I’m Diana Drake, managing editor of Knowledge@Wharton High School, and today we are discussing innovation and the art of problem solving. Talk of innovation is everywhere in the business world. To be an innovator is to position yourself on the path to a successful life and career. We tell our high school students that they need to be more innovative, but do they truly understand what that means and how it is related to problem solving? Do they understand that innovation requires critical thinking to see something in an entirely new light – and to possibly inspire real change? We will discuss these and other ideas to help provide high school educators with a framework of understanding for innovation, and to find ways to teach students to be innovative thinkers and problem-solvers.
We’re excited to have two top experts in the field helping us to explore this important topic. Saikat Chaudhuri is an adjunct associate professor of management and executive director of the Mack Institute for Innovation Management at the Wharton School. Rob Shelton is global innovation strategy lead at PwC, and specializes in integrating innovation, new business models and new technologies into an organization’s strategy and operations to create growth. Thank you both for sharing your insights today about innovation and the art of problem solving. During our discussion, we’ll also be addressing questions from high school educators around the country.
Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Knowledge@Wharton High School: Let’s start with some innovation basics, both in terms of how it’s defined and why it’s valued in the workplace. First and foremost, what is innovation?
Saikat Chaudhuri: Thank you very much, Diana. It’s a pleasure to be here. Innovation can be thought of in a variety of ways. But one way to think about it is that it’s the translation of knowledge or an idea into something that has impact. Often we think about it as perhaps financial impact, but it can also be social impact.
I want to distinguish it, though, from invention. Invention is the idea itself. When you combine it with a bit of entrepreneurship, you get some kind of impact. And that’s the innovation. So for example, you may think of, an invention as a patent or the science, a technology. Maybe it’s an application, and the innovation will be what product you develop out of it.
Rob Shelton: Saikat, that’s an excellent description. Diana, I’ve got a briefer one that I think is entirely consistent with that, but useful because of its terseness and easiness to grasp. Innovation is the creation and delivery of value. Saikat called it impact. And I have no problem with that word, but [it is also] something that is valued. It’s a positive that is delivered. And innovation comes in different forms. There’s incremental innovation — small steps, improvements to something that exists already — as well as breakthrough innovation, those radical changes of the next and new thing.
When you think of innovation, often people think of one or the other. The truth is that innovations run a spectrum from the very small — still valuable, but small improvements — to the very large changes that we often see and think about.
Chaudhuri: I like that a lot, Rob. Building on what you just said, we can also think of innovation as product innovation, process innovation, business model innovation, all of which can be the more incremental or radical kind, as well.
Shelton: We’re over-answering a single question, but it’s important to get the basics down. Innovation is not just the technology; it’s often a change to the process or a change in the way you do things. People forget that business model innovations — the way you deliver value, the way services are delivered and the types of services — are just as important as the technology innovations that we read so much about. Diana, did that give you a good foundation for us to work with?
KWHS: An excellent foundation. How is innovation at the heart of critical thinking and problem solving? Can you connect the dots there?
Shelton: It is at the heart of it. We constantly wrestle with how to better answer questions that have already been answered, [like] how to make a better mousetrap; how to deal with the challenges in our lives; [how to deal] with social situations and governments and the like. Creating better answers is fine. But sometimes we have to also find entirely new ways to answer things. The world constantly presents us with new problems or problems that don’t yield themselves to solutions coming from the standard approach. It’s both a case of critical thinking about what is, as well as critical thinking and execution about what could be.
Chaudhuri: I totally agree with that.
Shelton: Saikat, we’re going to have to start finding things to disagree about.
Chaudhuri: I’m sure we will.
Shelton: I’m sure we will, as well.
KWHS: [Let’s] move on to our first question from an educator. Martin Rayala, a teacher at Design Lab Schools in Wilmington, Delaware, wonders about the influence that technological innovation will have on 21st century skills. “We still think that people perform creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication better than machines, but for how long?”
Chaudhuri: I’ll let you take that one Rob while I think about what to say.
Shelton: It’s a provocative question. The idea that machines could step in and do better than us is something that, once upon a time, was dismissed. But these days, we’re seeing that there are opportunities as computers play “Jeopardy” and other things, and sometimes go solve problems.
The question asks, “Will machines outperform us?” The answer, I believe, is no. But they will get much better at supporting our thinking. Analysis [has looked at] machines’ work on patterns and insights. It will be hard to replace people from the standpoint of production of innovation or creation of things. But I do think that machines, neural network systems, computers, will begin to contribute in much larger ways than they ever have. I’m looking for more of a symbiosis than a competition where one wins and takes dominance, and the other loses. Saikat, what about you?
Chaudhuri: I agree. I think having machines [that] are able to take care of many tasks that need to be done as part of experimentation will allow people to spend more time doing the creative activities. And to build on your points, Rob, I think that innovation requires, especially the breakthrough kind, many different inputs from many different places. You have to sense and observe different things, whether it’s a market opportunity in one case, a particular technology in another or a pain point in another way. Unless you can feed that into a machine very systematically, humans just have the ability to pick up on those things and combine them in particular ways. I think we’ll still be ahead and leverage these machines in order to get the output much faster and have the impact much faster.
