This article was written as one of the requirements to obtain the Innovation Mentor Certification at CIMp. The CIMp program is part of iVia, The Way of Innovation™, founded by The University of Notre Dame, Whirlpool Corporation and Beacon Health System. Learn more at http://innovationcertification.nd.edu/
It all began in 2012. A group of friends and colleagues from Whirlpool Corporation, Memorial Hospital of South Bend-Indiana, and University of Notre Dame first dreamed of creating a different kind of Innovation Certification Program. - One that would combine the innovation history of Whirlpool and Memorial Hospital with the academic excellence of the University of Notre Dame. It would offer a comprehensive and rigorous overview of world’s leading innovation methodologies, regardless of their source. It would provide students with hands-on opportunities to solve real-life challenges. Most importantly, it would be delivered by industry-leading innovation practitioners for innovation practitioners.
The best learning is learning by doing. - What started as a back-of-the-napkin sketch of the program objectives in 2012 transformed into a Certified Innovation Mentor Program Pilot in 2013. By mid-2014, the Pilot graduated its first cohort of 15 students. The first 15 were seasoned business professionals who had come from 11 companies. These ranged from industry giants (John Deere) to a Silicon Valley startup (Kinnevo), from manufacturers (Bobcat, Dell) to health care & energy providers (Mt. Carmel Health System, Exelon), from seasoned innovation consultancies (Infinium) to companies newly embarking on innovation journey (Saint-Gobain), from for-profits (Sonoco) to not-for-profits (YMCA). The learning had been dynamic and hands-on, the discussions – spirited. After the Certified Innovation Mentor Pilot (CIMp) concluded, the 15 went back to their companies equipped with knowledge, inspiration and newly-built friendships.
The Pilot was a success. It generated significant interest. A number of companies who participated in the first Pilot requested to send additional students in the future. The word spread to new companies and countries. - From that point forward, our goal was to get ahead of the wave. We challenged ourselves to create a long-term strategy that would propel the first Certified Innovation Mentor Pilot to a sustained, world-class, standard-of-excellence program.
The Questions & The Process
Although I am not in a position to share with the reader the CIMp strategy itself, I will do the next best thing: describe the innovation process we used to add a method to our madness and create building blocks for such a strategy.
The questions we asked ourselves were:
Who are we? (What are our strengths? Blind spots?)
Whom do we serve? (Who is our customer? What is their pain?)
Who else is out there? (What other sources of innovation knowledge are addressing customer need?)
What is our inspiration? (What trends might inform us? What organizations have solved a similar challenge?)
How? (How might we put this knowledge together to create strategy building blocks?)
Below is the process that we followed. Its purpose was to gain deeper insight into ourselves, our customers and our environment in order to inform our strategy. It was also to generate a series of new critical “So what?” questions in order to build a strategy that is robust.
Who Are We?
We gathered together the representatives from each of the three CIMp founding members: Whirlpool Corporation, University of Notre Dame and Memorial Hospital of South Bend. - We asked ourselves:
What are the capabilities that make our organizations uniquely valuable in the eyes of consumers? - We have, for example, concluded that the three founding organizations share the capability of “Values-Based Leadership”. That means living and doing business in alignment with our core values – relentless pursuit of excellence, honesty, integrity, and positive impact to the world. – The “So what” questions that emerged were: How might this capability help us create competitive advantage? Enable us to attract students?
What assumptions are we making that might render us vulnerable? – We listed the ones that we felt needed further validation. One example was: “Innovation certification is of value” to employers and innovation professionals alike. - We then scrutinized this assumption in interviews with innovation practitioners. Their reactions varied. However the following theme emerged: In order for the certification to carry objective value, it needs to be universally accepted across industries and companies as a proof of innovation competency and leadership potential of its bearer. It needs to enable that person to stand out. – The “So what” question we raised was: What role might we play in building a community of member-organizations who would establish and promote the standards of innovation profession and drive its certification value?
Whom Do We Serve?
We sought feedback from the 15 students who joined the first Pilot, as well as from a broader group of roughly 50 U.S. innovation professionals. We learned that innovation practitioners are busy people whose leadership expects them to deliver results, now. They have little time to spend in innovation training, yet such education is essential to their success. They may still be growing in their innovation role, yet there is little room for a learning curve: innovation savvy is expected of them at all times to make quality decisions. They seek know-how that is “hands-on” and readily applicable to their organizations, yet many innovation conferences and programs offer only high-level knowledge that is often a challenge to apply. They crave interaction with other professionals who have “walked in their shoes” yet meaningful networks are tough to build. – These findings inspired numerous “So what” questions. Many boiled down to “How might we best enable people to learn what, when and where they need while building meaningful relationships?” “How might we deliver innovation lessons that are actionable?”
Who Else Is Out There?
