Triggers for Innovation

Advice for when a school finds its trigger to galvanize its community around innovation.
It takes time, energy, and passion for any business school to bring to fruition complex, innovation-focused initiatives. Cases in point include the development of Tennessee Tech’s iCUBE, Grenoble’s GEMinGame portfolio, and BI’s digitalization plan. But to truly get off the ground, each of these distinct initiatives also required what Grenoble’s Hélène Michel calls a “trigger”—that one idea or attribute that engages and excites a school’s entire community. For Grenoble, the trigger was having a professor who had expertise in serious games and saw their importance to business. For BI, it was the recognition that it needed to prepare students and faculty for a digital economy. And for Tennessee Tech, it was having a small, ambitious media lab with a mission to support regional growth.

Once a school finds its trigger to galvanize its community around innovation, Michel, Tom Payne of TTU, and Anne Berit Swanberg of BI offer this advice:

Start small—perhaps with an existing program. Most business schools, of all sizes and budgets, already have an innovative lab, course, or project with long-term potential. For Tennessee Tech, iCube started as a tiny lab that handled small technology projects for the business school; its influence grew as it took on more complex tasks. Schools need to identify such starting points, says Payne, and give them support to grow slowly over time.

Find the right people. Ambitious initiatives “don’t just happen because a dean wants them to,” says Payne. “Schools need to have great people on board. Find them, give them support and an environment for risk-taking—and then let them run the show. They thrive on that.”

Empower students. Grenoble first thought that faculty would design its serious games, and that its students would use them—until it invited a few students to attend game design sessions. “It had taken our teachers six months to create their first draft of a game,” says Michel. “It took our students five days to deliver a finished one.” As a result, faculty now evaluate the validity of students’ game concepts, but students are the primary game designers.

Tell everyone the strategy, from the faculty to the part-time staff. When Grenoble’s first 1,000 games arrived from the manufacturer, “the woman at the front desk refused the delivery, saying ‘This can’t be for us!’” Michel recalls. Today, the school invites all employees to test new games, and even holds game design sessions for employees’ children.

Take advantage of the “cool factor.” TTU students’ creation of a tweeting electric eel for the Tennessee Aquarium seemed almost comical—but it turned out to be a great business move. Several publications picked up the story, including The Atlantic, which led to greater visibility for TTU and more business for iCube. “We follow an old-fashioned model of taking cool projects that bring in funding. And now the word has spread,” Payne says.

Offer incentives to build the initiative. At Tennessee Tech, faculty and staff who bring in new revenue-generating projects to iCube receive financial bonuses. The lab adopted this incentive-based system last year in order to grow the business.

Provide vision, not ownership. Payne is quick to point out that while the business school is a catalyst for iCube, the lab’s work is an open initiative involving the entire campus. “I’m not worried about the business school having ownership of this,” he says. “By opening this up to the university, we’ve opened up a realm of possibilities that would not have existed if we’d tried to house iCUBE within the college.”

Invite faculty to experiment—and pay attention to results. BI launched its pilot program both to encourage faculty to try out new ideas and to monitor the outcomes to see what worked and what didn’t. “This step-by-step approach has made it possible for us to learn,” says Swanberg. “Failure is also learning. Each school will have to find its way of approaching the shift in teaching and learning that we’re now experiencing—the important message is to start the journey and make things happen.”