Thinking Like an Innovator: The Power of Experimentation

It’s one thing to recognize the power and influence of innovation, and entirely something else to call yourself an innovator. In this third part of a four-part audio podcast for educators on innovation and the art of problem-solving, Saikat Chaudhuri, executive director of the Mack Institute of Innovation Management at the Wharton School; and Rob Shelton, global innovation strategy lead at PwC, discuss the connection between innovation and creativity, and why experimentation is critical to developing innovation skills. In addition to sharing their own insights, the featured speakers also answer questions from high school educators. Read More

by Diana Drake

This is part three of our four-part innovation discussion. Here, we are exploring how to think like an innovator.

Welcome to the PwC-KWHS Podcast Series for High School Educators on Business and Financial Responsibility. 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 [with Drake in the studio] is an adjunct associate professor of management and executive director of the Mack Institute for Innovation Management at the Wharton School. Rob Shelton [joining by phone] 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: 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?

Saikat 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.

Rob 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: Thank you both for this great discussion about innovation and the art of problem solving.

For the full podcast (about 60 minutes) on “Innovation and the Art of Problem Solving,” please visit the KWHS educators’ professional development page. 

Related Links

Conversation Starters

Where do you fit into the innovation spectrum? What kind of role do you want to play as an innovator?

Think about the use of the concept “discovery,” rather than “failure.” Does this change the way you think about failing at something? How so?

Does this podcast encourage you to want to be a more innovative thinker? Do you know someone who is particularly innovative? How do they approach life differently?

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