablets and any significant progress in closing the alarming achievement gap. New technology in itself will not set us free. Sorry.

So how exactly can we start the kind of larger-scale cultural change that technological innovation on its own cannot bring about? The key is to use technology not as an end by itself but as a means to reach something else. Here’s what I mean:

Fall in Love with the Problem; Not the Solution: Any new gadget simply dropped into a complex set of circumstances is most likely to be co-opted by it. Instead, work backwards to understand the underlying challenges and potential opportunities the situation presents. Run experiments with small diverse groups of participants to see what works and what doesn’t, and most importantly why. This will give you some understanding as to the underlying issues and an opportunity to work with people to develop some simple rules that can be applied en masse.

Stop Boiling the Ocean to Extract Gold: As Teddy Roosevelt put it “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Seek out early adaptors and provide new technologies to them within a limited time frame. Work with them to find suitable applications and uses. Engage them step by step and make adjustments as you go along.

What’s in It For Me?: For the most part, people are self-interested and tend to do what’s best for them and their immediate community. Deal with it. Pay attention to the rewards these new technologies provide the first users and highlight these when introducing them to their peers. Most important, let the lead users develop a sense of personal ownership for these innovations and their management.
What would Robert F. De Graff see in the world if he were still alive today? He would understand that technical innovation is only the tip of the iceberg, that what really matters is what’s culturally underneath it. Your challenge is to get to the bottom of that iceberg.

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