KWHS: Why do companies value employees who can think and collaborate innovatively? And why is it so important to be innovative in today’s business world?
Shelton: Let me start with the second question because they’re both good. But the second one gives me a situation I can talk about right now. We’ve just finished talking to over 1,500 executives worldwide [for our Global Innovations Survey]: 25 different countries, India, a whole bunch of different business environments like technology, health care and education. What we found was that innovation is at the forefront of their thinking these days. It has become one of the most important issues, and in some places the most important [issue] inside of companies. In the past 10 or 15 years, the focus has primarily been on operational efficiency, costs and doing things better. Now there’s a focus on doing things in new and better ways. Industry and business [are] extremely interested in finding not only the processes and the organization that will bring that about, but [also] the people who are in those processes and organizations.
Right now for the first time in a long time, innovation is at the forefront of businesses’ thinking, and they’re looking for people that are innovative inside and outside their company. They’re looking for ways to make their innovative capabilities work in collaboration with others, and to yield real results. Your question’s quite good, because I can honestly say that this is one of the biggest challenges to business today. And it’s one that they’re actively working on in the Middle East and in Europe and Africa and Asia, the United States and Latin America. Everywhere you go, this is one of the top issues for business.
Chaudhuri: May I add something to that?
Chaudhuri: I agree with those points. What’s interesting is that we are in a world where technological change is very rapid, globalization is happening, competition is coming from multiple places. In that kind of environment, unless you have a competitive edge in the form of coming up with new things, it’s very hard for a firm to create that value. You don’t have much choice. You need to innovate to even survive.
Shelton: You’re absolutely right. I think that’s always been understood, but for various reasons — partially the tumult of the financial crisis and the status of world politics and financial conditions and economics — it’s come to the forefront. It is a big issue. So in the world of what we do better about education, I can tell you that helping people realize their full potential for innovation, helping folks understand the talents they have, how to use them and importantly how to collaborate with others in the innovation activities, is something that we should be working on, because business values this. In the world of politics and social change and government, it’s also valued. The time is right for a better and bigger focus on growing our innovation potential.
KWHS: On to another question from our teacher network. Stan Wang of Agora Cyber Charter School in Wayne, Pennsylvania, asks about our collective understanding of innovation. “In your experience, do you feel that adults, including educators, recognize the scope and the depth of innovation in today’s society?”
Chaudhuri: The answer I would give is no. Even though they’re using innovation all the time, they may not realize they’re doing so. When you’re sending a package using FedEx, when you’re going to Walmart and expecting your goods to be delivered when you want them, when you’re typing away on your iPad or your iPhone, when you’re withdrawing money from the bank from an ATM machine, all of these are innovation in action. [We don’t always] appreciate it because it has become so much a [part of our lives].
That said, the importance of raising awareness is very critical because if you think about it, without innovation it would be really hard to solve the most pressing problems. If you think about global warming, poverty alleviation, education, all of these matters, if we extrapolate the existing ideas we have, they’re not going to allow us to solve the sheer scale and magnitude of the problems we have in the global society. But if we’re able to come up with new ways of tackling them, perhaps interdisciplinary in nature, that will give us a shot to create a more radical approach.
Shelton: I agree entirely. People don’t recognize it. But I think part of that is because, as you said, it’s all around us. It’s like if you ask the fish, “How’s the water?” They would [say], “What’s water?” When you’re in the midst of it all, you don’t really appreciate the medium you live in. The examples you gave are excellent, and we could go on and on [citing] innovations that have changed the way we live. If you go back in history, there’s a long litany of things that have changed along the way.
We are innovative creatures, and we constantly get better at it and do more of it. But we sometimes don’t pay attention to the factors that encourage innovation, that allow it to succeed. We need to pay more attention to those. I think that people aren’t aware of it, in part because it’s everywhere. The other part is that they haven’t had it drawn to their attention. I think it’s time for innovation to come to the forefront on a personal level and on a societal level, as well.
KWHS: We’ve talked about some innovation basics. Now let’s see innovation in action. We touched on this a little bit already, but I’d like to explore it some more. Some say that to shift society or to have an impact you have to introduce something novel. Is innovation all about those big radical changes? Or does it also define smaller changes?
Shelton: It’s clearly about a combination of small changes that help sustain and improve what we already have that’s good. [And it’s also about] big radical changes, which at the right time can add value and help make an impact in ways that people never envisioned. It’s a combination of those, as opposed to either one or the other.
Chaudhuri: Let’s explore a few examples. When we went from vacuum tubes to transistors, we were able to produce computers that actually fit on a desk and didn’t take up an entire room. That allowed many more people and offices to utilize that technology, for example. So that’s a radical type of improvement. But when you think about it, computers, and their generations over time, have incrementally developed as well. They’re much faster and have much more storage than they used to. That has benefited us as well. We [also] see that in automobiles.
