Sunday, May 10, 2015

Northwestern's Non-Linear Approach To Innovation

Northwestern's Non-Linear Approach To Innovation

It’s popular to think that the best, most successful innovators are experts at innovating. The assumption drives much of what’s taught in schools, and marketed by brands to the media. Innovation is a skill, or job description that results in things that evidence it.
Only it’s wrong, or at least a gross oversimplification.
According to Julio Ottino, Dean of Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, innovation is the result of a complex set of behaviors by talented people that link and reinforce each other in unpredictable ways. Ottino draws his inspiration for this view from his research in complex systems and non-linear dynamics, which he has written technical books about. 
True innovation isn’t a thing but the result of many things, and its emergent outcomes can’t always be tracked back to initial causes or conditions. It’s how ants can contribute to building a hill that none of them conceived individually, or why great entrepreneurs and artists credit a flash of insight for personal journeys they couldn’t untangle.
“We’re engineering such a system at Northwestern,” he explained, “We want to understand what makes people able to connect things that others see as separate, and then empower them to design and take novel actions.”
The resulting approach, called “whole brain engineering,” is what engineering students sign up for when they choose Northwestern, and Ottino credits it with helping more than triple the school’s annual applications in only 7 years.

Here’s how he did it:
First, Ottino disrupted the initial conditions upon which the engineering school was based, using his personal experience as an accomplished painter to define a role for creative, “right brain” thinking. “Being an engineer was always equated with what they do, or produce, and we wanted to change the dynamic to value how they think.” 
This step was informed by the concept of “preferential attachment,” which is another quality of non-linear systems theory that states “like attracts like,” and argued for telling prospective engineering students the sort of cross-subject experiences he wanted to give them, so as to empower applicants to self-select thereupon (and co-build the system thereafter). 
Second, he initiated collaboration with just about every other school at Northwestern, using his newly recruited inspired engineers as the trigger to develop joint degrees, jointly-appointed faculty, and other pedagogical partnerships.
“We made a conscious decision to look for ideas that transcend traditional approaches, and utilize all of Northwestern’s resources,” he said. 
He also made sure that new initiatives, such as the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and the Segal Design Institute, involved faculty from across campus, and had mechanisms to bring students from multiple schools. External partnerships were also added to the mix, such as a joint program with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Third, the program had to connect with the development of engineers’ functional skills, not just exist as a parallel track, however interesting it might be. This resulted in a class called “Design Thinking & Communication” co-taught with the Writing Program in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and designated a requirement for the first two quarters of every engineering students’ matriculation at McCormick.
”It’s vitally important that we teach our engineers not to think they have the right answers to every problem, but to know how to identify and define the right questions that need solving,” explained Ottino. “They get challenges to solve and then work collaboratively on them, so we encourage development of both the tools and the capability to innovate.”
Engineering skills thereby become the “Intel  Inside” for a broader and deeper approach to realizing those emergent, unpredictable innovative outcomes.
The results, in addition to a huge leap in applications, have also seen McCormick grow from 16 to 22% of Northwestern’s total student body. Perhaps more intriguingly, a third of its engineering students are women, and that’s without any special or subsidized programs to recruit them, and the 37% of its freshman class that is female is twice the national average.
“We want to disrupt labels like innovator, entrepreneur, or even engineer,” concluded Ottino, “and instead train a new generation of people who have not only the functional technical skills, but broader contextual and collaborative abilities to truly innovate.”
It’s not a huge leap to envision your business as a non-linear complex system, and the challenge similar to Ottino’s: Map a new model that attracts the right people, build programs to inform them, and make it impossible for them not to apply that thinking to the mainstream of their work.
It might not be as easy to communicate as pointing to a tech startup or app, but it could make your entire company more innovative.

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