Innovation is a word that’s on everyone’s lips right now. And no wonder, says Richard Brynteson, a professor on the MBA faculty at Concordia University in St. Paul. “When the economy’s in bad shape, people look to innovation,” he says. “They’re looking for some innovation that’s going to help them out of the quandary of having to lay off another 3,000 people.”
According to Laura Dunham, associate professor at the University of St. Thomas’s Schulze School of Entrepreneurship in Minneapolis, research shows that companies that come out of recessions strong are the ones who continue to innovate. “A lot of great products, from Miracle Whip in the ’30s to the iPod, were developed and invested in during a recession,” she points out. “Innovation is really critical for our economy, for our continued growth, for our ability to compete in the world.”
Rustin Wolfe, a professor who teaches in Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota’s Doctor of Education in Leadership program in Minneapolis, draws an analogy to evolutionary biology. “When a species becomes too specialized and the environment changes, the species becomes extinct,” he says. “The same is true of a product or an idea or a business. Over time, you can become incredibly efficient at doing what you do, but the environment will change, and if you are not considering that, you’re going to be in trouble.”
But can innovation be taught? Aren’t some people just naturally more creative and insightful than others? Is it just a matter of luck which organizations have the most inventive people on board?
“I was an actor for a number of years,” Dunham says. “A lot of people think acting is also one of those things that’s about just being creative or having a lot of talent. But it’s a craft. And I strongly believe that innovation is a craft, that anybody with the right tools and training can be an innovator. Absolutely there will be a range in terms of natural aptitude and talents. But anybody can become more creative and innovative.”
Dunham and her husband, associate professor John McVea, co-teach an executive education course on innovation leadership. She says the class emphasizes giving executives tools and frameworks that help them see business problems from new perspectives and uncover customer needs they hadn’t thought of before. Then it arms them with creative problem-solving processes to help them refine and test new ideas.
Almost every innovation-oriented executive education program teaches a different way of managing innovation, says Uri Neren, founder and CEO of Minneapolis’s Generate Companies, which runs Innovation International. The trick is to find one that teaches a framework that’s useful at your particular organization.
“Executives are rarely in charge of creating single innovations,” Neren says. “They’re usually in charge of managing a pipeline of ideas, making sure people have the resources, making sure that the culture is there. Can you teach people how to do those things? Yeah, but it isn’t a one-size-fits-all. It’s a very customized approach. If you have this kind of culture in this environment in this time in history, you’re going to have one answer; and if you have another, you’re going to have another answer, another innovation management approach.”
Stacking the Deck
One constant among innovation education programs is their emphasis on group work. Innovation is not just coming up with ideas; it’s also bringing them to fruition. No one person is strong in every area, so the ability to pull together a team of people with various talents—brainstorming, research, number-crunching, prototyping, marketing, and so on—is crucial to success.
“Those programs, Carlson [Ventures Enterprise], etcetera are very collaborative, very real-world-problem-focused,” notes Ben Edwards, chief designer and cofounder of Minneapolis software development firm Refactr, and cofounder of the MinneBar “unconference.” “I’d say they’re teaching some of the right things. When I was going to Carlson undergrad, they were instituting a number of those things. I was always like, ‘Ugh! Teamwork! There’s so much team-based work! Why can’t I just do my assignments myself?’ But really, it was preparing everyone for eventually having to do that [in real life].”
In educational programs geared toward innovation, executives learn processes, ranging from the simple to the complex, to help jump-start new ideas in their organizations. And here dies another misconception about innovation: It’s not all right-brain stuff. Brynteson says he’s worked with one medical-device company that has a very precise 28-step process for developing new products. It has used the process over and over to bring devices to market.
Such a process can begin with simple exercises. Working with the U.S. military to come up with better ways to test the hydraulics systems on Chinook helicopters, Brynteson challenged his students: “What 25 questions do we have about the hydraulics system in a Chinook helicopter?” If all the people in the group write out 25 questions, someone will ask something interesting. Another exercise Brynteson uses is assumption-challenging. He asks participants to identify the assumptions surrounding any business process, and then to ask “Why?”
“Say you’ve got a billing process that has 14 steps,” he says. “Usually, it’s some kid—and I do mean kid, someone in their 20s—who will come up and say ‘We don’t need steps 4, 6, 7, and 8 because we can do that by using this form of social media or technology.’”
Dunham focuses on tools designed to better identify customer needs. One tool, called “customer mapping,” helps executives think about parts of the customer experience that the organization usually doesn’t touch. She says a recent grad has taken this technique back to her employer, a health care organization, and is using it to find ways to reduce costs and improve outcomes in knee replacements. Her team isn’t just thinking about the surgery; they’re looking at the customer’s full experience, from the first twinges of pain to the new habits they’ll need to develop afterward to protect their knees.
