You CAN Teach Innovation


If you look at all of my articles on the topic of innovation, you should begin to see a pattern emerging as to what it takes to work innovatively.  The question remains, can these innovation skills be taught?   As it turns out, Stanford has a pioneering effort – their d-school (institute for design) to do just that.

It is led by David Kelly (co- founder of IDEO – see my related article “Play . . . Seriously?)

The Stanford approach mirrors the way Xavier often suggests its corporate learning clients engage.  We believe that learning does not mainly occur in a classroom.  We can convey concepts there, but the learning occurs when you try to apply them in your own work environment with “real” situations.   The live environment is always a little different from the theoretical framework outlined in a class situation, and so by the process of adapting the theory to fit your often imperfect situation, the learning power is greatly enhanced.  Further, we think that learning under such “live fire” conditions forces us to think much more deeply about the content and what it means.  We think that the act of struggling (a little) with the problem also enhances your understanding – and makes the learning stick.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, reporter CAROLYN T. GEER does wonderful job illustrating this approach.   In the Stanford d-school example –  active learning comes through giving students a real design challenge to struggle with.  Here is one example:

“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.”   The first step in the process is to immerse the participants in the problem where they gain knowledge, collect data and deepen their understanding of the situation.  So, the “students were dispatched to Nepal to spend time with mothers and doctors, (where) 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 at-risk babies.”

Equipped with this knowledge . . . and a newfound empathy for their subjects, the students reframed the problem. “This was about keeping babies warm, not cheaper incubators.”

The second step in the process is “ideation”, where participants brainstorm potential solutions with one another. They decided that what was needed was a transportable, simple, inexpensive baby-warming device that worked without electricity.

Next comes “prototyping”. The students made sketches and three-dimensional models of potential incubators that they could test, modify, and test again.  This is about trial-and-error. It is iterative.  This imperfect approach is at the heart of what Kelly calls “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 an infant and kept clean and warm with nothing more than boiling water.

From our view – we all need to consider that working on real problems is not only engaging but an impactful way of learning  . . .  unstructured, random and “messy” as it may be.  So here are some final points for you to consider:

People learn by doing. Think of projects as learning opportunities.  Make sure to spend time at the end recapping what was learned, the mistakes made along the way (another useful learning tool), and challenge program attendees to consider how they might approach things differently next time.  If using facilitators, their role should be to help – but as little as possible.  We appreciate much more that which we find out for ourselves.

People learn best by collaborating with others who have radically different points of view, so teams should be made up of people from a variety of disciplines—the more the better!   Your personal technical expertise is not always the crucial factor.

Everyone needs to have an equal voice.  This may require guided facilitation at first – we need to see with our own eyes that often times the person with the best insight is the outsider who we think knows the “least” about the technology or the process of interest.

See also my prior article “Time to Revisit the Art of Brainstorming”.

‎Finally, here is David Kelly talking about the problem of teaching kids how to learn with an eye toward innovation. It contains some interesting ideas to everyone in the field of learning and development.

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