How to Prepare College Students to Innovate

Several years ago, when my nephew enrolled in business school at the University of Southern California, I asked him to ping me whenever the topic of innovation came up. He pinged very little. As an innovation speaker and expert, I’ve long been frustrated with the lack of innovation in the teaching of this increasingly vital topic. The one course he took devoted to innovation was tedious, taught by a Deloitte accountant.

Organizations need to create cultures of innovation to survive and thrive in the mid-21st century business environment of constant technological transformation and ever-shifting customer demands. Yet half of America’s top colleges still don’t offer courses on innovation. Many that do, teach it from a theoretical perspective.

But now things are beginning to change. As academia is under pressure to become more relevant to what is happening in the larger society.

In 2014, Len Ferman was invited to develop a course on innovation for the University of North Florida. The course has since become something of a role model for other colleges.  Ferman is the former head of ideation for companies like Bank of America and AT&T. He sought to design an entry-level course that is light on theory and heavy on practice. His approach gives students a sense of how real world innovators operate. I recently sat down with Len to learn about how he’s innovating the teaching of innovation.

Robert Tucker:  Len, you spent 25 years as an innovation manager and a consultant at Fortune 500 companies.  So what made you decide to take on this challenge?

Len Ferman:  Working in the innovation field taught me to pay attention to gaps and unmet needs. When they invited me to serve as adjunct faculty, I couldn’t help but notice two gaps in the way the subject was being taught.  First, the major disciplines including marketing, management and organizational behavior don’t provide a focus on innovation which is cross-disciplinary.  Second, most college courses involve one-way teaching.  Students listen to lectures, read material and review case studies.  My vision was that teaching innovation needed to be two-way. For Millennials and Generation Z, it needed to be an interactive experience in which students become participants. I knew from my work teaching inside big organizations that you really internalize learning by doing.

Tucker:  I totally agree, having taught managers the principles of innovation literally all over the world. So what about your corporate work was most helpful in rethinking how to help students become innovators?

Ferman:  Over the course of my career, I was fortunate to be involved in all aspects of innovation. I felt I had acquired a clear view of the process.  So my vision was of teaching a simplified, step-by-step approach to innovation.  Many people talk about the “front end of innovation” where ideas are generated. And a “back end of innovation” where the real work of development and execution take place.  I wanted to provide clarity and structure to these innovation phases, so that anyone could grasp them.

Tucker:  So take us through your simplified approach to the innovation process.

Ferman:  I boil it down to six steps.  The first three steps are in the front end of innovation.  I call them:  Explore, Ideate and Evaluate.  You first explore the problem, then you “ideate,” a fancy word for generating ideas to solve the problem. And finally you evaluate your ideas, and narrow down and select an optimal solution.

Tucker:  And what about the back end of innovation?

Ferman:  The three simple steps here are Design, Develop and Launch.  Design is all about the iterative approach of building and testing rapid prototypes with customers.  Develop is where you actually build your product, service, program or process that you were designing.  And then Launch is where you execute your marketing plan and go to market.

Tucker:  I was reading some course evaluations and your students rave about the two-way interactive experience that this course provides.  Tell us about that.

Ferman: Young people especially respond to an immersive experience. It enables them to gain an appreciation of the innovation process, and an understanding of the ethos of great innovators.  To achieve this, I set up a group project that runs the entire semester.  Working in teams, the students select a publicly traded company for which they will fictitiously innovate.  For the next three months the students work together through the innovation steps.  They take what they learn in each class lecture and then they immediately get to apply it in their teams for their “clients.” I have the teams conduct the first four steps:  Explore, Ideate, Evaluate and Design.  They finish the semester with a rapid prototype and design plans.

Tucker:  How else do you create an interactive experience for the students?

Ferman:  I try to keep a good balance between classes in which I’m lecturing to explain the innovation steps and classes in which we are actually working on key aspects of the group project. In this way I can roam the class and actively mentor each team as they are working together.  So for example, I have one class dedicated to consumer research in which each team conducts a focus group with another team that serves as their fictitious customers.  The highlight of the semester comes during the Ideate phase when each team runs a short brainstorming session leveraging classmates as participants.  And towards the end of the semester we hold a design workshop in which each team produces a rapid prototype whether it’s building a physical item with craft materials or simulating a website by developing a set of Powerpoint slides with embedded hyperlinks.

Tucker:  You wrote a textbook for the class, “Business Creativity & Innovation: Perspectives and Best Practices,” which I contributed to.  Can you describe how the book is different and why it fits the class?

Ferman:  The book is an anthology consisting of 25 readings from leading authors, case studies and profiles of innovative companies.  It is organized into eight chapters, which follow the steps of the innovation process.  Whether the reader is a student or corporate manager, they can benefit from practical innovation principles as well as specific exercises they can implement.  For example, the chapter on generating ideas offers many specific creative methods.  And the chapter on idea evaluation, which I wrote entirely, lays out my 10-step tournament approach for evaluating ideas.  The book is not steeped in theory or definitions.  It’s a practical guidebook on innovation.

Tucker:  Can you describe the impact that class has had on students?

Ferman:  I think this class is definitely making an impact at the University of North Florida. Each semester for the last three years the class has filled in the first three days of registration.  That’s a good sign that our students are finding value in the class.

Tucker:  How do you think the class can impact students in the long term?

Ferman:  The class presents students with a framework for exploring and solving business problems that will be useful in any field.  Whether you serve external or internal customers you need to improve that customer’s experience to stay competitive.  And long term, when artificial intelligence impacts many traditional jobs, those people skilled in creative problem solving will continue to stay in high demand.  I see my class as helping my students be best prepared for success in both the short term and the long term.

Tucker: Thank you Len. I heard from a number of your students and they were all very impressed with what you gave them in this course.