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Teaching Innovation

June 22, 2012


“Academics don’t necessarily agree on what innovation is,” writes Melissa Korn, “but that hasn’t stopped them from trying to teach it.” [“B-Schools’ Innovation Rush,” Wall Street Journal, 22 May 2012] Some pundits believe that the entire notion of innovation is being overhyped. For more on that subject, read my post entitled Innovation: Too Much Talk, Not Enough Action. Korn continues:

“The concept, embraced by companies seeking a competitive edge, is being applied to new products, services, business models and everything in between. That has led business schools to add research centers, classes and even full-fledged majors in innovation to capitalize on companies’ eagerness to invest in the area.”

I believe there is a difference between being creative and being innovative, but the terms are routinely interchanged. An innovative idea is certainly creative; but, not all creative ideas are innovative. For example, an idea that improves an available product is creative. A new product that changes the market, like the iPod, is both creative and innovative. I have pointed out in past posts that “real” innovation, put in a mathematical formula, would look like this: innovation = new x valuable x realized. If any of those variables is missing (i.e., if any of those variables = 0) then you can rest assured whatever you’re discussing is not an innovation. Korn’s article convinces me that what most business schools are teaching is creativity not innovation. She writes:

“According to a May analysis by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, an accrediting body, involving 733 member schools, 28% include the words ‘innovate,’ ‘innovation’ or ‘innovative’ in their school mission statements. Most use the terms to describe their own curricula. But some think the schools may be missing the mark, focusing too heavily on ideation and brainstorming while skimping on the practical aspects of turning ideas into concrete strategy and action. ‘Innovation requires taking the great idea and doing something with it,’ says Robert Sullivan, dean of the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego. He chaired a recent AACSB task force that examined how business schools could better address the hot topic.”

Don’t get me wrong — there is nothing wrong with teaching creativity. In fact, that’s what schools should be teaching. I would call such courses “Applied Creativity” rather than “Innovation.” True innovation is rare, but that doesn’t mean that creative ideas aren’t beneficial. Korn continues:

“The University of Portland’s Pamplin School of Business is trying to bridge the gap between theory and practice with a new undergraduate major in entrepreneurship and innovation management. ‘We’re trying to make innovation a science, not just an art,’ says Sam Holloway, an assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship who oversees the major, which launched last fall. Courses examine how innovation can cut costs for an existing product or fill a social need in developing countries and use case studies to discuss the difference between an interesting idea and a viable opportunity. They also teach students how to take advantage of existing resources, such as vast social networks.”

I almost cringe when I hear a statement like, “We’re trying to make innovation a science, not just an art.” Not only is that statement hyperbole, it undermines what truly defines both innovation and science. Creative thinking is a skill, nothing more. Everyone can have creative thoughts, but not everyone is a creative genius. Korn asks a good question, “So where does it all lead?” Those teaching courses on “innovation” expect graduates to become product designers with established firms or entrepreneurs. In fact, Korn reports that “the University of San Francisco’s School of Management … recently renamed its M.B.A. ‘Entrepreneurship’ concentration and undergraduate major ‘Entrepreneurship and Innovation’ instead.” The major includes “course work on launching a business, problem-solving, risk management and current developments at companies like Groupon Inc. and Netflix Inc.” Those are good things to learn and I applaud business schools for taking a new direction. I only regret that they have hopped aboard the innovation bandwagon and are watering down what that term really means. I fear innovation has already become a meaningless buzzword.


Korn reports that not only are business schools doing it (i.e., hyping innovation) they are overdoing it by offering executive education programs on innovation. “Last fall Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business offered a new five-day course, Leading Innovation: From Idea to Impact, for $11,000.” Some programs seem more on target than others. Korn reports that “the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, unveiled its new course framework, Berkeley Innovative Leader Development, in 2010. The goal is to create managers who can foster innovation or oversee innovative organizations, not just come up with innovative ideas.” Even that approach, however, is geared more toward creativity than innovation. Korn explains:

“Dean Rich Lyons says that Haas’s approach focuses on incremental changes in products, services and processes that, over time, can add up to a competitive advantage. ‘It’s not about producing home-run hitters,’ he says.”

That’s refreshing; even the Dean admits they are not teaching innovation but something that more closely resembles change management. Unfortunately, even creativity gurus like David Kelley, the founder of the design firm IDEO, have jumped on the “innovation” bandwagon. He told Carolyn T. Geer “that virtually everyone has the capacity to innovate. It’s just that somewhere around the fourth grade most of us stop thinking of ourselves as creative, he says, so our ability to innovate atrophies.” [“Innovation 101,” Wall Street Journal, 16 October 2011] I agree with most of what Kelley says, but I would substitute “creative” every time he uses the word innovative. Geer continues:

“Mr. Kelley has made it his life’s work to help people regain their creative confidence. In his three decades as a designer and as a professor in the design program at Stanford University’s engineering school, from which he graduated in 1978, Mr. Kelley has developed a set of techniques for solving all kinds of problems—techniques that he came to believe could be taught as a methodology. His approach is called ‘design thinking.’ Six years ago, with a $35 million gift from German software magnate Hasso Plattner, co-founder of SAP AG and a onetime IDEO client, Mr. Kelley founded the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford—dubbed the d.school—a nondegree program that draws students from all seven of Stanford’s graduate schools. The program aims to help students unlock their creative potential by teaching them to become, among other things, more open to experimentation, more comfortable with ambiguity and less afraid of failure.”

