Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How Do You Teach Innovation?

Today's guest post is from Scott Harmon, Z Corp's Vice President of Business Development.

An earlier blog asking the question, “Can you teach innovation?” received a large number of responses on this and many LinkedIn forums. Many of them quite interesting. Generally, responses were quite diverse with much of the discussion paralleling the more general debate about human behavior summed up as ‘nature vs. nurture,’ or as Curt Moreno mentioned, ‘entity vs. incremental.’

One of the interesting things about teaching innovation is that innovation is hardly a single skill. In responding to the previous post, Emmanuel Garcia made the distinction between ingenuity / creativity and implementation. Paul Jordan reminded readers about the importance of gumption. Surely, Edison would have agreed mightily with the role of gumption. Innovation is clearly all of these things and more.

My personal belief is that some people possess more or less of the various capabilities required to be great innovators. However, I also believe pretty strongly that these innate capabilities can be improved with practice. Interestingly, most of the respondents to the last posting felt like current primary and secondary schools weren’t doing a terribly good job of teaching these skills. (Interesting article here on that subject.). A few respondents mentioned various resources and books on the subject.

That got me thinking. I’d personally love to know more about how people teach and learn the skills required to be great innovators. I’m not so interested in the curriculum. Curriculum is important, and it’s almost certainly part of the problem. I’m more interested in your experiences. How did you learn to innovate? If you’re a teacher, what do you find most effective for teaching kids to innovate?

I’ll share a quick story. I was an electrical engineer in college and was pretty good at math and science my whole life. I took an introduction to electrical engineering course as a sophomore, and I remember explicitly one of the early tests. I don’t remember the exact question, but I do remember being 100% convinced that it was unsolvable. It had no answer that could be derived from the formulas and methods we had been taught. I approached the professor, with an air of indignation, thinking the question must be wrong. He just smiled and said, “Some questions don’t have an answer,” obviously recognizing that is just the beginning, but it’s an important one.

So what are your favorite stories about learning innovation? Are there any resources you have found to be especially valuable?