Two days into Applied Innovation Immersion Week, Joe Inkenbrandt, EMBA 14, is on the phone with his co-founders to schedule an urgent meeting. Inkenbrandt, an entrepreneur launching a startup to provide security for 3d designs, is eager to share what he's learning about the importance of gathering customer insights before the team goes much further.
This epiphany strikes during a week in the Berkeley MBA for Executives Program when students move through an entire innovation cycle—gathering customer insights to frame problems, ideating and iterating their way to a product or service, and sharing their ideas in a culminating challenge.
To Truly Understand Customers, Cast Assumptions Aside
Haas Senior Lecturer Sara Beckman, a leader in making design thinking part of b-school curriculum, and Michael Barry, of Stanford’s d.school (design program), are teaching this applied innovation module, one in a collection of EMBA immersion experiences.
The challenge is to develop a product or service aimed at easing the pain points of dating. In one exercise, Beckman has students generate “How might we” questions to get ideas flowing. “The goal is to generate as many questions as possible,” says Beckman of this process known as diverging.
Post-its, each with a single question, seem to fly onto the walls: How might we help people have more fulfilling social lives? How might we soften the blow of rejection? How might we cure loneliness???
The shared element is focus on the customer, an orientation Inkenbrandt finds helpful. “I can see that my company's founding team is making a lot of assumptions about what the customer thinks,” he says.
Learn to Prototype, Prototype to Learn
Surrounded by walls festooned with fluorescent sticky notes, Beckman issues the call to “converge” and the EMBA student teams begin the process of selecting one “how might we” question around which to design a product or service.
But first, they get a lesson on building—prototyping being an important part of the innovation process. The challenge: In 10 minutes, using only paper and tape, create an object that will drop as slowly as possible from a balcony to the floor below.
Suddenly the room is full of people standing on chairs counting as they drop an array of paper airplanes, doilies, and parachutes. In the end, the top performers are a tiny scrap of paper and, the winner, at 12.9 seconds—a completely un-embellished 8.5x11 sheet of paper.
Ahead of a second build (this one involving toilet paper and foil), Barry instructs, “Pay attention to how your team worked and pulled knowledge together rapidly—you’ll need this on Friday.”
You Must Be Able to Create under Challenging Conditions
By Friday, challenge day, the teams have begun developing solutions to problems that plague dating. Three tables of judges await, and each team, sticking with the same judges, cycles through in a process rather like washing one’s hair—with iterate, feedback, repeat standing in for lather and rinse.
Team “Sage Date” launches into their initial pitch, acting out a skit in which an anxious woman on a date suddenly excuses herself to make a stealth call to Sage Date for advice. The judges express reservations about mid-dinner disruptions. After five rounds, the team has added pre-date prep to their panic-abatement model.
“The process isn’t about coming up with the perfect presentation for the afternoon challenge,” says Barry. “It’s about teaming and about figuring out how to be creative while managing resources and incorporating (potentially contradictory) feedback.”
"I've been doing some of these things," says Inkenbrandt, "but now I feel like I’m moving forward with even more tools that have proven success.”