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By Douglas Moran

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About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

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Politics: Empty appeals to "innovation"

Uploaded: Oct 19, 2014
The word "innovation" is widely bounced around in this campaign, both for Council and the School Board. Anyone actually involved in innovation knows that most innovations fail—the successes are the rare exceptions. And similarly in evolutionary biology (genetic mutations). One of my favorite admonitions from the tech industry is "You can always spot the pioneers—they are the ones with the arrows in their backs." Success in innovation—both creating it and adopting it—is crucially dependent on managing and minimizing the costs of the inevitable failures. If you don't, you won't still be alive when a successful innovation finally comes along.

The local tech industry is a very poor model for how you want to manage a city: You can burn through tens of millions of investors' dollars and walk away from a failed company with investors viewing that experience making you more valuable for the next one. With a city, you are making decision that you will be stuck with for decades.

In talking about the success of the D-Day invasion of Europe, General Eisenhower repeatedly emphasized the importance of the planning process: It forced them to have a deep understanding of the details and alternatives so that when their plans inevitably went awry, they were able to quickly come up with revised ones. Two of the variants that capture this are "Plans are useless, but planning is essential" and "Rely on planning, but never trust plans."

In politics, "innovation" is routinely used as a shield to avoid having to think about details such as costs and how to handle undesirable side-effects and consequences. When you hear politicians citing unspecified innovations as the solution to a problem, see it as an admission that they are clueless, lazy and/or disingenuous. "Hope is not a strategy." Instead listen for people who are talking about adopting innovations that someone else has successfully pioneered, and explaining why that success is likely transferable to your own local situation, and why the innovation has "cross the chasm" into the region where it is suitably cost-effective.

Unfounded belief in power of innovation is simply an (innovative?) update to the traditional unfounded belief in the power of reorganization:
"We trained hard - but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization."

The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particular strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by A, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 19, 2014 at 8:02 pm

I agree to a point, but disagree, too. Since we are faced with low-income residents being displaced because of high-density gentrification (a statewide problem), and we have empty spaces in some of our existing BMR housing stock, and at the same time all the funding from elsewhere seems to be for creating large projects that the community is more and more upset about because of all the high-density gentrification, a potential innovation may simply be putting effort into figuring out how to fund ways to keep low-income residents from being displaced, potentially using existing underutilized BMR stock.

True innovations come from people trying to solve problems, usually Lead Users. Necessity is the mother of invention. (See Von Hippel's book, Democratizing Innovation.) Our City Council is made up of people who seem to feel it's necessary to suppress rather than take advantage of that inclination to the benefit of our City.

Have you seen this TED Talk Why good hackers make good citizens?
Web Link

Code for America

I am always surprised at how, at so many levels of society, people talk themselves out of what's possible before they start. CAN'T DO. Innovation starts with trying to solve a problem and believing in CAN.

Posted by Reason, a resident of Palo Alto High School,
on Oct 20, 2014 at 4:46 pm

Reason is a registered user.

I think you make a valid point that TRUE innovation (doing something nobody has ever attempted before) comes with a lot of arrows in the back. However, there is plenty of evidence from research in software development that the common practice in industry typically lags state-of-the-art by about 20 years (Code Complete). In fact, most organizations often fail to operate at the boundary of innovation - the innovation frontier.

There is plenty of room in our School District to simply improve best practices and move all teachers to the region of best practices.

This may, to a lot of people, look like innovation. It would certainly be progress. But it does not require the risks involved in TRUE innovation (moving beyond best practices).

In any large organization, the common practice often lags best practice, and the impetus to move skill sets comes from clear-headed management, setting goals, methodologies and organizing the collaboration necessary to 1) train newcomers, 2) force outdated old-timers to upgrade to latest skills, 3) look inside the organization to find best practices already resident, and 4) look outside the organization to find best practices in similar fields, or similar organizations within the same field.

I have never heard Common Core put forth in this manner, but one advantage is that shared best practices can more easily cross organizational boundaries. So if an experiment in Peoria works well, we can share the results in Palo Alto.

However, we lack the management in the School District to achieve any of the 4 items above. We also lack the leadership at the board level to demand best performance from the management. One hopes the new Superintendent brings the management skill needed.

As for City Hall... well my limited exposure tells me they are not really ready for innovation yet either. And it is a shame that best practices are not more readily available - small cities abound in this state. There should be no lack of knowledge on how to solve more-or-less similar problems with more-or-less proven solutions.

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Oct 20, 2014 at 5:09 pm

Curmudgeon is a registered user.

