How to teach innovation

With the knowledge and startup economy’s innovation set to be the next big thing, a generation of educators are grappling with some big questions.

Can you teach innovation and entrepreneurship?

Or are they innate?

Professor Colin McLeod is one of the teachers at Melbourne’s Wade Institute, Melbourne University’s Masters of Entrepreneurship school.

He told The Pulse that whether or not innovation could be taught came down to how you define ‘innovation’.

“There are two parts to it,” McLeod said. “One is the idea of inventing something and the second part is doing something with it.”

So what’s innovation?

There’s no hard and fast definition of ‘innovation’.

The dictionary defines innovation as to ‘introduce something new’ or ‘a new idea, method, or device’.

We typically think of innovation as a byword for invention, and all the creativity and insight which comes with that.

However, McLeod said the second part of the equation is just as important as the first.

He gave the example of Dropbox, one of the biggest tech success stories of this era.

Less than 10 years old, the technology had existed for a while at the point of ‘invention’, but McLeod said the innovation was in the identification of a market and implementation of the tech.

“The creativity or innovation wasn’t around the idea or technology. It was to understand how to make it easier for the customer to use,” he said.

“Drew Houston’s insight was that the emerging markets for a product like this wasn’t people with technical skills, but everyday people.”

But are there people who are just better at it that others?

“Talent is terribly overrated”

McLeod’s mission is to give students the right tools and learnings to allow their ideas to come to the fore – but he also helps select students for the program.

That means seeing talented students every day, but he says that he doesn’t select students based on inherent qualities displayed.

“One of the things people assume is that innovation is some sort of inherent quality. What we know is that in almost every endeavour of human life, talent is terribly overrated,” McLeod said.

“We do know that the process by which talent is applied and used is just as important.”

He said the idea of talent was not the same as having skill – as there are countless examples of wasted talents not cracking the big time.

It’s why he thinks pretty much anybody can be taught how to innovate better, but it’s no guarantee of success.

“I think we would say that learning innovation is like learning anything. The fact that you’ve learned it doesn’t necessarily make you good at it,” said McLeod.

“I could train someone to be a doctor, but that doesn’t make them a good doctor. What we can say with certainty is that they’d be a better doctor than if they hadn’t received the training.”

Tools and inherent qualities

McLeod tries to give his students a series of tools and processes to become better entrepreneurs, but this in itself opens up a can of worms.

“You do try to make the tools relevant to entrepreneurship, but it’s important not to define them too narrowly,” he said.

For example, he said in a traditional business school you’d learn all about management structures – but all the examples and learning in that are informed by more established companies.

This can limit the thinking of those taught.

“The trouble with being process-heavy is that it makes entrepreneurship look like a linear progression from uncertainty to greater certainty,” McLeod said.

“But there’s no set path for innovation.”

Instead, McLeod tries to give students tools to improve qualities such as resilience and objective thinking.

“Students need to develop resilience, because they’re going to spend a lot of their time being told no rather than yes,” he said.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that some people have greater levels of natural resilience than others… but there are techniques you can learn to help you improve your resilience. It can be taught, or at least brought out.”

At the intersection of teaching tools and inherent qualities like objectivity and analytical thinking lies skill, which is the important part.

“I think innovation is a skill rather than a talent – there are several things you can do to help teach that skill,” McLeod said.

“There’s absolutely no reason in my mind that the skills needed for entrepreneurship can’t be a taught thing. Innovation isn’t inherent.”