The other point I want to make is that at the organizational level — the company level — you need to sustain selling your existing products, making them really good, and even better, so that you can also then be able to invest that into the newer, more radical things on the horizon.
Shelton: That’s a key point. Incremental innovation is not just small and insignificant. Sometimes it’s vital. If you’re in a corporation and you’re making a project, a widget, or providing service, you need to make sure that you do a great job at it and continue to have revenue and profitability. That provides the capability to invest in looking for breakthroughs that might create the next new widget. The two are not only a spectrum of small on one side and midsize and then big. They’re actually reinforcing each other, because a big breakthrough like development of personal computers, actually leads to then small incremental improvements as we make them mobile, as we improve their cost efficiency, as we add features and the like. There’s a swing in any given technology and business model between the big breakthrough and the incremental improvements that follow, and then the next big breakthrough. It’s a cycle. We manage that quite effectively in some places. In other places, we’re constantly stuck in looking for incremental innovations and we can’t seem to find our way to solving the bigger challenges and providing breakthrough innovations.
KWHS: In keeping with this theme of looking at examples of innovation in action, Saikat, what are some examples of technological innovation, especially in the financial sector?
Chaudhuri: In the financial sector, I can think of two or three. One is certainly the ATM machine, which I mentioned before. That completely changed the way we interact in terms of withdrawing our money and making deposits and so forth. But that was quite a few decades ago. Nowadays payment models are changing. Think, [for example], about a company like Square where any merchant can fairly easily allow credit card transactions to take place. I [also] think about all the mobile-based platforms. In deep parts of Africa, for example, where many regions are unbanked, people did not have [bank] accounts. They’re able to now have bank accounts and conduct transactions based on purely the cell phone, ideally a smartphone, but it works on an SMS platform as well with text messages. That has revolutionized financial inclusion in terms of the impact.
KWHS: And Rob, what about some examples of innovation in the workplace?
Shelton: I think that we’re making faster strides in some ways in the financial sector and other industries, but we are making changes in the workplace. The one that you can point to immediately is that people are allowed to work remotely from home, improving their balance of life in many cases [and] cutting down effects on the environment from transportation. Also, people are working in a much more connected way. Sometimes that’s a problem because we feel like we can never get away from our e-mail or the phone, but the truth is that there’s a degree of collaboration. Sometimes videos and face-to-face meetings allow a much warmer, better type of working environment.
[There are] also changes to the workplace. As people have studied what it’s like to work in a given environment, they have found that some environments are better: light and sunny, proper ventilation. And this is leading to changes where you start to find improved chairs and desks and working environments. I see multiple attempts to make the workplace a better spot to work.
I also see a redefinition of the workplace. As I said, [these include] working remotely or going to a small remote office and working with others. But the fact is that the workplace is changing along with other aspects of business. It’s still a work in progress, but those are the things I would point to.
Chaudhuri: I can’t resist jumping in on this one, [because] it relates to my research. The whole idea before was that innovation and R&D [research and development], especially in a corporate organization, might take place in one or two locations. We’ve been able to distribute all that effort across time zones, across countries, not only for labor cost reasons, but also to take advantage of unique conditions that may allow certain kinds of innovation to take place by leveraging technology. It’s really exciting to witness the disaggregation, the distribution of the modern global firm that’s able to leverage resources around the world in real time and around the country to be able to come up with things faster and better and hopefully also cheaper.
KWHS: There’s a lot of talk these days about the importance of teamwork and teaching high school students, for instance, to learn to work in teams. How does teamwork relate to the process of innovation?
Shelton: Innovation is at its heart a team sport. We sometimes think of innovation as something where one person has a moment of insight, and then it’s all over and it happens. The reality is that innovation has many stages. The idea is part of it, [then comes] improving the idea and making it real. Bringing it to reality takes a whole bunch of people. The most successful innovations are ones where teams work together and collaborate. There’s technology, there’s the business model, there’s user interface, there’s all kinds of things that have to come together. I see this in my work all the time.
One of the problems that crops up over and over again is that folks trying to innovate don’t necessarily collaborate well. They might do alright in their own teams, but if they try to collaborate with an external partner who might be critical to making this happen, they’re not as good as they should be. I often think they needed to have been taught better –through experience, through training, through hands-on collaboration — to be better at partnering. The reality is, as Saikat pointed out, that everyone’s working in broader systems, sometimes spread around the world. Outside of any company are partners that you need to deal with these days. I like to point out [that there are] a billion IQ points outside of any organization that, [when tapped into], can be a huge benefit to the innovation you’re trying to undertake. I see collaboration at the heart of innovation. It’s an area where we frankly need to do a better job.
Chaudhuri: Eureka moments are rare. Taking a eureka moment — the invention — and making it into an innovation [involves] so many complexities and uncertainties. It’s very hard for anyone to do by [himself or herself]. The whole ecosystem matters more than ever. That’s why you see platforms. Android is a platform, for example, around which a number of different vendors produce apps or phones. That’s the way we make progress.
