Pt 3. Being vs. Doing: Boyd, innovation and entropy

In Mexico, one of the political parties is called the Partido Revolucionario Institutional,(PRI) The party of institutional revolution.  One wonders how a political party can be both revolutionary and institutional, but that’s what the party calls itself.  Mario Vargas Llosa famously called the PRI government of Mexico a perfect dictatorship. And so, this ‘democratically’ elected ‘revolutionary’ party held sway over Mexico for almost 70 years.  They were ‘democratic’. They were a ‘political party’. They were the institution. They didn’t revolutionize anything.

I mention the PRI because it illustrates much of what ‘being vs. doing’ is all about. Boyd reportedly told subordinates they could be the next general, or colonel or what have you, and take with it all that being ‘somebody’ entailed, or they could simply do things, make changes, accomplish things. To me,  the act of doing forms the very heart of innovation and what it means to innovate.  Boyd embodied the concept of “Do first, apologize later.”

John Boyd

Can educational institutions actually do innovation?  I am not sure.  I think there is a lot of trepidation.  I know MIT does innovation. I know Stanford, Harvard, Penn, and several others innovate. The evidence lies in the number of patents, programs, YouTube videos about student and institutional projects, and metrics such as program completion rates, applicants to programs, teaching awards, etc.

What I do know as well is that by simply telling people you have an innovation center and a program to foment ‘institutional innovation’ it doesn’t mean your institution is innovative.  It doesn’t cause innovation.  Most institutions fall into this category of ‘being’ innovative, while not actually doing innovation.  Superficially this may seem a niggling argument.  Boyd felt that the difference between being and doing was significant enough for himself, others, and organizations. That set of decisions was also critical when considering what an organization, government, or even a military foe might do, that he enlisted the help of Kurt Gödel and Werner Heisenberg.  

Kurt Gödel

Gödel provided Boyd the theory that one cannot judge ‘the consistency’ of a system from within that system, and Heisenberg’s concept (2nd theory of thermodynamics) that observation of a system can affect the system being observed ( this a simplistic explanation, I know).  To put it in simpler terms, merely claiming you are an innovative organization (based on what you know other organizations are calling themselves) and then institutionalizing the innovation through  designated officers or special institutes, or even innovation centers) relieves the organization of the responsibility of actually having to do innovation.   In even more concrete terms: Saying you are innovative doesn’t get you off the hook.  You need to DO innovation.

Werner Heisenberg

I am not suggesting there should be no organized approach to innovation.  I am suggesting there should be an institutional openness to risk taking. Innovation is not without financial and work-culture peril.  At the same time, though, not just any old idea will work, so there has to be a mediating force which impels the decision making process to a culturally agreeable conclusion (See Boyd’s OODA loop in the last entry).  Where innovation bogs down then is when an institution is so fearful of any change in their system that innovative thinking might upset the ‘balance’ of that system. Then the organization is crippled in its ability to adapt.  Again, just because you say you are innovative, doesn’t make it necessarily so.  Saying you are innovative only supports your ideal version of reality without affecting any change at all.

You ask:  So, professor? What then should be considered innovation when it comes to institutional level thinking about education?

I am glad you asked.  We have had well over a year to do something new during the lockdown and it has presented everyone with the opportunity to try something new.  I view education from the standpoint of what and how I teach, and I think the first step would be to loosen the chains of the ‘attendance and number of classes’ schemes.  Hybrid classes, blended learning, and workshops should become the norm for as many classes as possible.  Lecture classes should be continued, but strictly at a minimum and only if there is a commitment to at least a 2/3 student involvement to 1/3 teacher driven instruction plan in the lecture course . We should consider thinking of education as an experience to be lived rather than one communicated through homework, mind numbing and stress inducing assessments, and the off-putting eccentricities of traditionalist instructors and educational cultures.  Yes, changing these things may change what is perceived to be the reality of the educational system, but not doing so creates a stasis that, while comfortable, doesn’t bring us any closer to innovating.  I don’t have all the answers, but I don’t need to have them all. I need only get the ball rolling and then use my OODA loops to modify the course the ball takes.  

Finally, I encourage you  to read more about Boyd.  Here is the link to A New Conception of War: John Boyd, The US Marines and Maneuver Warfare.   by Ian T. Brown.  It is free to download from the Marine Corps University Press. I found the book to be inspirational and a source of many good ideas.

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