A number of group members have asked me to dedicate space to the topic of innovation in higher education. With this in mind, I have started putting together a number of posts and resources that deal directly with this very slippery concept. In this post, I speak with Chris Finlay, the Director of Design for Student Experience at the Business Innovation Factory. His current role is to use methods of design thinking to understand the undergraduate student experience in order to find opportunities for systems level innovation in higher education.

KCH: If an organization has little to no formal systems in place to foster innovation, where should they begin? What are the first steps?

CF: Step one is to not be overwhelmed by the task ahead. We humans have a strange tendency to think in extremes, particularly when we are projecting ourselves into an unknown future. People often worry that they will be expected to create the next Google or Apple. And more than figuring out how to be that successful, people want to avoid creating the next New Coke or Segway. The truth is that most value creation is generally somewhere in between those extremes and people would do well to recognize that. We need to remember that we don’t have to hit a home run every time, and that the process can be manageable and still successful. And it can be. An excellent guiding philosophy for any organization to temper their worries and get started on a path to deepening their capacity to innovate is to “think big, start small, scale fast”.

To think big you need to identify the opportunities available for your organization. One of the best ways to do that is to get out and talk to people you currently serve, as well as the people who you don’t, but could. Start by observing and interviewing a few of these people. Watch them use your product for the first time and ask them about their experience. Your goal is, as author of the Innovator’s Dilemma and Innovator’s Solution, Clay Christenson says, “to find out what job your customers are hiring your product or service to do.” Does it make them cool, get them to work on time, or cure an illness? Compile your findings and think about how you can improve the current offering or create a new one. Do you see a pattern that points to an opportunity to perform better? Do you need to innovate by offering a lower cost product? Do you need to better explain your product? Do your distributers understand what you are selling?

Starting small is exactly what it sounds like. Take a piece of the big idea and test it out. For example, you may think you need a new website to get more web sales and there is a feature you think might be an important part of that. Try testing the new feature on your current website rather than completely bulldozing your current site. Better yet, create a step-by-step prototype of that interaction using paper prototyping techniques. Simple prototyping of this type allows you to focus on the fundamental interaction between client and product, rather than less fundamental issues, such as the look of the product. Test it on a few people and see what happens. Anyone can do this – it’s simple and unintimidating.

This type of prototyping is faster to do, cheaper to produce, and can provide you with deeper insights into the problem you are trying to solve. Moreover, low cost prototyping and testing helps to transform your organization into a learning organization through small, consistent lessons that increases the innovation capability in an organic and sustainable way rather than in a risky overnight frenzy.

Scaling fast is one of the hardest parts of the whole process. People need to have a bias towards action to innovate in an effective and efficient manner. This doesn’t mean spouting innovation platitudes, it means using prototypes to show what you mean more often than you sit around a conference room and debate the ideas in the abstract. This gets business models moving and real data back from the field that can help organizations tailor their offerings more rapidly. As BIF’s Chief Catalysts says, “The half life of the business model is rapidly shortening” so there is no time to waste.

Q. I recently attended the book launch of The Design of Business by Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, and one of the key voices for “design thinking”. I found his essential message useful (once I managed to ignore the posturing of the hipsters at the event). Can you provide us with a definition of “design thinking” and how it can be used to enhance innovation?

My definition of design thinking (there isn’t really an agreed definition) is “using the critical process of design to solve business problems”. It is important to understand that when I say “design” it is used more like a verb; I am referring to the way design and designers use all the tools that are available, necessary and valuable to solve the problem. These tools often include visualization, business analysis and social science. The use of a broad toolkit is a key strength of the design process and designers.  When I say a “critical process” I am suggesting that there is an existing intuitive process that designers go through of secondary research, discovery, design, prototyping and testing but often goes undervalued as a science. The methods of design thinking requires us to systematically address and utilize each step of the design process to ensure that we understand people’s needs, the current market and what the capabilities of an organization are in order to create the right solution at the right time for the right company. Many intuitive designers argue this takes the passion out of design but as a successful, intuitive designer I firmly believe that design thinking only creates a better starting place to design things that create real value.