Kelley teaching style involves what he has previously called a deep dive. Geer explains:

“The best way to unleash creativity, Mr. Kelley says, is to give students an ‘experience,’ or in d.school speak, a design challenge. Under his teaching model, however, students aren’t just handed a problem to solve—they must define the problem themselves through research and direct observation. One group of students, for example, was tasked with designing an incubator for the developing world, where infant mortality is high and expensive incubators are scarce. But when the students were dispatched to Nepal to spend time with mothers and doctors, they found that most births take place in rural areas far from hospitals, so flooding hospitals with cheaper incubators would be of no use to most premature and low-birth-weight babies. Equipped with this knowledge, and, as Mr. Kelley sees it, a newfound empathy for their subjects, the students reframed the problem. ‘This was about keeping babies warm, not cheaper incubators,’ explains George Kembel, executive director and co-founder of the d.school.”

One of the fundamental skills required to become more creative is being able to see a challenge from a different perspective. That’s what the students discussed above were able to do. One way to change perspective is by asking questions. For example, you would get very different answers by asking: “What is the best way to get through a wall” rather than “How can I improve the door?” Geer explains the next step in the process:

“The second step in the process is ‘ideation,’ where students visualize and brainstorm potential solutions with one another. The students decided that what was needed was an inexpensive baby-warming device that could function in rural communities—one that was transportable, simple to use and sanitize, and worked without electricity.”

This is the step where many people stop. They get good ideas but aren’t motivated to take them any further. Taking the next step is what separates truly creative people from the pack.

“Next comes ‘prototyping.’ The students made sketches and three-dimensional models of potential incubators that they could test, modify, and test again, in an iterative process that is at the heart of design thinking. By the end of the class they had a finished prototype—a kind of sleeping bag made of special material that could be wrapped around a premature infant and kept clean and warm with nothing more than boiling water. The students went on to form a nonprofit company in the hopes of bringing their Embrace incubator to market.”

Korn reports that “the d.school has produced several companies, including d.light design, which makes solar-powered lanterns for the developing world; Alphonso Labs, which markets Pulse, a news-reading application for iPhone, iPad and Android devices; and of course, Embrace, which hatched from the incubator project.” She continues:

“More recently, the d.school has been teaching K-12 teachers how to employ design-thinking techniques in their classrooms. Last year alone, more than 500 educators attended workshops at the d.school’s K-12 lab. Research is under way, but early indications are that K-12 students exposed to design thinking are more engaged and motivated to learn, say Rich Crandall, director, and Adam Royalty, founding member and lead researcher, of the K-12 lab. To Mr. Kelley, that is the Holy Grail of design thinking. He says it is behavioral change that enables students to gain innovation confidence, something he believes is as important as gaining literacy skills. ‘For me this is a mindset,’ he says. ‘It’s a way of thinking that you can use in every part of your life.'”

Tony Wagner, an Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, also believes that creativity should be taught beginning at an early age. He recommends the creation of “lab schools” that provide the kind of hands-on education found at the d.school. [“Educating the Next Steve Jobs,” Wall Street Journal, 12 April 2012] He writes:

“The most innovative schools, classes are ‘hands-on,’ and students are creators, not mere consumers. They acquire skills and knowledge while solving a problem, creating a product or generating a new understanding. At High Tech High, ninth graders must develop a new business concept—imagining a new product or service, writing a business and marketing plan, and developing a budget. The teams present their plans to a panel of business leaders who assess their work. At Olin College, seniors take part in a yearlong project in which students work in teams on a real engineering problem supplied by one of the college’s corporate partners. … Creating new lab schools around the country and training more teachers to innovate will take time. Meanwhile, what the parents of future innovators do matters enormously. My interviews with parents of today’s innovators revealed some fascinating patterns. They valued having their children pursue a genuine passion above their getting straight As, and they talked about the importance of ‘giving back.’ As their children matured, they also encouraged them to take risks and learn from mistakes. There is much that all of us stand to learn from them.”

The world needs more creative thinking and people willing to take risks to bring their ideas to life. Not all ideas and products will be innovative, but that doesn’t diminish their importance. As Melissa Korn and Rachel Emma Silverman state, “Forget b-school. These days, d.school is the place to go.” [“Forget B-School, D-School Is Hot,” Wall Street Journal, 7 June 2012] Unfortunately, they shouldn’t have skipped from “b.school” to “d.school” but stopped at “c.school” for creativity.

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