"There should be no lack of knowledge on how to solve more-or-less similar problems with"

There probably isn't a lack of more-or-less proven solutions out there. There for certain isn't a lack of local hubris; the attitude that if Palo Alto, the self-acknowledged Grand Eminence of Silicon Valley, hasn't solved it, nobody else has either. So no use looking around.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of ,
on Oct 20, 2014 at 5:53 pm

RE: "Reason"

One of the situations that inspired my posting was
Candidate: "I am going to fix/improve the current problem/situation".
Voter: "How?"
Candidate: "Innovation."
Voter: "What innovation?"
Candidate: "We are at the center of the most dynamic and innovative region in the world and they will produce the innovations that we need."
Voter: "How are you going to do that?"
Candidate: "I am skilled at getting the right people together in a room."
Voter: "!@#$%^&"

Disclaimer: The above is a composite of dialogues I have heard/participated in. It is not a word-for-word exchange with any of the current candidates.

"Reason" is quite correct to point out that what can be regarded as an innovation by a particular organization (School District, City Hall) may in fact be standard/best practices for many similar organizations. In these cases, the candidate should not be using the word "innovation", and leaving it unspecified, but instead should be calling out the standard/best practices to be adopted.

Posted by Reason, a resident of Palo Alto High School,
on Oct 20, 2014 at 6:08 pm

Reason is a registered user.

@Curmudgeon - I agree. Hubris is often a LARGE barrier.

Some people work hard to find the best way to do things, and work to improve themselves. Some work hard to avoid change, and defend current practices. You kind of know right away what you are dealing with in many cases. The former need only little guidance and some time and encouragement. The latter need help finding the door. It is an unfortunate consequence of history that our local government lacks the management best practices to sort through the two behaviors and build top-performing cultures in our local institutions.

So in this regard, I would put Management Best practices as the first and most critical that we need to develop.

Still not really in the realm of risky innovation, but more in the realm of risk-free "innovation".

@Douglas - it is never surprising to live in Silicon Valley, and be surrounded be people who observe innovation and think it is one thing; while actually doing it is quite another thing altogether.

This environment leaves us with a very small group of actual innovators, and a very large group of pundits/believers/promoters/bandwagoneers. It is not a problem to have them promote the idea of innovation, but they do often misunderstand what it really means.

At this point, it would be far better for the Candidates to simply point out that innovation is something needed far down the road. Today we need to simply stop doing harm, that would be a good innovation.

Then when our organizations are really good at that, maybe they could start doing more-or-less well known approaches to teaching, running a city, etc.

Innovation, if done at all, with real risks, can mostly be avoided. Or where we see accidental innovation, at least recognize it and promote as discovered best practices. Mostly though, this is really about getting good methodology, which is more about management and collaboration, and less about risk-taking innovation.

Posted by Tom DuBois, a resident of Midtown,
on Oct 21, 2014 at 2:49 pm

Tom DuBois is a registered user.

I'd be happier to see more information in staff reports on what they do in other cities. Rather than the city being a true innovator, we seem to like re-inventing the transistor in a world of integrated circuits.

The recent business registry discussion is a good example. We're one of very few cities in the area not to have one, yet the plan for the registry did not seem to do any research into how other cities track who's working there.

"Reason", I like your comment about we should focus on "not doing harm". We can be the Google of cities, and "Do no evil".

Posted by Sea-SEELAM REDDY, a resident of College Terrace,
on Oct 22, 2014 at 2:58 pm

[[From the blogger: This comment is non-responsive to what was in the blog post, and could have easily be written by someone who read nothing but the headline.
My rules for this blog call for me to delete such comments, but since it is written by a candidate for City Council, I have decided to leave it as being instructive.

Dear Palo Alto citizens

I am glad Doug is talking about innovation.

I totally, 110% dis-agree with him. Here is why and learning from 1975-2013 experience.

1. Innovation must be they way of thinking in every thing we do. This is what I learned in school at universities and work. Here are some examples:

a. Cellular technology: Only 20 years back, it was for the rich. Now a days, there are 1B + phones. People are communicating continents with ideas

b. DVD/CD player: Here is a movie made with $350 million dollars and one has it for $19.99 of a movie like Titanic for home use following the copy write protection.

c. Discovery of DNA

d. DirecTV technology: 100 million rural homes have these services

e. Political innovation: All mail-in ballot in Oregon; The top two vote getters are in the run off as opposed to Republicans democrats etc,

f.Innovation in medical imaging

g.Stanford offering more graduate programs that are inter-disciplinary

h. Electric cars

I. GPS systems using satellites

j. Kindle for reading

k.Same sex marriage


Your comment about lost money; partly it is because of GREED. The second part of it is people stealing each others intellectual property.

I do not know why differ on it. It is a big difference.

I am surprised.