Roger Martin’s work does a great job of describing the general philosophy of design thinking and the idea of how design thinking adds value to the innovation process. Most efforts to innovate come from two areas: market research, which can only tell you about what has been made, and engineering, which might not be solving the right problem. Design thinking helps to ensure that an organization is solving the right problem at the right time to create maximum value. Martin does a great job helping business people recognize that there is a need and place for the more holistic thinking that comes with a designer’s perspective. It is a way of thinking that creates new options, rather than simply choosing between two undesirable existing options. We also need to encourage designers to embrace the power of business thinking to create the most value possible. Design creates options and business captures the value of those options. They need to work together and the design thinking approach makes that possible.

Q. Innovation in education is everywhere. Yet, it seems that we are constantly reinventing the wheel: innovations are often not widely or quickly disseminated, and thus we don’t seem to learn as much from our successes and failures as is common in other sectors. How can an organization avoid this trap?

This is one of the problems we would like to address at the Business Innovation Factory. For my part, I believe we need a national center for the delivery of education that goes far beyond what the United States Institute of Education Science’ What Works Clearinghouse is offering today. As you say, there are people contributing valuable innovations locally but are often not collecting results or case studies in useful ways. BIF is seriously interested in working with schools, administrators and educators of all types to understand their needs and shape a supportive network to amplify the value of innovators in the field.

Q. In my experience, innovation often stems from sheer desperation. When there is a strong sense of urgency, people find new and better ways to do their jobs. Is the growing demand for higher education, consequently, a possible hindrance to innovation?

The increase in the demand for education is a good thing. The inability for schools to graduate students proportionately at a reasonable cost is a tragedy. The demand will enable existing schools to stay pretty safe for a while, but where there are abundant resources and ineffective operations, there will be opportunities for competitors. The rapid growth of private education is telling us that there is something missing in the market and that thing that is missing is what will rapidly reshape the face of education. Personally, I believe we are looking at a perfect storm: high demand, sufficiently advanced technology, and an increasing dissatisfaction with current educational offerings. This will ultimately revolutionize the way we teach and learn.

Q. Are there specific colleges whose efforts to innovate have caught your attention?

Arizona State University continues to impress me. They are combining student centered design and the power of hard data to define their New American University initiative. It is exciting to see a school that size taking such smart steps. On the other end of the size spectrum our team at BIF has been working with the brand new College Unbound program, a charter college that seeks to shake up the model of education by placing students in real world work situations, what they describe as centers of learning. Led by the ever passionate Dennis Littky and Jamie Scurry, College Unbound is pushing the possibilities and understanding of what it means to be educated and what the components of an education look like.

Q. Which books would you recommend to someone that wants to learn more about innovation?

Am going to put these in the order someone just getting started with design thinking should read them.

Subject to Change. This is a very consumable introduction to the fundamentals of design thinking. It is written by a couple of authors and it is slow at times, but I think that it is one of the more approachable and useful books on design thinking out there.

Ten Faces of Innovation provides a great overview of different types of innovators. It should help give you a sense of who is on your team and how to get them to do their best work.
The Innovator’s Dilemma is a classic. This book explores the fundamental issues in finding and developing new markets.

The Innovator’s Toolkit is an excellent book that offers rigorous frameworks to create reliable and repeatable methods of innovation. I would suggest trying some more casual approaches to design thinking first, and then looking at the frameworks found here. The language can be overly academic but the tools are very valuable. There is an accompanying website that enables you to download the blank frameworks for free.

Insatiable Curiosity is an academic investigation of the birth and life of ideas. Have yet to read a better book on the slippery nature of new ideas. Helga Nowotny is one of my heroes.

Additional Resources:

Design Thinking Collection


  1. Enjoyed reading this, thanks for posting.


  2. I am currently in a Master’s Degree Studying Higher Education and am interested in the application of Design Thinking to Higher Education Management. There is so little information out there along this line so I thank you for the great post and hope there is more like this post to come.


  3. Thanks Raymond and Paul. I plan to add more resources concerning innovation and design thinking – any and all recommendations greatly appreciated.


  4. Thanks Raymond

    Jut happened to find this article from Stanford’s Social Innovation Review http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/design_thinking_for_social_innovation/

    It is clear that there is a lot of room to pioneer the use of DT in higher ed.

    You can find out more about our work at BIF http://www.businessinnovationfactory.com/sxl


  5. Chris,

    Thank you for that informative DT article. I just want to say that I too believe that we need some type of national education delivery center to amplify and disseminate local innovations as a way to scale the innovation process. As I am gathering ideas for my Master’s Thesis work I would be very interested in BIF’s direction along these lines. I am following your work at BIF with anticipation.


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