We then investigated other sources of innovation knowledge that are available to innovation professionals. We had naively thought we were among the pioneers in the market! After an initial - even cursory - investigation we discovered that the market was already filled with competitive options. – A broad sweep of the competition allowed us to narrow our list to a handful of key players whom we chose to investigate further. These were the providers who delivered most compelling value in ways that uniquely differed from one another. We then defined a dozen or so dimensions of competition (unique ways of value delivery) that we felt were critical to success in innovation education. Among them were Customization (degree to which a program customized its offerings to the needs of a student), Industry Expertise (degree to which a program specialized in a particular industry set), and Credibility (degree to which a program has been able to create a valued, recognized, and coveted brand name). We plotted each of the key competitors, as well as ourselves, against these and a number of other competitive dimensions, as the players stand today. We then plotted new positions which our program aspired to achieve in the future. – The “So what?” questions we asked included: “How might we leverage our strengths to build credibility against the tough competitors?” “How might we compete - or collaborate - with some of these names?”
What Is Our Inspiration?
Inspiration comes in different shapes and sizes. We drew ours from the trends around us and the entities that have solved similar challenges, albeit in a different context.
We looked at a variety of “inspirational” trends that are likely to shape the future of our program: From “Edutainment”, to “Gamification”, to “Design-Your-Own Curriculum”, and more. -- Gone are the days of dry lectures. Global audiences expect an engaging delivery of educational messages that are both thought-provoking and entertaining. (Just look at popular examples such as “TED Talks” and “The Daily Show”). Businesses and schools are using gaming platforms to teach subjects ranging from multiplication to strategy. Students expect programs that are customized to their individual goals. -- “How might we create a dynamic learning environment that keeps students asking for more?” “How might we attract the most engaging thought-leaders?” “How might we maintain a spirited dialog with and among our students during and beyond the program?”
We then considered “inspirational” entities that have already found ways to address challenges similar to the ones we face: “How might we deliver value that encourages people to seek innovation certification?” “How might we offer an environment that makes transformational learning also a joy?” - Professional associations are already creating value that drives people to seek their certification. MBA programs and career transition counselors are already designing life-transforming opportunities for many. Discoveries in neuroscience already inform us about ways to create great learning environments that encourage discovery, promote joy of learning, and keep students asking for more. – “What might we learn from these approaches?”
The Tool. As you see from the story above, our quest for better understanding of our customer, ourselves, and our environment sparked many new and exciting questions. - How do we now use our newly-acquired understanding to create opportunities that would propel our fledgling program to a new level? - It was time to “pull it all together” and choose the best “tool” to do so. - Our tool of choice became an “I-Lab”. It stands for “Innovation Lab”, a workshop that pulls together a diverse group of participants who are intimately familiar with the challenge at hand and are in a position to offer new and fresh perspectives on its resolution.
The Participants. We were honored to have a number of creative individuals who volunteered to work with us. - During our consumer interviews, we could not help but sense the passion with which many of our respondents shared the experiences and challenges that their companies and they personally had faced on their innovation journeys. Such a response gave us confidence that we have spotted a real need. - We used the consumer interviews as an opportunity to invite the interested parties to continue their dialog with us. We welcomed them to participate in our I-Lab. We also invited the students of the first CIMp pilot cohort.
In a matter of two seeks, we had 25 innovation professionals from 16 companies who committed to join the I-Lab. They ranged from seasoned innovation consultants and business leaders, to entrepreneurial managers newly building the innovation culture in their companies, to creative individuals who bore no innovation titles whatsoever. They represented Alexian Brothers, Bobcat, GolinHarris, Hershey, Imaginatik, Infinium, John Deere, Johnson Controls, Johnsonville Sausage, KILN, Memorial Hospital of South Bend, Second City Players, Sonoco, University of Notre Dame, Whirlpool Corporation, and YMCA. – All traveled to the University of Notre Dame South Bend campus to join the I-Lab. - We had one evening and one day to accomplish our goal.
The Goal. Our goal for the I-Lab was to generate a rich number of Certified Innovation Mentor program opportunities. These opportunities had to be compelling, address the need of our consumers, leverage our strengths, and offer our program competitive advantage that is not easy to copy. We would later use these opportunities as building blocks to create the CIMp strategy that would sustain the program for years to come.
Day 1. We started the first evening by getting our participants thoroughly familiar with the results of our findings about “Who are we?”, “Whom do we serve?”, “Who else is out there?”, and “What is our inspiration?” - Our intent was to inundate people with information, spark questions, and provoke discussions. The conversations continued into the night. Before the participants were ready to retire to their hotel rooms, we gave each person a printed book with the summary of the findings we shared earlier that evening – to allow those interested to dive even deeper.
Day 2. The following morning all were up bright and early. The magnificent views of the Notre Dame University provided an inspiring backdrop. The two activities on that day’s agenda were “Smash the Findings” and “Create the Opportunities”.
“Smash the Findings”. In this activity, we asked the participants to juxtapose the findings from two-to-three of our findings categories (“Who are we?” “Whom do we serve?” etc.) at a time – and generate as many as possible idea fragments about opportunities that might result from such juxtaposition. Each team was instructed to dwell no longer than a few seconds on each juxtaposition – to keep the pace moving. The “So what?” questions helped spur additional creativity. -- In the following 90 minutes our teams generated several hundred idea fragments. We then used these fragments as inputs to our next activity – “Create the Opportunities”.
