A New Trend: Educating Entrepreneurs

A Chronicle of Higher Education story reports on a nationwide trend I’ve been studying myself: the increasing proliferation of entrepreneurship classes for college undergraduates (April 20, 2015, “Now everyone’s an entrepreneur.”). Lots of students love the classes, because they combine fun and creative activities with hands-on internships and links to interesting job opportunities. They also send a message of empowerment that’s popular with today’s students: “You can make a difference, you can change the world.” As the Chronicle article puts it, “entrepreneurship offers the creativity and independence that traditional careers seem to lack.”

College leaders and supporters love it, too, because it provides an important rationale for the modern university: It’s a source of economic growth, a way to commercialize innovations that create value for the region and the country. This is the argument made by Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in their book Engines of Innovation. And in fact, way back in 2009, Carolina was one of the first universities to embed innovation and entrepreneurship throughout all academic units, not just in the school of business–for example, by creating its entrepreneurship minor, and a “special assistant to the Chancellor” position in innovation and entrepreneurship, held since 2009 by Judith Cone, formerly of the Kauffman Foundation.

Beth McMurtrie, the author of the Chronicle article, writes with a mild underlying tone of skepticism. When it’s not done well, such programs can seem like “a superficial blend of buzz words and rosy promises.” They quote one professor saying, sensibly, that “it’s unrealistic to imagine that one or two classes will help a student become more entrepreneurial.”  They anonymously quote “some professors” worrying that “focusing on entrepreneurship gives students an exaggerated sense of their own power”.

I read this article closely, because here at Carolina I’m charged with creating entrepreneurship programs in our School of Education. I think this article does a good job of pointing out the potential strengths and also the potential ways that such programs can go wrong. I think we’re doing it right here in the School of Education. First of all, our programs will be graduate degrees for adults–for example, a master’s degree for experience professionals, who have some expertise and possibly, some valuable successes and failures already completed. My classes will focus on the science of creativity and innovation, on how to manage effective collaboration, how to foster innovative organizational designs and cultures–and how these come together to foster successful innovation and entrepreneurship. I’ll also be requiring a hands-on internship with a local innovative educational organization.

Because I study improvisational creativity, I love that “one lecturer likened teaching entrepreneurship to improvisational jazz” 🙂

Tinkering Toward Innovation

In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal,* Alex Foege is critical of “tinkering time”. My ears perked up, because this is a common practice at some of the most innovative companies. It means you give each employee a small percentage of each week to dedicate to their own pet projects. W. L. Gore gives each worker 10 percent of each week; Google gives everyone 20 percent; 3M, where the practice started back in 1948, gives 15 percent. In recent years, Apple started its own program called Blue Sky, and LinkedIn announced its “Incubator” program.

I advocate such programs in my keynotes and workshops, and in my 2007 book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. I recommend tinkering time as a solution to the innovation paradox: The main task of a company is to keep generating revenue from profitable business lines. You need to do this at as low a cost as possible, sell to the largest possible market, and charge the most the market will bear. The paradox is that this sort of focus is pretty much the exact opposite of how innovation happens. So why not devote a portion of the company’s energy to innovation, while continuing to focus the majority of the resources on proven money makers?

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the traditional way a company invested in the future was to create a separate organizational unit called “research and development” or R&D. The R&D staff spent 100 percent of their time on innovation; everybody else spent 100 percent of their time taking care of existing business. But the well-documented problem with this model is the “hand-off” problem: taking an innovative new idea from R&D and handing it over to the rest of the organization. All too often, the organization can’t manage the transition and good ideas fail to be implemented. The most famous example is Xerox, which created a legendary R&D group in Palo Alto called the Palo Alto Research Center or PARC. In the 1970s, PARC developed most of the technologies that we associate with personal computing today: windows and mouse user interface, laser printer, networking, pull down menus, etc. (The Apple Macintosh was famously inspired by Xerox’s innovations.) And yet, Xerox failed the “hand off” and never made any money from its innovations.

Many innovation managers now believe that the “tinkering time” philosophy can avoid the hand off problem, by embedding innovation throughout the organization rather than way off in a separate campus.

So why is Alec Foege critical? He argues that it rarely works. (Even as he cites famous examples of new products that emerged from tinkering time, like gmail at Google.) He claims that employees find it “terrifying” and that truly innovative people are completely different from the kind of people companies like to hire. Real tinkerers are “dilettantes, free-form creative types motivated more by their own curiosity than by the bottom line”. He points out that if you are “ordered to tinker” then where’s the passion?

This isn’t what I’ve seen when I visit places like Gore and Google. I see people who are very passionate about their 10 percent project. They don’t seem terrified to me. That’s because failure is welcomed as a step toward later success. And it’s easy to come up with a long list of successful new products and services that emerged from tinkering time…so I’m puzzled that Foege would say “it rarely works.”

Here’s his proposed solution:  tinkerers should profit more from their innovations than the company does; companies should avoid aimlessness and instead demand creativity within clear goals. Well, we already know what will happen if companies do that. If tinkerers profit from their ideas, then people become possessive and selfish and collaboration dies. If companies provide clear goals, then you’ll never get a surprising, disruptive new idea.

I still plan to read Foege’s new book, The Tinkerers: The Amateurs, DIYers, and Inventors Who Make American Great. I’m just a bit more optimistic that it IS possible to foster tinkering within a company; you don’t have to be a loner in a garage to be innovative.

*Alec Foege, “The trouble with tinkering time.” Wall Street Journal, Jan 19-20, 2013, page C3.