I blogged in September about a new module I’ve been developing at the University of Leeds called Innovation Thinking and Practice. At the time I promised I’d blog again in December about the experience of running the module live and for real with students and here we are.
First up, I have to say this has been one of the best experiences of my working life. Yes, there have been trials and tribulations along the way. I wouldn’t have learned so much if there hadn’t been but what the students have developed and delivered in 10 weeks has been stunning.
The module has two focus areas. The first of course is innovation. The second is equally important – skill areas employers have told the Royal Academy of Engineering (sponsors of my Visiting Professorship) that new graduates often lack. This includes commercial awareness, collaboration and communication skills.
The module is based around 5 industry-based and very real innovation challenges. From the outset my academic partner Dr Lena Jaspersen and I split the students into 10 teams of 6. We built diversity into these teams by design. For example we have students from both the Business School and Engineering Computing School in each team.
In the first week the students learned some of the key concepts of innovation, particularly from an enterprise and industry context. They met their teams and began to research their assigned industry and challenge. Over the next few weeks we worked them hard. They applied design thinking to understand their challenge, developed personas and empathy for their end users and generated ideas. Once the ideas were assessed and prioritised, each team selected one to focus on. We were then into rapid and initially paper-based prototyping, business value development and communications. You can have the best idea in the world but if you can’t communicate the idea and the value it will go nowhere, so this was a key aspect.
Supported by a great team of facilitators, the students delivered an initial presentation to the other team assigned with the same challenge. As expected, the ideas developed were diverse. There’s no right or wrong answer here, only great ideas. By this stage, I think the students, working very collaboratively in their teams, appreciated this.
Everything appeared to be going well – but innovation and real life in general aren’t linear processes. Stuff happens! I’m not going to share details and spoil the impact for future cohorts but stuff happens (by design) in this module. After some initial individual and collective reactions, the teams rallied. Their ideas got better and better.
We focused on rapid prototyping, including the key concept of minimum viable product. We debated “how much is enough?”. One of my IBM colleagues Gary Wilson ran a great workshop focused on innovative app development. In parallel the teams built layers of understanding and insight into what they were developing. They withstood grillings on their value propositions and businesses case. With a few tweaks, they stood up to scrutiny.
And then on 1st December 2017 we reached Week 10. The students were given an opportunity to present to a collective “innovation sponsor”. This was a panel of senior dragons from academia and wider industry, including representatives of the 5 industries the innovation challenges were based in.
Lena and I did much preparation for the final session. The students rehearsed and finessed their pitches. It started snowing the evening before and I began to get nervous but despite the early start on a Friday morning the teams and our guests were all there in the fantastic new collaborative teaching room in the Charles Thackrah Building in the University of Leeds. The students were briefed beforehand they must demo their prototype and articulate the business value. Other than that, there were no constraints on presentation format. They were free to innovate – and they did!
The presentations were fantastic. Video clips, role play, props, paper prototypes, video animations, mock-ups, websites, apps, text and voice interfaces, brilliant injections of humour and even use of IBM Watson AI-based visual recognition software. It was all there. The teams articulated the value of their ideas to their business and the end user. Equally importantly, they confidently stood up to questioning from the guest panel.
Awards were made – based upon votes cast both by the academic and industry panel and the student themselves – but to me all the teams were winners. All 10 teams certainly nailed what was asked of them.
The picture below shows Team 4 receiving the Academic and Industry Panel award, accompanied by myself and Lena on the left, and the award presenters Sean Flanagan of IBM and Sarah Gummer of the Royal Academy of Engineering on the right.
To witness all the student teams communicate the technology and commercial innovations they’d collaboratively developed over such short space of time was inspiring. They’ve worked so hard and learned so much. I know many of the teams have hit hurdles on the way but that’s an integral part of the learning process. I also know most of the students had a lot of fun at times and have made new friends from outside their degree courses and circles.
We’d like to thank our brilliant panel of senior academics from across the University of Leeds and external industry guests. This combination of academic and industry expertise is a critical design point for the module. The students have gained huge value from presenting to the panel and from their insight and questions during (and in many cases after) the session. A number of guests indicated they’d like to follow up with specific teams and/or indicated they wish to be even more involved next year.
The feedback from the students before, during and after the final presentations has been hugely positive. As a first experience for myself of fully developing and delivering (rather than just inputting into) a module, I have loved working with such a great group. Their futures look very bright. For my own part, I’ve learned so much and benefited greatly from working with Lena and the wider Engineering Faculty Computing and Business School teams.
The students will now be writing individual papers on what they’ve learned during the module, with an emphasis (of course!) on innovation, commercial awareness, collaboration and communication skills. In parallel, Lena and I are reviewing how we can make the module even better moving forward. For many reasons, not least this year’s cohort, the module has been a great success from the start but fundamentally this is about innovation. We can’t stand still – we need to keep learning and improving and that’s what we plan to do.