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Monday, October 24, 2011

"Teaching Innovation"

How does one learn to innovate?

As chief economist for the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council for more than 16 years now, a weekly newspaper columnist for over a decade-and-a-half, and teaching in Dowling College's MBA program for four-plus years, my work requires thinking and communicating a great deal about how the economy and businesses function.

The processes of both teaching and learning never really stop. For example, with Thomas Sargent being named a co-winner of this year's Nobel Prize in economics, it got me back to exploring his work in rational expectations theory, which allowed me to learn a bit more about how that school of thinking could be applied to today's economic policy challenges.

For good measure, interactions in the classroom, and speaking with various business owners and managers mean that I gain new insights on business operations, planning, and decision-making, for example. It was my classroom work, along with writing a newspaper column, that particularly got me thinking about different, and entertaining, sources that might supply lessons for career and business management. That, in turn, resulted in my latest book titled "Chuck" vs. the Business World: Business Tips on TV, in which I look at a wide array of business and career tips courtesy of the NBC television series "Chuck."

Among the courses I teach is one in innovation and entrepreneurship. And an article in The Wall Street Journal's Technology section on October 17 provided some valuable insights - again, learning opportunities - on how to make people better innovators.

The piece ("Innovation 101"), written by Carolyn Geer, focused on the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University. Called the, it is a non-degree program meant to make people better innovators - aiming "to help students unlock their creative potential by teaching them to become, among other things, more open to experimentation, more comfortable with ambiguity and less afraid of failure."

Those certainly are areas to focus on to get people to be more innovative. The attempts to do so by a process that features an "experience" whereby students research and identify a problem, including through direct observation; "ideation," or brainstorming potential solutions; and then a prototype is created for the solution. The program is rooted in a few basic beliefs, i.e., learn by doing, collaboration, and an equal voice for all in the process.

In the end, a big point of this program to teach people to become better innovators is to overcome their fear of failure. They want people to have the confidence and courage to go out and take risks.

Isn't it amazing that when talking about innovation - whether at the business level or in terms of public policy - the issues of risk taking and failure always come up? This Wall Street Journal piece is well worth reading in its entirety. But while reading, keep two questions related to risk and failure in mind.

The first is a business management and career question: While we can talk about the need for risk taking and the reality of failure, are you prepared both as an individual and a manager to encourage risk taking and properly deal with failure (again, understanding it as a learning opportunity)?

The second question deals with public policy: Do U.S. policymakers truly understand the roles of both risk taking and failure in the economy, and do policies reflect this reality - in particular, reducing the governmental costs that discourage and drain resources away from critical economic risk taking, and not subsidizing failure? Like I said, we all have much to learn, and that includes those making public policy for the past four years.


Raymond J. Keating is chief economist for the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council. His new book is "Chuck" vs. the Business World: Business Tips on TV.

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