May 21, 2014

What I Learned About Innovation From 5th Graders

Many innovation strategies focus on creating a culture of creativity, risk-taking, and experimentation. They hope for fast results.  But the need for innovation over the life of a program or idea in the social sector is constant. Therefore, so is the need to plant seeds one may not harvest for a generation or more.

Cambridge, Mass., home to MIT and Harvard, is justly considered a hotbed of innovation.  One of my children goes to school in Cambridge, which afforded me an opportunity to think about innovation in a different way. My nine-year-old son Nate is a third grader in the Shady Hill School where the fifth-grade teacher, Josh Horwitz, knew of Share Our Strength’s anti-hunger work and asked me to talk to the students.  I’ve taught or guest lectured over the years at hundreds of universities, including UCLA, Stanford, Duke, and Denver’s Metropolitan State.  But there’s nothing as intimidating as a class of fifth graders.

I’d been swamped with travel and preoccupied with the innovation strategies needed to meet Share Our Strength’s ambitious goal of ending childhood hunger. I found a dozen reasons why it wouldn’t work for my schedule, wasn’t a strategic use of my time, etc. None were equal to the look my wife, Rosemary, gave me when my body language conveyed hesitation.  I wisely recast “strategic value” in the longer-term context of a happy marriage.

After Mr. Horwitz introduced me promptly at the beginning of first period, he signaled a few of the students looking out the window or with their backs to me to turn around and pay attention.  Ah, 11 year olds …

I gave  a quick overview of Share Our Strength but had spoken only a few minutes before hands shot up and I realized I’d misjudged them: “What role does income inequality play in hunger?” asked a girl named Abbey. “Aren’t some kids too embarrassed to go to school early for school breakfast?” James inquired.   “Have you actually met and spent time with the people you serve, and if so do you think they feel that you really see and hear them or that they are invisible to you?” a boy named Fievos wondered.   Discussion continued at that level for almost an hour.

Back at my office later that day, I reviewed several analyses of the new “community eligibility” provisions, passed by Congress in 2010, that will likely add thousands more kids to the federal School Breakfast Program. It eliminates school meal applications and fees in high-poverty neighborhoods, reducing administrative burdens for schools and families and stigma for children.

Community eligibility represents a potentially transformational innovation nearly 50 years into the program’s existence. So, too, do recent efforts to move breakfast from the cafeteria--where  kids need to arrive early and suffer the stigma of showing up at a special time for the free breakfast--to the classroom, which makes it universal and logistically manageable. It costs schools almost nothing to make the change, maybe the price of a few carts on wheels. And it more than doubles participation in a program that is 100-percent federally reimbursed.

Innovation does not necessarily require innovation labs, expensive consultants, new technology, and the other things popularly associated with it.  Instead, it may mean a small common-sense tweak that is far enough upstream to change the entire trajectory of a program.

My thoughts returned to Mr. Horwitz’s students. Coincidentally, I was in fifth grade when President Johnson signed the Child Nutrition Act of 1966, which created the School Breakfast Program.  Now, more than half a century later, we’re still creating and executing innovative strategies necessary to ensure that program reaches every child in need.  Half a century from now, it may be some of the Shady Hill students doing the innovating.

Notwithstanding having to admit that Rosemary’s instincts are better than mine, I realized that trying to inspire caring and compassionate fifth graders might not be a bad use of time after all. Youth engagement needs to be part of solving any problem that’s going to take more than a few years to solve.  It takes on even greater significance as experience and wisdom teach us that social change depends on innovations that occur not just over the life of a three-year strategic plan or the length of a legislative reauthorization, but likely over decades.