KWHS: Lily de la Torre-Shu, a teacher at String Theory High School in Philadelphia, wants to better understand how employees should balance innovation and creativity with following orders from superiors. Does the workplace encourage boundless innovation?
Shelton: The answer is no. There are very few places that say, “Go crazy!” There are a few that try that out, but it’s difficult. The flip side of that is workplaces encourage innovation, but you have to figure out what types of innovation would best suit the situation. There are some places where the small incremental innovation is exactly what you should be aiming for. And those are usually pretty well accepted. But sometimes [there are] opportunities to make significant changes: the breakthrough innovation. Getting permission to do that is a good thing, and you need to do it beforehand. Trying to force an innovation on an organization, or bring into the organization the innovation you’ve created, will not always be easy if it challenges the way things are done.
Something happens in organizations when they’re given a major change, a breakthrough innovation. I call it organizational antibodies. They come out and try to stop the change. They [don’t have bad intentions], it’s just that this is a change that feels uncomfortable. So the organization will try to maintain a status quo. What we want to create are organizations — businesses and organizations across all aspects in government, in education and the like — that are more open to innovation. That’s where the focus is these days. It is in understanding how to tap into the talent that exists and channel the innovations in ways that [don’t] threaten the organization or the business, but actually enhance it. These days, many places are not as open to innovation as they need to be.
Chaudhuri: I have a few reactions to this question. It’s a very important one. I like the word “balance” because it’s very important to have a balance between some form of hierarchy to be able to implement and at the same time encourage new things to bubble up in an organization. It’s interesting because firms like Facebook, Google and even Amazon [have had] a start-up environment for a long time, which is important. But the problem [starts] when you have $30 billion, let’s say, in revenue. You’ve got 10,000 or 20,000 employees, you’ve got a lot of revenue to protect and you’ve got to maintain certain quality standards. You will have chaos if that is a purely creative, open environment where everybody does whatever he or she feels like. You need to have some scale. You need to have some replicability, some reliability and some structure around it. Yet at the same time, that very structure creates a challenge because it leads to inertia. The more structure and process you put in, the harder it is to be creative.
I like where Rob was heading with this. Basically, you need a balance at the macro level, but also then tailor your part of the organization to what you’re trying to do. The part of the organization that does more exploration work, the new things, needs a bit more autonomy. The part of the organization that is in the process of thinking of improvements, or quickly scaling up a product or sales, needs to be a bit more in that hierarchical mode to be efficient. It’s a trade off between efficiency and effectiveness in many ways. And that balance needs to be maintained to be successful in the long run.
Shelton: You’re absolutely right. Getting the balance right is one of the challenges. Companies or organizations in general, for a long time, have been highly focused on incremental innovation. It’s served them well. But there’s a recognition that [companies] need to embrace innovation more broadly and to do more breakthrough innovation. Folks are trying to bring that about. But breakthrough innovation isn’t done exactly the same way as incremental innovation. The people, the processes, the location and organization vary because, as Saikat said, if you are working on small incremental improvements, you need a hierarchy and a focus on efficiency so that you don’t waste time or money [and you are able to] make the improvements. But if you’re looking for a breakthrough, you have to handle that in a way that allows folks to be insulated from the day to day and explore new opportunities and options.
We have seen very positive and successful examples over the past 10 years of organizations that have been able to do that — this duality of being able to maintain the incremental but also foster effective breakthrough innovation. This is one of the major areas of focus these days for an awful lot of organizations.
KWHS: It’s one thing to recognize the power and influence of innovation, and entirely something else to call yourself an innovator. What does it mean to be an innovative thinker and to embrace that “what if” approach?
Chaudhuri: That’s a really good question. I think you could say that some of it is inspired and some of it is personality. Some of it [also] has to do with the environment that you have around you. If you’re constantly challenged with thinking about how to solve major problems, that’s one way of increasing the chance that somebody will be an innovative person. That being said, I don’t know if everybody’s geared for that, or if everybody really wants to do that. I think there are people who are perfectly happy with implementing or improving existing things, [and] others who want to be truly innovative and promote the creation of absolutely new things to solve problems.
Shelton: I believe that people are inherently innovative, but not to the same degrees and not in the same areas. Some people do the breakthroughs: They see those, they’re able to work on them and they’re energized and driven towards them. Other people naturally are attracted to the small incremental innovations – again, highly valuable and important. Also, some people are better at the implementation of it. They see the value of innovation and they’ve had a twinkle in their eye about doing something similar. But they jump into the teamwork where you take that rough, brilliant idea and turn it into a functioning reality. I think that we may have thought about innovation too much as this genius who has a flash of insight. While that is part of innovation, there are other types of innovation. The roles of innovation are broader than just the flash of insight.
