Getting young women and men to develop their innate capacity to be innovative has been at the center of what I aim to accomplish. I did this as dean of undergraduate engineering at Northwestern University for over the past quarter century, and I am still doing it as Co-Director of the Master of Product Design and Development Management program here. Innovation involves the act of creating something new that will improve peoples’ lives. It can be a tangible thing, or it can be an intangible process. What is required of an innovator is an understanding of what people would value but for which there is nothing currently available to provide that value. Linking the qualifier, improve peoples’ lives, to the essential act of creating something new is where this process crosses the line into engineering, but I submit that, unless there is a beneficial consequence to whatever someone comes up with, then it is hard to justify the effort in the first place.
Innovation opportunities are everywhere, and there are multiple process sequences one can choose to follow to go after them. Measuring how people function with whatever they have now is often a rich way to identify an innovation opportunity. At other times there may be a breakthrough arising from progress in science or engineering that presents an innovation opportunity. The iterative process of wisely combining ideas and insights to come up with plausible work products is the next step in creating that something new. Testing it requires analysis of its components as well as the whole system, in order to assure that it will work safely and effectively. The final validation comes from user-testing of a prototypical version to reveal just how closely a current version is to being an innovation success.
Innovating often requires a champion who advocates for undertaking the above-mentioned work, but almost always it actually thrives when a team of individuals comes together. A person who is a visionary and a thought leader is likely to carry the whole innovation process forward. A spirit of collaboration among team members works best. Expertise in many domains brings to a team the diverse skill-sets that enable competent work to be performed. Thus, the educational focus on developing innate capabilities in people who will become innovators needs to center on relevant competencies. These embrace knowledge in quantitative assessments and communication skills in multiple forms, including, but not limited to, writing, speaking, and graphics. Innovators need to know what they are doing, why they are doing it, and which ways will convince others of what they are thinking. Formal educational tracks are straight-forward ways to attain these attributes, but acquiring deep experience (especially in the contexts of human behavior) and cultivating one’s imaginative capacities also go a long way to becoming an innovator.