One day I am going to be a founding member of a new party iNNOVATIONs party


Posted by Sea REDDy, a resident of College Terrace,
on Oct 22, 2014 at 3:37 pm

A few additional comments:

a. a most important recognition that need to be made; humans love humans plus some love living creatures; like dogs and cats and other.

We need a tax reform to deduct health care expenses when a US tax payer spends a lot of money to take care of their pets. For some, it is as important to take care of their pets as their dependents.

It touches my own family. We have/had many pets. We raised a dalmation from 1996 till his death in 2006. He was part of the family. My daughter took him to UC Berkeley defying our landlord/my rich cousin and kept him in Berkeley for a couple of years. In 2002, the dog had a stroke in front of my eyes on a Sunday afternoon around 3pm. I rushed him to the emergency and it cost my family most of it my daughter paid over $8000 dollars.

In 2012, one of her two cats fell from a third story all the way to the ground in Pacific Heights/Cow Hallo at her house and it cost my daughter over $2000.

So, it will be innovative to give tax breaks to owners of pets since these pets are a family and they bring joy to the owners.

There are many more innovative things like that.

Your comment about people are using 'innovation' to cop out; some times could be true; but not always.

We need to think innovative to nurture god's gift to us; 'brain'. The more we are challenged/exercised; the more innovative we will be.


Posted by Sea REDDY, a resident of College Terrace,
on Oct 22, 2014 at 3:41 pm


I respect your comment and your kindness.

I appreciate that.


Posted by Reason, a resident of Palo Alto High School,
on Oct 23, 2014 at 10:52 am

Reason is a registered user.

@Sea Reddy

I like your list of innovation - even more so because I had direct involvement in developing two of them!

:-) I feel like I made the who's - Who list.

However, I suspect your criticism of Douglas may be a little over-reached.

I don't believe Douglas implies there should be no _Improvement_ in local government, but rather (and ha can jump in here if I got this wrong..) he dislikes the offhand way politicians make hollow appeals to "Innovation" when really they may simply not know what they are talking about.

There is a distinction I tried to draw that is something more than semantics. To use one of your examples when we were working on DVD technology, there were very high risks taken, on ideas that were frankly not well sorted out. We tried our best, and some very good ideas came out of this work. It was very high in uncertainty and involved career ending risks if it failed. That's as close to true innovation as I have gotten. Nobody perished and only one guy hospitalized. But we made something new.

Compare this to local administration of a school. When two neighboring classrooms teach the same subject, one well and one poorly (teaching consistently is a huge issue in this election). Is there much uncertainty? No - only in so much as we choose not to measure outcomes. Is there much risk? No, in fact there is zero risk for a tenured employee. Is true innovation needed here? No.

However what is needed is _Improvement_.

Classic, continuous improvement of best practices. Any system can be improved up to the limits of state-of-art without risky innovations. Best practices between teachers, consistent unit tests across different sections of a class, measuring consistent outcomes and sharing techniques that produce the best outcomes. Aligning with prerequisite classes and following classes.

All good stuff that happens inside any well run learning organization that is optimizing towards an excellent outcome. Not true innovation, but good solid work.

When we worked on DVD I would say 10% of our problems were risky innovation problems. 90% were matters of best-practice improvement.

It is well past time our local government bodies start changing their culture to begin _Improvement_.

They need it.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of ,
on Oct 23, 2014 at 1:13 pm

@ "Reason"
Thanks for the additional perspective.
My original post had two aspects of appeals to innovation entangled. One was the management of innovation/improvement which you have nicely addressed.

The second is an attitude by decision-makers to say I am going to do what I want without carefully considering consequences (the planning process) with the belief that unknown future innovations will bail them out of the problems that they have (mindlessly) created.

Posted by Sea REDDY, a resident of College Terrace,
on Oct 23, 2014 at 1:45 pm

@Reason and Doug

I agree with your write up. I have over reacted.

Regarding our schools; Peter Drucker discussed in one of our classes that the Germans do a great job of letting their students do a lot of apprenticeship training; while they are in high school.

I wonder why our schools push for lot of general education and sciences and do not allow for real skills learning to get ready to go to workplace?


Posted by Sea REDDY, a resident of College Terrace,
on Oct 23, 2014 at 1:55 pm

Please allow me to think of innovations we need

- One World. No passport required
- Eliminate guns except in war jones
- Treat 'pets' as dependents
- Modify English language; Eliminate upper case lower case
- Spell like it sounds - no p in front of psychology
- Stop being so British in city hall; Mr. and Mrs is ok; not too formal
- Allow a home owner to rent out rooms; no zoning
- Allow us to be free with minimum rules
- Allow homeless to take shower in empty unleased buildings
- Be nice to each other; a common sense and no fights
- many more!!



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