Leading innovation in the real world

Terry Kosdrosky, University of Michigan - Ross School of Business
Tags: business management

With corporate budgets tight and customers ever more demanding, C-level executives are looking for self-starting leaders with imagination – the kind of imagination that transcends expectations. In a word, they need innovators.

But leading innovation is not something one learns from a book, says Ross professor Jeff DeGraff. It's a skill that only can be developed through practice. His fall 2010 management and organizations course "Leading Creativity and Innovation" (MO 563) involves not only innovation theory, but also collaboration with a real client seeking a strategic solution to a real problem. Most recently that client was The Henry Ford, a Dearborn, Mich., museum and historical village, seeking direction on how best to utilize its assets to foster innovation.

"Most classes deal with theory. And while we start with theory, the other half is learning innovation methodology – from strategy to product design – in a way that cuts across the back end," says DeGraff, clinical professor of business administration at Ross. "So students have to very quickly apply what they've learned. This is 'see one, do one, teach one' education. You're never going to learn to innovate by drawing up a bunch of PowerPoint slides. You have to actually do it."

DeGraff teaches the course with Ross School lecturer Michael Tschirhart and Pete Bacevice, a PhD candidate in the University of Michigan's School of Education. They bring Ross students and their clients to the Innovatrium, an "innovation community" within walking distance of the Ross School. The site serves as an idea market, think tank, and research lab. A hub for creative brainstorming, the interior is covered in writable surfaces, from the tabletops to the walls.

Ryan Whisnant, a third-year MBA/MS student, says having a class that focuses solely on innovation is something he's had his eye on for a while.

"Being able to lead a process of innovation is valuable in any role no matter where you go," he says. "This is the only class I know that really focuses on taking a structured approach to innovation. Throughout the six weeks we were working on the project with the client while learning a new set of skills."

Students were divided into teams of varying backgrounds so they could discover and play on one another's strengths. Each team made a presentation to senior leaders of The Henry Ford, and then went on to write a more extensive proposal for the class.

"In a business school, you have some people with long histories of working in a creative space, you have other people who are engineer-types learning business, and you have business students who know about monetizing things," DeGraff says. "We mix them up."

For second-year MBA student Diana Economy, that mixing was the right approach. Economy comes from the human resources field, and plans to use her MBA to apply human capital concepts at the intersection of the public and private sectors.

"Those intersections of fields are where the resources and innovations are shared," she says.

Economy was sold on the class after seeing an orientation presentation by DeGraff as part of the Ross Leadership Initiative. Working with a real client on a strategic plan – and in a space outside the school – energized the class, she says.

"The setting was so interesting because it was nice to get out of the school and see another part of campus," she says. "The space at the Innovatrium really gives you the ability to interact with your peers and the client."

Economy's group suggested The Henry Ford position itself as a center for collaboration, bringing together public and private sector leaders to spur innovation.

Whisnant's group recommended the museum leverage its knowledge, assets, and the oninnovation.org Web site to connect companies to an innovation platform. The team also floated the idea of The Henry Ford hosting national innovation summits.

The teams sent their proposals to an idea market where venture capitalists and others could comment on and rate them.

Whether or not The Henry Ford accepted the students' proposals was secondary to the actual experience, says Economy. She found that engaging in debate and constructive argument was central to learning about the innovation process.

Added Whisnant, "The recommendations are intended to be transformative and challenge the status quo, so if the client doesn't leave the final presentation at least a little uncomfortable, then it missed the mark."

"When Ross says 'Leading in Thought and Action,' this is what it looks like," Tschirhart says. "This course is more about being a case study than reviewing a case study."

Whisnant's post-graduation plan involves managing sustainability for an IT company in New York. He says the leading innovation class has been good preparation for his future in business.

"I know there will be times when we are going to sit down and come up with a completely new way of doing something," he says. "There's no way one person can manage the sustainability programs for an entire company. It's about tapping the creativity and knowledge that's there." 

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