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The tension that sparks youth program innovation

By Rebecca Meyer

Entrepreneur Seth Godin describes innovation as a process akin to natural selection. He says that what sparks innovation is sharing ideas and making surprising connections with new and different people. His podcast on the subject got me thinking about the work we do in youth development and Extension.

In 4-H, we design and implement programs that encourage young people to build the skills they need for a lifetime. We foster learning experiences for them to learn and lead, with the support of caring adults. Our tagline is “Minnesota 4-H grows true leaders.”

Many youth programs are tackling problems and complex challenges through innovation in program design. Innovative ideas are born through sharing and connecting. Research suggests that innovative teams have ways of sparking these ideas, recognizing the great ones, and growing them into effective programs.

I'm interested in understanding the process of program innovation. I'm working with two colleagues on it. We have identified three core practices - designing, constructing, and evaluating. There is a tension between them -- and this tension is the energy that sparks innovation.

In our most recent research, Taking the Leap: Exploring a Theory of Program Innovation we identified some factors that seem to support innovation in the context of our work. We proposed a model through which the process for innovation occurs. We identified five capitals:
  • Institutional support
  • Stakeholder support 
  • Approach
  • Individuals
  • Team

Later in Godin's podcast, as he responds to listener questions, he talks about risk taking. Godin sees a difference between taking blind or stupid risks without clear planning or direction, and taking a calculated risk. Innovation typically results from taking calculated risks; we call it “taking the leap.” In our view and research, taking the leap is much more realistic and comfortable when you have the entrepreneurial spark, you’re on a supportive team that works well together, and you have a clear aim and a green light from administration, partners and other stakeholders.

What do you think are some of the biggest needs and opportunities in youth programming today? When have you felt comfortable taking the leap to try an innovative new approach to youth programming? What made that leap possible? Do you think there are forces or factors resisting innovation in youth programs? What can we do to solve these?

-- Rebecca Meyer, Extension educator

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  1. Thank you for sharing this, Rebecca. It is coincidental, as I was just thinking about risk-taking in regards to innovation and youth development and I look forward to listening to Godin's podcast and reading about your research. Sometimes I lack patience, however, I still believe (or would like to believe?!) I am take calculated risks rather than "blind" ones. This topic greatly interests me.

    1. This is great to read. Thank you for sharing, Leigh. If you dig into the model we proposed, you describe key individual characteristics like interest, commitment, and an ability to take the leap that can propel innovation. This is a great base. Are there opportunities to draw in the additional capitals like institutional and stakeholder support, or team to grow and strengthen conditions for innovation? As you dig into this more, please reach out and share how the model aligns (or doesn't) with your experience. What characteristics are reinforcing (or perhaps resisting) your efforts of program innovation?

      For others: When have you felt comfortable taking the leap to try an innovative new approach? What made the leap possible?


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