Cases and the challenge of teaching innovation management

Keith Goffin, Professor of Innovation and New Product Development and Rick Mitchell, Visiting Professor of Innovation at Cranfield School of Management, discuss cases in the teaching mix.

Alt textInnovation is widely recognised as a key way of achieving competitive advantage. From the insights of the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter in the 1930s, to the numerous surveys of top managers of recent years, the conclusions are the same: companies must be effective at managing innovation. In both manufacturing and service sectors, the need to innovate is clear. However, the ways in which it can be achieved are less obvious and managers face a real challenge.

For seven years, we have regularly taught innovation management to MBA students and executives at a number of business schools. Teaching this fascinating, challenging subject, we face a similar challenge to managers. There is a plethora of concepts, tools, techniques and theories available and we have found that an effective way to teach this very practical subject is to first provide a clear overview. Then we use a carefully selected mix of teaching methods, including case studies, to explain the concepts, tools and techniques. Because managing innovation is context dependent, there are no panaceas. This means that case studies are an ideal medium within the teaching toolkit. Sometimes we use cases to highlight the issues, before giving lectures that cover key tools and techniques for dealing with them. On other occasions, we expect students to apply tools and techniques we have already discussed. We always use some of our own cases in our courses, as we find the discipline of case writing an ideal way to keep our knowledge up to date. Sometimes lectures and case studies cannot, in isolation, support the achievement of the teaching objectives and, for example, we have found that it is essential to use a management simulation1 to convey the intricacies of new product development.

Pentathlon Framework

In 1999 we completed a research project which looked at how managers in Germany and the UK perceived innovation management. We found that senior managers spoke of the strong contrast between managing quality and managing innovation. In managing quality, they felt they understood the necessary steps to achieve improvements. For the latter, they lamented that clear ways to manage innovation were lacking. Innovation management has been compared to a marathon in that it needs stamina and tenacity. However, the implication that innovation management requires high performance in a single discipline is misleading. It is more complex and a better analogy is a pentathlon, where good performance in five areas is essential. Consequently, we have developed the Innovation Pentathlon Framework,2 shown above, which identifies five key elements of innovation management:

  • Ideas
    ways to generate creative ideas, which address customer requirements
  • Prioritization
    selecting the best ideas to make the best use of available resources
  • Implementation
    quickly and efficiently developing new products, using cross-functional teams, prototyping and testing
  • Innovation strategy
    top management is responsible for developing the strategy to drive innovation
  • People and organisation
    creating a ‘culture of innovation’.

Teaching mix

The Pentathlon Framework allows us to structure our MBA and executive education teaching around the five elements. To explain the concepts, issues and key tools and techniques associated with each element of the Pentathlon, we use a mix of teaching methods: lectures, company examples, discussion, videos, case studies, practical exercises, and simulations. Innovation should be taught in a lively way. So our choice of the appropriate mix for each element is driven by its teaching objectives, the aim to have a lot of interaction and the goal to make the sessions challenging and fun.

We use a different mix to teach each element of the Pentathlon.3 For example, we would typically teach Ideas for four hours, in one or two sessions and would start with a lecture. This would explain the importance of organisations generating customer-focused ideas for innovations and give an overview of the theory of creativity. Then we use a group-based creativity exercise that illustrates the concepts and gives students and delegates first-hand experience of creative problem solving. A second short lecture with videos illustrates leading-edge methods for understanding the needs of customers. A case study is an ideal way to consolidate the learning for the final hour. The chart above shows how the teaching mix can be selected for the Implementation element including case suggestions. In practice, the teaching mix will evolve over time as new material or cases become available.

Innovation management is a relatively new subject and the best ways to teach it are still emerging, just as business practice is moving fast. It is a subject in which teaching materials and approaches constantly need updating, but that is one of the things that we particularly like. Because, if you teach innovation, your students always expect something novel, something special. We hope that this article will stimulate wider discussion on the teaching of innovation management and look forward to hearing from colleagues.

1 Goffin, K and Mitchell, R “Teaching New Product Development Using the ‘Cranfield CityCar’ Simulation”, BizEd, Vol V, No 2, January/February 2006, pp 42-45.
2 Goffin, K and Mitchell, R Innovation Management: Strategy and Implementation Using the Pentathlon Framework, Palgrave MacMillan, 2005 (ISBN 1-4039-1260-2).
3 Download key points and case recommendations for each element of the Pentathlon

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