Yale Curriculum: The Innovator
Innovation in business is crucial both in launching new companies and in keeping established ones fresh and relevant. But how do you teach someone to be an innovator? Is there a method for coming up with good ideas?
As part of the Yale Management integrated MBA curriculum, first-year students take the Innovator, a course designed to teach future managers how to become more innovative, as well as shape work environments to make creativity natural for their teams. The course is broken into three parts: idea generation; idea evaluation and development; and the steps necessary to make an idea a reality. Jonathan Feinstein, the John G. Searle Professor of Economics and Management, said it’s important for students to understand that there is a process to innovation, that inspiration is only a small part of being innovative in business. “Most people think of an idea as a light bulb moment,” he said. “But that moment of insight is just the beginning. An idea has to work in the marketplace — otherwise, even the best idea will fall flat. So it’s crucial to learn to play around with it, to find the sweet spot that allows a concept to be marketable.”
The Innovator is built around a combination of cases and projects intended to help students better understand the creative process in a business sense. For one assignment, students were broken into groups and instructed to come up with a business idea, research the market for it, tweak it, and design a plan to bring it to market. “A number of students are insecure about their ability to be creative, so it was important to give them the experience and show them they, too, can be creative,” Feinstein said. “This was a great assignment. It was their idea, which they developed and evaluated. It’s wonderful anytime we can put students in contact with something tangible. A number of students came away with ideas they plan to pursue further.”
Feinstein teaches the course with Barry Nalebuff, Milton Steinbach Professor of Management and cofounder of Honest Tea, and Oliver Rutz, Assistant Professor of Marketing. The trio used case studies to push these ideas further and to illustrate the impact innovation can have on corporations. One case focused on the problems faced by Novelis, the world’s largest manufacturer of rolled aluminum, as its core business matured, putting intense pressure on executives to find new product lines. Under the direction of Martha Finn Brooks ’82, COO and president, innovation became a core push — something that was emphasized at every level and in every department of the company. Two executives from the company visited class to discuss how the emphasis on innovation led to the creation of new alloys that could be used in many more ways than traditional aluminum products. One of the new products is currently being used in the doors of Jaguar automobiles. “It’s amazing what a company can do when it builds innovation throughout its organization,” Feinstein said.
Sometimes the challenge is to move good ideas through a sprawling international organization. Mercy Corps, which is headed by Neal Keny-Guyer ’82, works in 37 countries, has 3,400 employees, and a budget of roughly $230 million, became the subject of class on March 3. Karen Doyle Grossman, the senior director for social innovation at Mercy Corps, described to students how the organization takes a non-traditional approach to relief, emphasizing social entrepreneurship and a drive to make projects self-sustaining. One difficulty they face is finding ways to project local initiatives across the whole of Mercy Corps. “In the past, ideas have stayed within each country,” said Doyle Grossman. “If someone who’s living in a tent in the Sudan has a brilliant idea, it can be really hard to lobby the board to get the green light.”
Mercy Corps encourages social entrepreneurship at all levels. Doyle Grossman said that it doesn’t matter if someone is in the field or the CFO — they’re encouraged to experiment. Mercy Corps set aside $2 million to help finance new ideas, although the goal is for any new program to be self-sustaining within five years. To find and promote the best new ideas, Doyle Grossman was tapped to head an innovation team charged with creating a structure to find and test the best ideas, and then ramp them up. “Size is important,” she said. “If you want to reach a million people and address these social issues that are so huge, you need to find a way to bring an idea up to scale.”
Doyle Grossman provided an example of the key role the manager plays in innovation. While people tend to focus on the creative genius, true sustainable innovation needs the right environment to encourage it. In this way, Feinstein said, the main thrust of the course is to teach future managers to facilitate innovation. “The best managers have innovation occurring all around them,” he said. “And the best companies are those where innovation is central to the value system. Being an innovator or an entrepreneur isn’t just something someone wakes up and does. It’s something you build up over time, like any other skill. I have students who come up to me at the beginning of the course and say they’re not creative. By the end of the course, my goal is to show them they’re wrong. Everybody can be creative.”