How business schools can (still) encourage innovation


In my time at Ashridge so far I’ve noticed that perhaps the most common problem our custom education clients present us with is their struggle to innovate as large bureaucratic organizations.

Added on 13 September 2016 by Julian Thompson

Innovation learning

How can people who have been trained and rewarded as managers, experts and planners become entrepreneurs, innovators and creatives? And how can this become everyone’s business everywhere, every day, and not just the preserve of the senior management or the R&D department?

When you hear some of the threats and opportunities they face, often in the same breath, you can see why they now regard it as a necessity, not a luxury.

One, a local Council in the UK, is facing 40% cuts in its budget over the next four years. They need nothing short of an innovation revolution in how they run their public services if they are going to keep up with the expectations of their residents.

Another, a major financial services company, faces anything from extinction to rapid growth as a result of a new disruptive technology. Rather than fall prey, how can they explore and harness its potential?

One client from a large charity put it succinctly: “we have become very good at just turning the handle. What happens when the world changes and the handle no longer works?”

So how can a business school help? Aren’t innovators and entrepreneurs forged in the fire of direct experience rather than in the tepid waters of the classroom?

Taking a leap into the unknown, and improvising as you go, is certainly a big part of the equation.

But the celebrated archetype of the entrepreneur or innovator is too individualistic. It ignores the environmental conditions, the collective contributions and serendipitous discoveries that pave the way to success.

And this is where I can see a real role for business schools acting as a spur for organizations to adapt and renew themselves.  

We have a unique challenge: to help large organizational populations with lots of legacy issues, to collaborate, share ideas and coordinate their responses to complex, dynamic situations.

What gives me hope that business schools do have a role is what I’ve seen in my experience so far.

I’ve seen how large groups of employees can – often with only minimal stimulation and encouragement - unlock their innate abilities to think around problems, probe for possibilities and develop very promising concepts and prototypes in a remarkably short period of time.  And these come from all levels of the hierarchy, and all kinds of surprising functional roles.

How does this happen?

To start with, the environment matters. We bring people into a variety of online, offline, familiar and unfamiliar environments to stimulate new thinking and interactions. Improvisational exercises, unusual stimulus, simulations, tours, virtual spaces and disruptive types of facilitation have to be part of the repertoire.

The mood matters too. A key quality to nurture is something I would call ‘lightness’. Being able to let go of the baggage, attend to the new and remember how to think and act freely again. With lightness we can tap into our imagination, and be creative and expansive, but also not get defensive when our ideas receive constructive criticism.

Other elements? Here are a few that I find need to be part of the mix somewhere:

Rules of thumb: helping people develop shared assumptions about how to work together in situations of ambiguity. Using these to structure the time they spend thinking about new ideas saves lots of effort and frustration.

Intention and Impact: there’s too much crap out there. How are innovations genuinely going to help? Why are we doing this? As an educational charity committed to improving our world, we help groups think about the wider benefits (and costs) of their innovations.

Strangeness: people have to be thrown out of their everyday environments, frames of thinking, interacting and working. Our learning experiences must happen in what Ed Schein calls a ‘cultural island’ in which the normal rules of organizational life are suspended.

Structure: there needs to be just enough structure to enable people to improvise successfully together. We find that minimally structured formats like hackathons, rapid prototyping workshops or Open Space can be effective.

Realness: we tend to work on real opportunities rather than just hypothetical exercises, cases or problems.

Constraint:  we apply ‘delightful constraints’ to ensure that people work at pace, on what matters most, in the most ingenious and frugal way possible.

Scaffolding: what happens at a business school has to be sustained back in the workplace through a variety of virtual and in-person forums and minimal structures. Otherwise it’s like blowing air into a tyre with a slow puncture.

In that vein, we switch to being more like ‘community organizers’ and coaches helping small groups of employees to self-organize around micro-experiments and innovations, which we support back in the organization and in periodic bursts of learning and development online and at Ashridge.

Whatever the mix, there is something uniquely challenging, but also rewarding about setting these changes in motion. The emergence of a portfolio of new ideas, experiments and collaborative relationships breathes new life into the organization, and into the individuals and groups who make it happen. It’s a privilege to be part of it, and it’s why I think there’s still a role for business schools in encouraging innovation.  

If you're interested in innovation take a look at our Driving Growth and Innovation open program or contact our team at or 01442 841246