Book review: Winning At Innovation

When it comes to innovation, does higher ed deserve an A, an F, or an A-to-F?

“Innovation” has become an overused buzzword in practically every field imaginable. It has made its way from the corporate boardrooms to the fields of marketing, politics, user experience design and business in general. Higher education is no exception.

It’s become so overused, in fact, that I almost hesitated to agree to review a book that includes the term in its title. Add to that the inclusion of “Winning,” a word that has become utterly meaningless to me this past year (thank you, Charlie Sheen), and you have a doubly lethal combination.

Winning_At_InnovationYet here I am, about to tell you why a book titled Winning At Innovation: The A-to-F Model (affiliate link) would make a worthwhile winter-break read for anyone in the business of higher ed marketing — or higher ed in general. (And if you like business books, then this is definitely one to add to your reading list.) My quick read of the book over the past few days has caused me to reflect on how I approach my own work, my assumptions about higher ed marketing and communications, and my relationships with others on campus. It’s also given me a different perspective on the subject of innovation, which, cliche aside, is a subject I enjoy reading and thinking about. about.

Also, the “A-to-F” reference in the subtitle most likely isn’t what you might think. It isn’t about assigning a grade. Read on.

Roles versus processes

The reason I think this book is worth your time is because it takes a, well, innovative approach to the topic of innovation. And innovation is a topic we should be discussing in the world of higher ed marketing.

Instead of looking at innovation as merely a process, as some business books do, the authors of Winning At Innovation, Fernando Trias de Bes and Philip Kotler, look at the roles people play in innovative organizations.

In other words, they see innovation not as the product of a sequential, step-by-step, assembly line-like process, a model based on the Industrial Age mindset. Rather, they see innovation as the result of people interacting in a dynamic, often messy, less-than-orderly fashion.

I don’t know much about the lead author, Fernando Trias de Bes (he’s a professor at Spain’s ESADE Business School), but his co-author, Philip Kotler, is a true marketing pioneer and one of the few marketing experts worthy of the term “guru.” His name on the cover adds some weight to what Trias de Bes has to say. (Seeing Kotler listed as a co-author is what led me to accept Palgrave’s offer to review this book.)

Since both authors are marketing professors, the book takes on a bit of that MBA textbook tone. It has its fair share of charts and graphs and B-school lingo. But the fact that they equate innovation to creativity is refreshing, and not marketing business as usual. I like the way they put it on page 16:

Creativity requires analogical, not sequential thinking, and so does innovation, which is nothing but creativity applied to a particular discipline. Innovation requires a lot of ‘coming and going,’ returning to the same idea, dismissing it, taking it up again, revising it, looking for more information, designing, realizing that that design is not optimal and that we need to go back to the drawing board. Innovation is not a linear process, rather it is a process that advances, but with much backtracking and detouring. (Emphasis added. – AC)

Looking at the business of innovation organically rather than mechanistically is a plus. This doesn’t mean Trias de Bes and Kotler ignore the quantifiable stuff like measurement and return on investment. But they do acknowledge that innovation is not a step-by-step approach.

With this view in mind, the authors introduce the six key roles they believe every innovative organization must have in order to innovate. “Our proposal is that if a company [or an institution of higher learning – AC] wants to innovate, it must define and assign these roles to specific individuals and then, having established goals, resources and deadline, let them interact freely to create their own process.”

The six roles

Those six roles — the A-to-F in the subtitle — are:

A = Activators. These are the people who initiate innovation in an organization. Trias de Bes and Kotler liken this role to that of an instigator. “When the objective is efficiency, people need to be overseen. When the objective is innovation, people need to be ‘provoked'” (page 20). Activators must assume that role, but also must be strongly tied to planning and strategy development.

B = Browsers. These are the hunter-gatherers of information. “Their mission is to investigate throughout the process and to find the information relevant both to the start of the process and to the application of new ideas” (page 16).

C = Creators. These are the people who come up with new concepts and possibilities. They “go beyond the obvious,” generate a lot of ideas and take a systematic approach (pages 62-63).

D = Developers. These are the people who turn the ideas into products and services. “Their function is to take ideas and turn them into solutions” (page 17).

E = Executors. As the title implies, these people get the innovation to the marketplace.

F = Facilitators. The people who approve spending and keep the process moving along.

If you’re like me, you’re already thinking about where you might fit in, which role you are best suited to. Also if you’re like me, you’re looking at those descriptions and seeing that you wear many if not all of those hats in your small shop. Or you may be shaking your head, thinking about how misaligned your department, division or even institution as a whole might be. How you have plenty of Browsers and more than enough Creators (read: “idea people”) but not enough Developers. And no one wants to step up to be the Activator.

You are not alone. All of those thoughts flooded my mind as I read Winning At Innovation. The examples the authors cite didn’t help, either. They talk about how behemoth corporations like Shell and IBM with multimillion-dollar budgets at their disposal apply this model. That’s fine and dandy, but how does that help me and my institution?

That’s the biggest drawback to this book: there are no examples that are specific to the higher ed experience. But that doesn’t mean the book is irrelevant to us. Don’t let the lack of specific examples discourage you from thinking about innovation.

‘Step-by-step innovation’

After all, innovation is not always about giant leaps forward (even though that’s how we tend to think of it). It’s also about making small improvements, day in and day out. The authors are clear about that from the outset. “Gradual, step-by-step innovation is innovation too — and it is just as or more necessary than the radical version,” they write on page 3. “This is what really makes a business sustainable.”

It’s important to remember, too, that innovation isn’t just about inventing something. Innovation can be applied to just about any aspect of how you do your job. Whether you’re preparing to launch a rebranding campaign or a new website, re-examining how you communicate with alumni, or even thinking about your personal filing system, you can innovate. So the ideas in this book could apply to many areas of your work in higher ed.

Winning At Innovation also includes some handy checklists and case studies that I believe you will find applicable to your work in higher ed marketing. Also helpful are further definitions of the six roles and examples of how they can interact in different ways to achieve innovation. (Remember: Innovation is not sequential, so it isn’t always A-to-F. Some approaches may be A-C-D-F or A-F-B-A-C-D-E-F-A-C-D-B-F-E. The six roles can interact in many ways.)

So, although Winning At Innovation is not written specifically for the higher ed crowd, its underlying philosophy is something colleges and universities the world over should embrace.

If any enterprise in the world should embrace innovation, it is higher education. Our college campuses, classrooms and research labs should be places where ideas thrive, creativity is fostered, questioning welcomed, and bold ideas spring forth. That idea was driven home to me by one of my favorite books from 2010, Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. Johnson’s discussion of how the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University helped give birth to the GPS system illustrates just how fertile a breeding ground for ideas a university can be.

The common assumption is that higher education has become too moribund to foster true innovation. I’m not sure if that’s quite true. But Winning At Innovation gives us a chance to take a new look at the issue. Maybe it will also inspire you to become more innovative in your own pursuits.


Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

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