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Creating Something Better: Five Truths about Innovating in Companies Today

Dan Trowsdale of University of Leeds talks about new FutureLearn online course on innovating

A new MOOC offered via Futurelearn just started, Innovation: the Key to Business Success. It is taught by four instructors at the University of Leeds, in partnership with Marks & Spencer the giant UK retailer.

Class Central spoke with Dan Trowsdale, one of the instructors, who teaches product design at the School of Mechanical Engineering at the university.

Dan Townsdale

People love to talk about ‘disruptive innovations‘, and everyone has predictions about what will have a massive impact, such as 3D printing, personalized medicine, (insert anything Google is doing), crowdfunding, or even MOOCs(!). But the fact is that most innovation happens on a incremental basis, and companies like Marks & Spencer must continuously innovate, whether this is offering a new clothing category or changing the way it interacts with customers. Each product or a service that a company offers must be designed, and this design function is a source of creativity and innovation within most companies.

Dan has experience working in product design in companies, and also has the perspective of educational research about this field. From our conversation with him, five key trends came out:

1. A greater emphasis on interacting with consumers to inspire new ideas. In the past, many innovations were developed in R&D labs, but now, more innovations are being developed through observing and interacting with consumers. This is certainly true in the Lean Startup movement, as articulated by Steve Blank. But a greater focus on the customer is a trend across all types of businesses. Dan says:

People in research and development now are much more engaged with consumers; the are much more reaching outside of organizations and looking for new ideas 

2. Organizations need to rely on multidisciplinary teams to pursue innovations. With most innovations, a good idea is not enough; an example from Marks & Spencer is the development of washable fabrics for clothing that traditionally required professional cleaning. This was based on a technical chemical innovation, but also included supporting innovations in manufacturing, design, and marketing to help develop viable products.

3. People across business functions need to think very creatively. Our world is becoming more complex, so we need to think more creatively in order to develop innovations. In the past, and still today, people equate creativity with having an artistic sense, and use labels of ‘creative’ versus ‘analytical’. But this is a false distinction–creativity is used by everyone, in their everyday lives. As  Dan says:

People do pigeonhole themselves, and if they’re not artistic (maybe they can’t draw or paint), they can easily think of themselves not being creative. But they shouldn’t. Everyone has a creativity within them 

4. Innovations are not limited to products, but can be applied to other aspects of the business. Companies are often organized to develop product innovations, with engineering and product design teams explicitly focused on this. But “talking about products specifically is a vary narrow section of innovation” says Dan. Take the example of Wal-Mart, one of the ten most valuable companies in the world. Does it create many products? Probably not very many. But has it been innovative? If you ask any operations or logistics experts, you will find that it innovated on so many areas of distribution and supply chain that it was able to provide unique value: super-low prices. Wal-Mart has a market cap of $250B, so its innovations are clearly quite valuable.

5. Great innovations require lot of trying, failing, and even play. By definition, innovating involves a great deal of uncertainty and is not entirely predictable (though some resources can help, such as the books Design Thinking, and Serious Play, recommended by Dan). Thus, the key is to have the courage to try different things, and the perseverance to keep this up even when things don’t work out. This is just as true in a startup environment as it is in a department of a large company. Dan’s advice in pursuing innovation is to put the ideas in front of potential customers:

The best advice I would give is to test it out in the market. Get it in front of people and see what they think…the more iterations you can go through, the better 

The MOOC itself is modeling the way by being innovative. Dan is co-teaching the course with three instructors from different departments of the university, and their collaboration should result in unique perspectives–Dan has made mention of ‘debates’ they have had around the topic of innovation. Also, the University of Leeds has a unique partnership with Marks & Spencer (who originated in Leeds), where the company has opened its archives to university researchers and has offered access to its executives. One unique activity in the MOOC will be to present a real global challenge that we are all facing and ask the participants of the MOOC to submit ideas. This type of practical application to real-world problems is exactly what most MOOCs are missing, and may inspire some very innovative ideas.

If you are interested in innovation, it is still not too late to join the 14,000+ who have signed up for the MOOC, Innovation: the Key to Business Success.

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