We need to broaden this definition of innovative thinker and begin to look at folks and say, “Where do you fit? What kind of innovation role do you want to play?” Then we help them do it. Once you’ve done that, you have to create the right environment for them. CEOs and executives [often tell me], “I’m not sure we really have innovative people in our company who can drive this level of creation.” And I say, “Well, you probably do, but you’ve been focused so long on operational excellence, improving efficiency and lowering costs, that [you can’t see their propensity for innovation]. If you gave them the chance, they would step up to the challenge and be energized by the opportunity to work in innovation.” So remember, you can take away or stifle people’s innovative interests with the wrong environment. The other part is you need to figure out what they’re good at so that you don’t send them to do breakthrough innovation, when in fact they’re best suited to do incremental innovation.
KWHS: What is the connection between innovation and creativity? You often hear those two words in the same breath.
Chaudhuri: I think creativity is one part of innovation. It may be the idea generation part or coming up with the possible solutions for something. But then thinking about how to make it come together, to actually put it together and to take it towards implementation [requires] an array of different skills. It’s one piece, but imagine a world where you only have great ideas. That’s [where] the creativity will lead you. But then those ideas are not translated into something, either a product, a process, a business model or something else that has impact, either in economic terms or in society.
KWHS: Christine Kelly of ShenendehowaCentral School in Clifton Park, N.Y., says her students are afraid of creativity and innovation because it is stifled in many subject areas. She asks, “How do we convince students that it’s okay to be creative and innovative thinkers?”
Chaudhuri: You could consider this a very loaded question, because there’s a larger debate at schools around [the purpose of] standardized testing and making sure [students] have a certain level [of knowledge]. That said, I think one important point is that people may not understand the purpose of creativity or innovation at a particular stage in life. They may think, okay, I need to see immediate results such as a test score, or admission to college, or something of that sort. But they may not see the value of doing things differently. They’d rather follow what they’re instructed to do.
[We can] introduce role models and say, “Do you use Google?” If people didn’t think differently, like Sergey Brin and Larry Page [Google’s founders], we wouldn’t have a search engine, for example. Do you use an iPad or do you use a tablet of some form?” You know that wouldn’t exist if people didn’t think differently, because nobody [would have thought] of creating something you could basically put your hand on and touch. Without innovation, we wouldn’t have these great things. We need to talk more about those role models.
The trouble is — and I understand the challenge — how do you make that abstract or that long-term thing something that’s immediate in [students’] lives? There we can turn to problem solving. We can say, “Hey, what are the things that you like? What are the things you don’t like? What things do you struggle with? Come up with a better way of approaching it.” That’s one exercise that we could use to help [students] live this.
Shelton: In thinking about the question, it has to do with creativity and innovation being stifled in many subject areas. Good role models are part of it, but the reality is that a lot of education is focused on memorization or application of proven capabilities [and] tools. There’s not a lot of room for creativity. That being said, these are valuable lessons that need to be learned.
In some situations, being innovative is extremely valuable. But there are places and times when it’s not. When I drive to work, I don’t think I ought to be wildly creative about how I drive to work. Certain forms and rules are important for us all to be safe. Understanding when to go for it on the innovation front and when not to is an important lesson. The general message that comes across – I’m speaking from my own experience here, personal as well as what I’ve observed — is [that] many schools assume [they’re] going to teach you to do the non-creative things and [expect] you to learn the other stuff elsewhere. I think [both innovation and rote learning] need to be included, but at the right times. Folks [need to] learn when they should turn on their innovation engine and be creative, and when they ought to just stick to the basics and learn how to manage a given tool. Does that make sense, Saikat?
Chaudhuri: Yes, it makes sense to me. I was thinking about the mechanisms that could be useful. Projects are very good ways of allowing people to be creative within those confines of producing something and applying techniques.
KWHS: Why is failure a critical part of innovation?
Shelton: I resist seizing on the word “failure”. The root of the word means to disappoint. It’s hard to tell people that you’ve got to be ready to disappoint over and over again. Instead, we ought to look at innovation and what works. What works are experiments where you test the hypotheses. “I think that this will work better if we do it this way,” or “I’ve got a different idea about how to accomplish that goal.”
You [then] run an experiment, a test to see whether that idea is right. And if it is, wow, you’ve got confirmation and, as we like to say, you have data. If I do X, I get Y. But if you try your hypothesis, test it and it doesn’t work, you have a discovery. It’s not a failure. What you’ve learned is what won’t work. [Thomas] Edison did this with his light bulb. How many filaments did he test? Hundreds before he found the right one? He was quoted, and I’m paraphrasing this, saying “If I try 10,000 things and they don’t work, I’m not disappointed. I now have insight into where I need to go to find the solution.”
While we need to encourage people to experiment, explore and develop data, and to discover what doesn’t work, I’d like to resist calling it failure. It’s hard to get people to buy into the idea of failing. Maybe at some point along the line, we’ll take that pejorative context out of the term. But for the time being, let’s talk about experimentation, exploration and learning. That’s what comes when you experiment; you learn what works and [what] doesn’t. Saikat, have I gone down a rabbit hole on this one? Or does your experience support that?
