Friday, May 21, 2010

Renovation is not the same as innovation

Youngme Moon writes about the limits of data in her book Different:

We allow this kind of formal market research to seduce us nevertheless. Consequently, we are more committed than ever to gathering it, using surveys or focus groups or customer interviews. We are more committed than ever to aggregating it, in the form of PowerPoint presentations and executive summaries. We are more commited than ever to drawing conclusions from it, conclusions that typically lead to some kind of renovation of our existing value proposition. And yet, as I noted in early chapter, renovation is not the same things as innovation, and there are times when I wonder whether we wouldn't be better off putting our market machinery aside for a few minutes, just to see what we're capable of coming up with without it.

I know that I am not the first to point this out, but here is the problem with formal market research. Consumers will always be able to tell us how much better they'd like our products to be. But we cannot expect them to be able to tell us how different thsoe products could be. And more important, we cannot expect them to be able to tell us how it might be possible for us to surprise them.

What this means is that if we want to move beyond the incremental kinds of augmentations that dominte our product marketing activity, we need to look beyond the granular pieces of data that our market research infrastructure is likely to generate. Those peices may be rigorously objective, but they are guaranteed to be woefully incomplete. They will only give us half the story. To get the other half, we need to take responsibility fo the hard work fo imagination ourselves.

I am alway hesitant to make education metaphorical of business, but Youngme Moon's vision of business meshes well with my vision of education.

Data has come to be God in education. In business, data is driven by market research. In education, data is driven by test scores. And those test scores then drive our decisions.

Data is very limiting mostly because it tends to conceal more than it reveals.

Test score data tends to squander innovation and places a kind of blinder on educators - employing a kind of test score tunnel vision. Your goal, if you chose to accept it (as if we had a choice), is to raise the scores!

It's time we put our test score, data-driven machinery aside for a moment and let's see what we are capable of coming up with without it. It's time we strike a balance between our analytical and intuitive thinking.

Our over-dependence on data is sabotaging reform in an educationally neutering kind of way.


  1. In a way, we don't use data enough. Collecting data implies that we know what the expected outcome is. Subjective can be wishy washy, data can kill wonder, somewhere a balance.

  2. If we ever believe that we can actually predict the outcome of something, we are either talking about something far too simplistic or we are lying to ourselves

    Read Nassim Taleb's Black Swan or Gladwell's Outliers.


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