An Innovation “Unconference” in the High Sierras

Prototyping an Innovation Canvas

“The design, innovation, and entrepreneurship processes … are anything but structured  with jumps, loops, roadblocks, and pivots.” – Dr. William Kline, Dean of Innovation and Engagement

Epicenter Retreat 2012

What happens when over 60 of the leading educators and scholars in the fields of entrepreneurship and innovation come together in a setting of spectacular scenery and opportunity for reflection and collaboration?  The Stanford Epicenter program hosted a two and a half day conference focused on advances in entrepreneurship and innovation education, and I had the very good fortune to attend. (Photos)

In an ‘unconference’ format at the Stanford Sierra Camp at South Lake Tahoe, the gathering was led through exercises to build collegiality and to identify topics of interest to advance the effectiveness of undergraduate education in entrepreneurship and innovation.  As the workshop progressed, working groups formed around topics of interest and converged on sharing ideas and developing prototypes to illustrate their ideas.  It all culminated on the final evening with inspiring presentations by each team to the assembled group on topics ranging from online courses to dealing with ABET.

A model for bringing technical and business thinkers together

My group of two was small but mighty and focused on developing an ‘innovation canvas’ to use as a teaching tool in entrepreneurship and innovation courses.  My partner was Cory Hixson, graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in Engineering Education at Virginia Tech.   Before the conference at Rose-Hulman, a small faculty working group has considered the idea of a ‘design canvas’ and the collaboration time with Cory provided the opportunity to expand and develop the concept.

The inspiration for the work is the ‘business model canvas’ from the popular text Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur.  The canvas provides a unique approach to developing the case for a new business opportunity by presenting the key themes to consider in a canvas concept which encourages a team approach to sequential and simultaneous thinking as new information is added to the canvas.  The canvas concept is a great teaching tool so why not develop a canvas for the larger problem of getting from initial concept to business model.

The real insight of the canvas concept comes from the fact that the design, innovation, and entrepreneurship processes are often modeled as step by step processes, chapter outlines, or some other structured format.  In reality, the processes are anything but structured with jumps, loops, roadblocks, pivots. And success (or failure) is often reached in mysterious ways though a team approach and simultaneously considering a broad range of issues.  The canvas encourages the team approach, and it opens up the traditional modeling process to accommodate both sequential and simultaneous consideration of key themes.

“We began with the business model canvass shown in the lower right quadrant of our model, and added the three new areas.” (This is a 2D representation of a 3D interactive graphic.)

Over the span of a morning working session, Cory and I developed a prototype for an ‘Innovation Canvas’ to capture the technical and business process of going from concept and opportunity recognition to developing the business case for the idea.  Cory is a Prezi whiz and whipped up a great presentation in about 30 minutes to capture the key thoughts.  We sketched a round canvas with ‘value’ at the center, as value creation is a fundamental measure of success or failure.  We landed on four main phases (rendered as quadrants): concept, innovate, design, and business model. We took the Osterwalder/Pigneur business model canvas, as-is, and used it for our fourth (“business model”) quadrant. Then we set about identifying the key themes to consider in each phase. The key themes were detailed as puzzle pieces in each of the four quadrants.

Of course, it would take more time and work to fill in the blanks, developing the useful ideas of our prototype sketches to arrive at a model we could test in the classroom. But already I could envision a technical and a business person standing in front of the canvas and each making contributions to filling in the canvas for a new venture.

So what’s next?

At the close of the conference we were encouraged to continue working on our ideas and prototypes.  Cory and I intend to continue working on the Innovation Canvas concept and in addition to the Rose-Hulman working group, several of our colleagues at the conference from Bradley, Olin, Saint Louis University, and Arizona State also indicated an interest in supporting the effort as well.  Several have used the business model canvas in their classes. In the spirit of innovation and taking a team approach, it will be great to have the insights and experience of a diverse group aimed at further development.

Where will it end up?

Who knows, but stay tuned.  The business model canvas concept is red hot these days. It is certain that others are working on the same concept of an expanded canvas for the innovation and design phases and we may be scooped by them.  Let’s see if our group can advance the idea, share ideas along the way, and maybe publish results in a paper or two for all to build upon.

Business Model Generation on Amazon

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