Chaudhuri: I fully agree. Experimentation is the focus. And the other thing that you implicitly said is [that] we focus a lot on the outcome of something and not enough sometimes on the journey or the process. That may be equally as important.
KWHS: Of course, assessment is very important to teachers. Jeanne Lazzarini of RAFT in San Jose, Calif., wonders how teachers might assess innovation in their students. Do you have any suggestions for that?
Shelton: That’s an intriguing question. I’m a big believer in metrics or ways to measure or assess. How are we doing? Are we going to succeed? Is this innovation successful? Are we being successful as a team? [There are] two things that you need to worry about — which [students] are wildly innovative and which have some modicum of capability? You might run experiments that way. You might give them challenges and find out who gravitates toward what problems and how well they solve them. So one, you’ll learn about native ability. If it’s a case of working with students to help improve their innovation capabilities [by] working in teams, problem solving and critical insight, then you want to measure how much they engage in the process. As Saikat said, it’s not just did they find the answer; it’s how engaged they were. How good were they at working with others and in challenging themselves and coming up with great experiments? All of the process steps are signs of a great innovator. [I would consider those two measures]: what kind of innovator are they, and how well do they engage.
Chaudhuri: It’s really interesting that this question is coming from a teacher who’s in the heart of Silicon Valley. I assume [she] thinks about this in many ways, and the firms around there also think about these questions. In terms of outcome, we can think about the number of ideas that simply come out, perhaps, or the number of approaches. But the process, how they engage, is also very critical because that’s what leads to these outcomes. That’s how we can actually influence it. We have this notion of the eureka moment from a lone inventor. That’s not what innovation is in practicality and reality. It is setting up a bunch of conditions, whether they’re processes or organizations, that allow people to come up with novel ways of thinking about certain problems. The best way to [assess innovation] is to give them certain problems to solve and see how well they fare, both in terms of the [process and the end results].
Shelton: [The very nature of innovation] being experimentation and trial lends itself to this idea of measuring. How would you measure how people are doing in innovation? You would set up some tests, some experiments. Let them see where they go and see how they engage. I think we’ve put a finger on something here that is inherent in both doing innovation and assessing innovation. You’ve got to ask how well do they experiment? How do they engage? Which areas attract them most? And then work on improving those skills.
You’re right; it’s interesting that this is coming from the heart of Silicon Valley, which right now is looking at new and better ways to innovate. And there is one other factor. We talk about innovation as if it’s a given. I think we consistently innovate the way we innovate. Some people may be good at products, services, widgets and new ways of working, [while others are] good at improving innovation.
KWHS: Many educators are considering how best to foster an environment that supports innovation, while also meeting the necessary classroom standards. In innovation, rather than identify right answers or wrong answers, the goal is to find a better way and to explore multiple possibilities. Kim Zocco of Archbishop Edward A McCarthy High School in Southwest Ranches, Florida, says college has become extremely competitive, and students only seem to want to get that GPA or SAT to a level that will gain entry to their desired college. They’re not interested in doing something for the sake of experiential learning. How can Kim and other teachers combat this and encourage students to embrace that spirit of experimentation in everything they do?
Shelton: I like the fact that she’s got the experimentation aspect right in the question. I don’t have a perfect answer for this. I do think that she’s right. There has been a focus on getting the scores right, getting into college. That’s because that model has worked. We’re moving past the point where a college credential is enough to give you a livelihood or to send you in a direction where you can do fun things and enjoy both your life and your professional career. We’re starting to see that the credential, just getting in, is not enough. It’s what you do while you’re there. What I’m referring to is to learn, experiment, find ways to mix a liberal arts course with a mathematics course. Try something you haven’t done and use that as a way to grow.
That is the future of college. I point to places like Google, companies in Silicon Valley and leaders around the world who don’t want to necessarily know your GPA. They want to know much more. What did you do? What experiment did you run? What new thing have you already shown yourself able to do? Do you think you could apply that where we work? That means attention to detail and the ability to execute. It’s not just [about having] a crazy idea. It means actually [following] through with it. That’s the new model. Kim, who asked the question, is going to be challenged to tell kids that just [having] a degree isn’t going to do it. But it’s part of the answer.
The other part is to let the students experiment and try innovation and get fired up, get their juices flowing about it. There’s nothing better than to see someone try something, really love the process of innovation and then start to have what we call a fire in the belly. They’ll carry that forward. Saikat, I’ve talked all the way around it. Do you have a better way of saying what I was trying to say?
Chaudhuri: I’ll augment with some of my thoughts. Even when colleges are looking at applicants these days, they’re not only looking at the SAT scores or the GPA. That’s almost a basic. It goes back to what you were saying earlier, Rob…. We do want some sense of aptitude, for example, but it’s not everything. That clears the first screen, if you will. After that, it is those students who are leaders, who have done creative things, who are novel in many ways; they’re the ones who can distinguish themselves. I would argue [that] the more competitive it gets to gain admission to the top schools in particular, the more you need to be creative and different in order to stand out amongst that pool.