Dunham also suggests doing qualitative research on the customer experience at an earlier stage. “Some companies do do qualitative research, but it’s often somewhat later in the product development process, when they already have their ideas, their hypotheses, maybe even some prototypes, and they’re putting them out in front of people to get their feedback,” she says. “What companies are getting better at doing, but many still aren’t, is doing really open-ended exploratory research very early on, where they go into a customer’s environment, observe them using their product, and observe how the product interacts with their environment. It’s a very different approach that yields very different results. You suddenly have the ‘Aha!’ moment: ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t know my customers were coping with this.’”
Much of the learning in these education programs comes from peers exchanging ideas. With that in mind, Neren and his colleagues at Generate Companies have organized coaching groups called Innovation Minnesota, Innovation USA, and Innovation Europe, where executives can share knowledge.
“We bring executives together to learn from each other,” he says. “We don’t allow any competitors in the room. So besides problem solving for each other, the other thing they do is tell deep, deep stories, really detailed things that nobody would be allowed to share in a case study or in public. They dive deeply into how things work in a specific scenario that is living and breathing today.”
Ad-hoc “unconferences” like the ones Edwards helps to organize can be sources of inspiration, too. Attendees tend to spend more time actually innovating than talking about it.
“There’s something about when you have peer-to-peer conversations on topics that people are really enthused about, as opposed to being a passive recipient of information that’s being dispensed from the stage,” says Don Ball, a partner at Maple Grove–based Polymer Studios and cofounder of the Unsummit unconference. “It seems to leave people really electrified. It’s very empowering and seems to be part of a movement of what I call DIY innovation. People realize they don’t need to wait for any authority figure to tell them it’s okay to go and do stuff and invent stuff.”
A Culture of Creativity
It’s hard for executives to bring this spirit of innovation to their organizations, Ball admits. “With bigger organizations, the inertia is significant. What looks like innovation to you might just look like a pain in the butt to me. I think that’s where you have to take on innovation as a topic of study, because it doesn’t come naturally. You have to really set out to do it.”
Part of the problem is psychology 101, Wolfe says. Businesses tend to punish people severely for failing, but don’t reward them much for succeeding. “In corporate America, there’s a lot of ‘Don’t screw up,’ rather than ‘What can I do that would really be amazing?’” he says. “The people who take risks and are creative, if they get four things right and one thing wrong, they’re in trouble for the one thing wrong. You can agree with all the theory, but the bottom line is, if you’re worried you’re going to lose your job at the end of the year, then you’re not going to take the risk.”
Bringing in an inspirational speaker to encourage employees to be innovative isn’t enough, he says. It’s a matter of changing company culture over the long term. “[In our course], we talk about the fact that innovation has to take place within a supporting system,” Dunham says. “It’s important to have the kinds of tools that help you see the world differently. But at the end of the day, you also have to have the kinds of practices within your organization and the kind of culture that allows people to dissent; to say ‘I see it differently. I think we should be doing this instead of that’; to explore ideas that are unproven because they’re radical and new; to actually develop products when you can’t necessarily quantify how big they’re going to be, because it’s too early.”
Many executive education programs in innovation examine the corporate structures of innovative companies such as Google, noting that they tend to be flat rather than hierarchical. But Dunham says managers in traditional companies needn’t despair if they’re not in a position to revamp their firm’s organizational chart.
“When you start pushing yourself down towards the underlying principles, in the flat organizations, people feel equal,” she says. “They feel like they can speak up. They can make faster decisions because [they] don’t have to go through multiple layers. You don’t have to be the CEO and reorganize your organization. You can say, within your group, ‘What can I do that allows the people I work with to feel safer bringing in ideas?’”
Innovative companies have a very different orientation toward failure, she says. Failure is a sign that a company is trying things for which there is no track record.
But Edwards suggests that companies take a page from computer programmers. “One of our mantras in software development is ‘fail fast,’” he says. “If you can get something out there and have it fail, that is going to be valuable: How did it fail? Why? And what kind of corrections can we make? It’s fairly important to do that. There’s a sort of a culture of the West Coast where you kind of celebrate your start-up failures, whereas in Minnesota, it’s typically not like that. We tend to feel shame on our failures. I think that kind of has to be erased.”
Dunham encourages would-be innovators to get better at prototyping—not multimillion-dollar prototyping near the end of the creative process, but very rough, cheap prototyping early in the process. A little bit of money invested early can weed out nonstarting ideas and clarify good ones.
“Sometimes customers will say ‘I just don’t get this at all,’” she says. “But you’ve not put that much money into it, because you have learned how to experiment on a smaller scale with lower levels of investment. So failure is important, but it’s about failing early in the process . . . and creating the kinds of systems inside that allow us to do that.”