Transformative, Evidence-Based Ideas

inBloom and the Failure of Innovation 1.0

Michael Horn’s recent piece on the failure of inBloom captures why it was the very opposite of a disruptive innovation from a markets perspective, as well the fatal blind spots and judgment errors present from its inception.

Policy versus Practice
Policy versus Practice

Another useful way to frame this—disruption theory aside—is as a contrast between two fundamentally different grammars of innovation.

inBloom was a textbook example of what I call “Innovation 1.0”, which thinks of innovation as a noun, a thing with transformative transitive properties that magically make its recipient “innovative.” It’s the cargo–cult theory of innovation: I give you this innovative thing (a tablet, a data warehouse, an LMS) and you thereby become innovative yourself. This Innovation 1.0 approach to both product and policy has characterized a great deal of foundation and Federal efforts over the past ten years.

But as Michael points out (and as real innovators and entrepreneurs understand viscerally), “innovation” is not a noun but a verb. It is not a thing but a process, a frame of mind, a set of reflexes. He correctly notes the essential iterative approach that characterizes innovation–as–a–verb, its make–something–big–by–making–something–small theory of action (this is fundamentally different from piloting or focus–grouping, but that’s another topic).

But it’s important to go deeper and understand why iteration is important. Simply, it is a means to bake into the process, the product, or the policy a respect for users’ subjectivity and autonomy. In short, functional iteration requires that you listen.

True, durable innovation, “Innovation 2.0” is not some thing I can give to you, do to you, or even do for you: it must be a process I do with you. Lean Startup theory—with its emphasis on iteration, an assumption of the innovator’s fallibility and limited perspective, and the importance of low–cost, low–stakes discovery of product–market fit that Michael describes—is essentially a cookbook for baking empathy into the development of products, services, or policies.

This is the most difficult behavior for government and for those organizations like inBloom that serve or mirror them. Their “practice culture” compels them to speak rather than to listen and to act as if they know the answer, when in fact they often don’t even know the problem, at least as it would be described by their users. As Michael notes, “I need a data warehouse that will store and distribute children’s information wherever,” was a need articulated by very, very few districts. And, I would add, by no parent ever.

That doesn’t mean inBloom was a bad idea. But the failure to anticipate its vehement visceral rejection—however misinformed and however cynically exploited by those with larger agendas—was a profound failure of imagination, of empathy, of the respect for user subjectivity that characterizes Innovation 2.0.

It’s ironic that those policymakers who are most comfortable with marketplace structures often forget the first lesson of the marketplace: the customer is always right. inBloom’s hoped–for payers may have been districts but its important customers from the perspective of public policy and legitimating, the ones who forced it from the marketplace, were parents.

It would have been simple to create applications for parents that demonstrate the powerful benefits that inBloom had to offer. This is Marketing 101: offer something specific to offset inchoate frustration and anxiety, in this case stemming from the relentless consent–free quantification imposed on all of us by organizations beyond our control.

An Innovation 2.0 approach would have started with humility and the presumption that what parents want matters. From the outset, those values would have informed an iterative, collaborative product and policy development process and by the end, many parents (though never all) would have been clamoring to have inBloom in their districts. That’s how market forces truly work, and innovators and reformers of all stripes would do well to remember the lessons that inBloom learned so harshly.

This blog was originally published on

Steven Hodas (@stevenhodas) is a veteran of both the New York City Department of Education and the edtech industry. In this blog series, School District Innovation: When Practice Collides with Policy, he provides insights into the challenges, struggles, and opportunities of large-district attempts to reform longstanding practices and change cultural norms. This series is part of CRPE’s ongoing examination of innovative school systems.


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