The other part of the question deals with getting students interested in doing something for the sake of experiential learning, and encouraging them to embrace the spirit of experimentation. It’s important at that level to associate some kind of outcome with a form of experiential learning. Even if I do an experiential learning approach [in the classroom], like a case study or a simulation, if I just leave it at that, it may not be enough to convey all the material or the framework. Whether I give a straight lecture or I use a simulation or a case study to discuss concepts, at the end I use the slides to make sure that all the key points are understood. People need to feel like it’s not only experiential learning. [They need the concrete things they can] take away from it. That bridge needs to be crossed, as well.
KWHS: Charles Kafogilis of Incarnate Word Academy in Houston, Texas, asks, “What types of problems are appropriate for high schoolers to practice change and innovation?” We’ve touched on this already. We’ve talked a lot about experimentation, but experimentation [doesn’t happen solely] in the science lab. What might be some things that teachers can do in other subjects or other areas that would help to foster this experimentation in the classroom?
Chaudhuri: That’s a tough question, but a very important one. They have to be problems that students can relate to. It could be something as simple as improving the layout of the cafeteria so that the line is not so long. Or, come up with a better way of marketing our school. Or, think of different approaches to making the garden greener. Or, we use too much energy; can you guys do an audit and figure out how we can use less electricity at the school? Giving simple problems of that sort that they can relate to will help foster the creativity and the innovative spirit, especially if they see some kind of outcome and implementation, and they’re able to get a tangible benefit or result out of it.
Students who come [to Wharton] and to other universities already have [business] start-up ideas at the age of 16, 17, 18, which is quite remarkable. I’m very glad that I was admitted at a different time. People are thinking creatively. You have [other] ways of engaging. Create an app, for example, for an Android or an iPhone platform. That’s something within certain people’s reach. Or you’ve got Lego clubs with robotics and other things. That can also be encouraged for those [who are] a bit more technically inclined.
KWHS: You also mentioned case studies. How might they be used?
Chaudhuri: Case studies are a method where you can give a situation and students can respond to it. You need to learn things that are more fundamental in nature. Once you’ve covered those basic principles, then you can go to the mode of case studies to say, “Hey, here’s a situation, how would you approach it?” That works in pretty much any subject area. It’s [also looking at] how you’re approaching it, which is more important than what you come up with in the end.
Shelton: I’ll add some tricks of the trade, so to speak. Case studies are great because they challenge and they [encourage] people to work in a collaborative environment. Another approach is to take a story about someone who did it well. It could be someone who found a new technology or someone who solved a water shortage problem in African villages or dealt with an issue of education in an emerging country. Get the case study, look at it, talk about what they did that worked, what was it that they did, how did they see the problem, what was it that led them to success? And then say, how could we [apply] the learning here to some problems we face? We have a water issue here. We can’t use the same solution that they used in Africa, but what’s the analytical process? What was it that led to success that we might be able to use here? Have [the students] work it out, even begin to think about how they would test whether that approach would work. Experiment, so to speak.
I like the idea of learning from others and saying, “How do I use that?” That’s one of the things that good innovators do, or at least some of the time. Why not teach kids to do it as part of the curriculum?
KWHS: Lou DiCesare of Irondequoit High School in Rochester, New York, wants to know what you recommend to educators to encourage more risk taking, creativity and innovative projects in the classroom, especially in the context of core curriculum assessments that are taking students away from practicing critical thinking skills? I know we’ve touched on this in other answers. But the way he asks it I think is thought provoking. [Do] you have some suggestions?
Shelton: I think you need to educate the educators, if I can be clichéd about it. They need to encourage more risk taking and creativity. It’s not taking away from practical thinking skills; it’s augmenting [those skills]. You need to have the basic critical capabilities. But you also need some additional thinking and creativity skills that will augment it. You need to come out of the curriculum, the school, with capabilities in both. Educators have got to realize that.
[For] example, many universities have suddenly had a wakeup call that a lot of the traditional approaches they were using were leaving out sufficient creativity and innovation, or at least the application of it. Now that they’ve made up for that, some are way ahead in that area, but many of them have stepped up to that and made changes in their curriculum because they were too unbalanced. They were skewed towards the application of what’s known, as opposed to the teaching about how to be innovative and to create the next thing.
That’s what educators need to realize before they’ll change. And by the way, this is the same challenge that you face in business. If what you’re doing is working, it’s hard to convince the senior folks to change it. You have to point out that there are deficiencies and there are opportunities that are unrealized. Those can motivate change. Otherwise, it’s an uphill battle to convince someone to change something that seems to be working very well. People are resistant to change unless they can see the benefit.
