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Intro to EEF & Ideation

Webinar 1 by Michal Gilon-Yanai

· Nucleation,Ideation,Design Thinking

Last Wednesday, December 3 2014, the first session of the Entrepreneurship Educators Forum Webinar Series took place. The vision for the project is to create a meeting place for the community to discuss the challenges of teaching entrepreneurship, and to build an open-source platform that will enable us to collect, curate and share knowledge, teaching materials and tools that will help us guide our students effectively. Bill opened the session with a review of a roadmap for entrepreneurship education at MIT that divides the process into three main stages – nucleation, product definition and venture development (see attached presentation).

According to the plan, entrepreneurship education should be structured as a set of modular “buckets” or “tiles” of knowledge, skills and tools that are grouped under the three above mentioned stages. Having identified four student personas with different interests, motivation and needs we are able to recommend a pathway of learning through the tiles that will best meet their aspirations. For example, a “ready to go” entrepreneur who has an idea and a strong team does not need to go through ideation and team-building activities, but needs to dive deeply into product<->market fit and primary market research, and then also acquire the knowledge for “Venture Development”.

A question was asked at this stage by Philippe Sommer from the University of Virginia, about timing – when designed this way, the program creates a “just in time” expectation for the availability of courses/workshops to teach each student what they need at every point in time. How do you deal with that? Bill and the Trust Center’s answer is in different “fulfillment mechanisms” at varying levels of depth and commitment. A student who wants to learn about ideation can take a course where this is addressed in the first two classes, but if they missed the course or just don’t want to take it entirely, they will be directed to online courses, articles, or short workshops, to name a few fulfillment mechanisms.

After discussing MIT’s overarching program, it was time to start our deep dive into the different topics. Each session, we plan to do that with one or two. The goal is to identify the thought leaders and experts in each area beforehand, so they can share their knowledge and initiate a discussion through the webinar series. In this first session, naturally, we started with ideation.


Our first presenter was Matthew Cusack, EIR at RPI’s Lally School of Management. Matt presented RPI’s approach to ideation, developed largely by Burt Swersey. Some principles that lead them are very similar to the ones we all follow – mainly, starting with a problem rather than starting with an idea. Once students identify a problem – they must research, criticize and question what currently exists to address it, and aim as high as possible in defining what would be ideal. It doesn’t matter at this initial stage if the ideal solution seems feasible or not. What makes the RPI approach stand out most is its emphasis on values. Students are required to focus on big problems with potential social or environmental impact. The motto is “People and Planet before Profit”, assuming that profit will follow for ideas that are truly valuable. Therefore, there is no “nonsense” allowed and ideas that do not appear ambitious enough are ruled out.

Our next speaker was Giff Constable, CEO of NEO and author of the book “Talking to Humans”. The approach to ideation presented by Giff was similar to RPI’s in starting with a problem or an unmet need. His emphasis – identifying problems must go hand in hand with deep domain insight and exploring changes in the environment (regulatory, demographic, technological and more). To come up with ideas that will have the most potential, we should look for an intersection between these three – a problem, a change in the environment that either creates the problem or enables a new solution, and domain

insight that helps assess the business viability. On top of that, a personal layer must be applied – an entrepreneur must always ask herself – do I want to commit myself to solving this specific problem, and do I have any advantage solving it compared to others? To demonstrate the thought process that he proposes, Giff walked us through an example. The question that he set out with was based on a personal challenge that he feels close to: “Can I make the lives of working moms better?” Watching him work through it gave us a deeper understanding of the process that he described. As for the actual idea that resulted – you’ll have to check out his slides…

After listening to Matt, and though before also related to Giff’s presentation - another interesting question was raised by Philippe Sommer. “You’ve both described elements of what we all know and often teach as “Design Thinking”, yet you didn’t mention “Design Thinking” by name”, he pointed out. “In fact, at our school we teach a similar process but we have also named it differently. Do you think this causes confusion? Should we try to form a common terminology, or at least a place where people will be able to find the different names of these same things”? The discussion didn’t reach a final conclusion, but I tend to agree with Giff’s view, which he put in an email following the session: “I think the key is not to try to unify jargon. That's never going to happen. The key is teaching students to look beyond jargon and rote process thinking and look to the deeper principles behind these movements.”

It was now time for something entirely different. Drew Boyd, a 30-year industry veteran who is now Executive Director of the MS-Marketing Program at the University of Cincinnati and co-author of the book “Inside the Box” joined us to present the Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) approach to creativity. The methodology is based on academic research in creativity carried out by Prof. Jacob Goldenberg, Drew’s co-author. The main pillars of the approach are five techniques that can be applied to existing products/services, to produce new forms that may become valuable inventions. In this case, it is “Function follows form” – we do not start by looking for a problem, but rather find a solution, then look for problems that it may help solve and assess the feasibility of actually developing it. The techniques are based on specific, common patterns that Prof. Goldenberg identified by studying innovative products. Moreover, his research showed these patterns to be quite reliable predictors of market success. The basic notion is that systematically and intentionally applying the patterns as structured templates to existing products and services will produce a multitude of potential innovative products. The techniques are: Subtraction, Division, Multiplication, Task unification, and Attribute dependency. Drew provided a couple of examples for “task unification”: a barcode sticker for fruit that dissolves in water releasing a special fruit washing detergent, and a baby pacifier that is also a thermometer.

One question raised by Gopal Nadkarni from the University of Akron following the presentation demonstrated a common criticism of the approach – “does this not lead only to incremental (rather than disruptive) innovation”? Drew chose not to argue with the point but rather to sing the praises of incremental innovation. At least in the corporate setting, according to him, while managers keep talking about “disruptive innovation”, in most cases it is too risky for them to pursue. A method that helps produce predictable, repeatable incremental progress can take you a long way. This positions SIT as a good starting point for ideating in the corporate setting where specific products, services and markets already exist. On occasion, a new form taken out of its original context can lead to radical ideas too. Finally, going back to our first presentation - the RPI approach: after identifying a problem and criticizing what currently exists, wouldn’t it be interesting to see what we come up with by applying the techniques to those same things that currently exist.

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