“Create the Opportunities”. In this activity, we laid out the idea fragments from the prior session on the tables. We asked the participants to look for groups of fragments that could be combined. We then challenged the people to tell a story of the “opportunity” that unifies their group of fragments. Each story had to address: Who is the consumer that will benefit from this opportunity? What is their pain? How might the opportunity resolve the pain? How might it be sustainable? Etc.) Participants worked individually or in groups. Then each person or team shared their opportunity stories.
The Opportunities. By the end of the day, we generated over 40 opportunities (strategy building blocks) that addressed areas ranging from new markets we might target, to new program content we might introduce, to resources beyond the program we might offer, to ways of customizing the program to individual needs, and more. Below are just a few examples:
“Choose Your Own Adventure” – Develop a diagnostic that takes into account a prospective student’s goals, values and innovation experience to build a personalized development path during and beyond the program.
“Innovation Treasure Trove” – Build a library of resources that enables innovation professionals at all levels of expertise to keep abreast of innovation knowledge and tap into a network of experts and colleagues.
“Heart Network” – Create a menu of projects with considerable societal impact that students can self-select to participate in.
Each of these strategy building blocks addressed – directly or indirectly – both the challenges faced by our consumer and the opportunities offered by our strengths, market trends, and our newly-acquired knowledge.
When I look back at the most valuable learnings we gained, I suggest these:
“To be prepared is half the victory.” – Miguel de Cervantes
One cannot overestimate the importance of high-quality discovery findings:
Our discovery work to respond to “Whom do we serve?” question led us to develop sharper focus on who our target student is and what they look for in an innovation program. In the short-term, it allowed us to better target our resources. (For the second-year CIMp, we re-defined our curriculum, student recruiting approaches, and guest speaker selection strategies). In the long-term, it provided us with a clear lens through which to identify and select strategic opportunities.
Our responses to “Who are we?”, “What is our inspiration?” and other discovery questions defined our program’s challenges and provided a clear focus for the I-Lab. – This clarity of focus produced high-quality opportunities (strategy building blocks).
“The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire.” - Ferdinand Foch
The passion of our I-Lab participants is what distinguished this event. - Through consumer interviews and within our own CIMp student body we discovered people who were “on fire” about helping build a program that unites and builds strong innovation practitioners. Many volunteered to participate in the I-Lab; others offered to provide ongoing feedback for the fledgling program. What started as sincere enthusiasm during the interviews transformed into deeper quality of ideas and concepts during the I-Lab and beyond.
“We need diversity of thought in the world to face the new challenges.” – Tim Berners-Lee
The quality of our I-Lab outcomes was largely a result of the diversity of the participants whom we welcomed: ones with lots of experience in innovation and ones with none, ones from manufacturing, consumer products, food industry, healthcare, advertising, consulting, university, even comedy. – It was inspiring and humbling to observe how this multifaceted group worked together, building on each other’s ideas, drawing on their colleagues’ perspectives to create thoughtful and sometimes unexpected opportunity concepts.
“You can’t wait for inspiration; you have to go after it with a club.” – Jack London
Inspiration and creativity don’t have to happen by accident. – Successful events are designed to purposely keep both at their peak. I already mentioned the importance of the quality of the findings and the diversity of the participants that you bring to the I-Lab. -- In fact, every detail of I-Lab preparation is important and must work in tandem to advance your outcomes. Just a few questions you might ask yourselves are: What am I trying to accomplish with this I-Lab? Who might offer valuable perspectives? What type of exercises will I use? What size and composition of teams will work best? Who will facilitate? How might I keep creativity at peak? Etc. -- Yet innovation often does not happen “as planned”. So stay attuned to the discussion, and keep flexible to re-arrange your original plan “on the go”.
“If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” – John Wooden.
We took approximately 5-6 weeks and four people working part-time to prepare for the I-Lab. We were successful because we had the guidance of an experienced consultant who had a few of such projects under her belt and who steered us through the ups and downs. In retrospect, I recommend that you allow yourself more time and/or more resources. When working on a large and complex project with multiple teams preparing discovery findings (responses to “Who are we?” “Whom do we serve? Etc), 3 months might be a more comfortable timeline.
“The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” – Nelson Mandela
In the end, the outcomes of our I-Lab left lots of room for interpretation. The future strategy of the CIMp program and the exact levers that would lead to its success were up to us to define. It took courage to create from the many idea fragments the full mosaic that was our own point of view about what the CIMp strategy should look like. Success is by no means a guarantee. Building the Certified Innovation Mentor program is a journey. And on this journey we are determined to continue to discover, learn, create, persevere, be fearless – and enjoy!
WE WELCOME YOUR THOUGHTS!
Dear reader, please share -
What would an ideal innovation continuous learning experience look and feel like to you?
What would make it worth your while?
What would make it world-class?
What would keep you coming back for more?