Chaudhuri: [I’d like to] tie together the points that we were talking about earlier. Do a lot of projects where you get to bring people together, solve problems in new ways and transfer and apply those things in a different context to learning. Case studies are very useful tools, and possibly simulations and other techniques. Another way might also be to try and engage — per Rob’s point — with people who’ve done interesting things. We’ve got [the technological means], so you can connect with people virtually and have an interesting conversation with interesting people. For me, a lot of this [creativity encouragement] is about inspiration, about seeing the value, about seeing the long-term benefit, about getting enthused and excited about it. And yet at the same time, I’d make the point [that it is also important to] learn the basics, then go have fun and apply this in the context that’s really perhaps of interest to you, as well. Play with it.
Shelton: I like your point about inspiration because if you don’t have inspired people, they may want to change but they won’t make the effort. That key piece of the equation [also needs to be] addressed.
KWHS: I agree that inspiring the students is important. But I think the teachers need to be inspired, too, around innovation. Patricia Page of East Greenwich High School in Greenwich, Rhode Island, turns this innovation focus to teacher training. She asks, “What systems and structures need to be put in place in the teacher preparation program to ensure those who are entering the profession will use strategies in their classrooms that support innovative approaches to solving problems?” It goes back to that point of educating the educators.
Shelton: Educating the educators is sort of a broad statement, but [it is more about] the practical applications, the inspiration, the stories of what worked and what didn’t, the case studies and the simulations. Teachers need to be exposed to that. Based on what I see in many organizations — government and business and the like — most teachers have not been exposed to all of those items, or if they have they weren’t necessarily delivered in ways that they can take and apply practically in their classrooms. They’re not sufficiently prepared. They need to have modules that help them set up experiments, that provide the case studies [and] the inspirational stories that will allow them to go make this happen.
They need to experiment and figure out which ones work the best and learn as they go forward. This will be an innovation in education. The lesson is, “Let’s experiment. Let’s find out what works and what doesn’t, and then learn from that and make the changes.”
Chaudhuri: This question is good because the teacher recognizes where the issue might be — that they’re not prepared to enact and implement, even despite having good intentions about doing it. Exposure is absolutely critical. [Educators] could be forced to go through the same exercises themselves. Have them do simulations, case studies and projects in order to work on these kinds of problems and develop new ideas.
We see it in the university environment very clearly. Students even at the best high schools are used to certain kinds of work and assignments when they come into the college environment. [Once here], the nature of the activities, assignments, deadlines and responsibilities changes. Some make that transition very easily, whereas others struggle a bit. Preparing everyone, both students and the teachers, is very important in plugging that gap. We take for granted here at college these other tools we have at our disposal. Without a project, a simulation and cases, no course — at least that I teach — would be complete.
Part of the problem might be time and resource allocation. There has to be some recognition at higher levels that [this type of hands-on classroom learning] is important. Teachers might form groups where they’re interested in promoting this. [They could come] together and collaborate across schools, even come up with new designs or modules for curricula. [Teachers] know a lot about [this experimental approach], too. We need to bundle these ideas together and facilitate how they can then turn them into actual curricula.
Shelton: I think you just developed a business plan for something that we need to go commercial on.
KWHS: Sounds like it. [Can you offer educators] advice on how to negotiate with or persuade administrations to embrace innovation? A lot of times they’re up against core curriculum standards and other things that fit into a tight structure. What would you recommend to teachers who might be passionate about innovation and want to take it one step further, but feel frustrated that they don’t have the ability to do so?
Shelton: My simple advice is to start really small. Sometimes people try to change the whole system. There’s time for that. But I do believe that running a little experiment, trying something, seeing how it works, learning and developing the data, the understanding to say, “Ah, this works,” makes for a more convincing argument than simply arguing the theoretical need to make changes. I’d encourage them to be entrepreneurial and to use their passion to create programs and validate that they really work, as opposed to demanding that people adopt more innovation. Those people may not see the value in it. If you can show that the students loved it — that it was 30 minutes of pure excitement, and look what happened — I think you have a more compelling case than simply banging on the desk or pushing hard and continually to convince people. Showing them is better than telling them.
Chaudhuri: I wholeheartedly agree with that because we need catalyst to create change. I’d go back to what Rob was saying earlier: point out the deficiencies. Our students could do X, if they were only able to do this. Or, look at the kids from that school who did very well; look at what they did slightly differently. Then form groups in the school to try and do these things on the side until somebody picks up on it and supports it with some resources.
Shelton: You made me think of one more thing, which is to reach out to others who are like-minded. Use the network of innovators so that you can learn from others. You may also get a case study of not only what you did, but what others have done. It gives you more information to use to engage people in discussion. It’s not just what you tried in your classroom; you [also provide 10 additional] examples. It makes for a compelling argument. These are the catalysts for change. If you want to innovate in education, you’ve got to use some of the best practices. Be part of a network, an ecosystem — prototype, test, experiment and then go about making the changes and getting people to adopt them. It’s not a case of winning a battle in a [single] room. It’s really a case of going and making things happen.
KWHS: Thank you both for this great discussion about innovation and the art of problem-solving.