Berkeley MBA for Executives Class Dives into Applied Innovation

On a Wednesday morning, a group of five MBA for Executives students in the conference room at Grace Cathedral are discussing what people hate—and love—about their commutes.

Johanna Liu, MBA 15, (center), grabs a marker and starts sketching the circles and lines of a diagram that help her group to visually organize information. It’s called mind mapping, and the ultimate goal is to help her team capture messy data so it can generate dozens of ideas that apply to commuting—by car, train, van pool, bus or motorcycle.

The 69 students are just starting the EMBA Program’s Applied Innovation Week and the room is buzzing. Held April 14-18 in San Francisco, the week combines consumer-focused design coursework, visits to some of the hottest local design firms, talks by top corporate innovation leaders, and the creation of a business model canvas to deepen the students’ understanding of innovation in their own organizations.

Led by Haas Senior Lecturer Sara Beckman, (below), Applied Innovation Week is one the five EMBA field immersions, all with a special industry or curricular focus. The week immerses students in the mindset, skillset, and toolset associated with innovative thinking. Her core-curriculum course, Problem Finding, Problem Solving (PFPS), teaches students how to collaborate effectively, open up problems, and find more innovative solutions.

“It’s a challenging process, but after this week the students should leave with an understanding of a new framework for innovation and problem solving that they can apply in their own workplaces,” she says.

Immersion Goes Global

The Class of 2015 completed its first immersion week in Napa Valley, centering on Leadership Communications with Haas Lecturer Mark Rittenberg, and then in Silicon Valley,  focusing on entrepreneurship with Prof. Toby Stuart. Students will travel to Brazil in August for a week led by Haas Lecturer Flavio Feferman, and to Washington DC in December, for a week led by Prof. Laura Tyson.

“EMBA’s field immersions are designed to be transformative,” says Assistant Dean and EMBA Executive Director Mike Rielly. “We go deep, immersing the class in new experiences and curriculum, and connecting them to industry leaders, influential CEOs, policy-makers, entrepreneurs, and business leaders who often become part of their lifelong networks.”

The Frontier of Design

The San Francisco Applied Innovation Week kicked off in downtown San Francisco Tuesday night, with an event at Autodesk Gallery featuring Bill O’Connor founder of the Autodesk Innovation Genome Project—a study of 2.6 million years of innovations that looks for patterns to distill innovation to its essence.

The week also included visits to SF design firms  Cooper, frog, IDEO, and Lunar, and a meeting with local corporate innovation lab leaders who are members of the Berkeley Roundtable on Applied Innovation and Design (BRAID).  Students also participated in a storytelling session with Haas Executive-in-Residence David Riemer and a session on leading innovation in organizations with Haas Executive-in-Residence Barbara Waugh.

How Might We….?

Back at Grace Cathedral Wednesday, students are huddled around tables in small groups. Marymoore Patterson, BCEMBA 10, who spent more than 20 years in customer research with Panasonic, is moving about the room, assisting Beckman with the student commuting exercise.

The students have come prepared—armed with research on commuting-related topics ranging from which towns and cities have the worst roads, to rising incidents of road rage, to the percentage of commuters who ride to work alone. They’ve also interviewed people about their commuting experiences—highlighting safety, traffic, convenience, and affordability issues as well as the emotional responses, positive and negative, people have to their commutes.
Each student has two minutes to tell a story from those interviews. Liu, director of pharmacy at Santa Clara Family Health Plan, says her subject “basically hates BART. If there’s no parking spot when he shows up at BART he has to go home and email his boss that he’s telecommuting.” Liu said the man was once stuck for hours in a dark tunnel without cell phone service after BART broke down. Ryan Evans, an Air Force reserve pilot, discussed the pros and cons of using a free van pool with a commuter. It’s free and safe, Evans said, but the downside is “you give up time for money because you have to stop and pick up people in the van pool.”

Getting to Insights
By lunch, the group’s mind map is done and Post-its featuring dozens of ideas are stuck in rows next to the map. (“Road rage incidents are on the rise!” “West Coast cities have some of the worst roads in the world.” “Over 75 percent of the commuters drive by themselves.”)

Christine Elfalan, EMBA 15 and head of product at The Bouqs Company, an online flower retailer, is nudging the group forward, trying to narrow the information down and complete Beckman’s key question, which she uses in all of her exercises to move from insights to concept generation: How might we…?

“The objective for the morning is to get to that insight, working with a specific framework around commuting,” Beckman said. “How might we reduce the stress for commuters, how might we help commuters connect with their commuters while commuting?”

The team weighs three potential ideas from each member. With two minutes to deadline, they quickly votes and come up with winning ideas: “save time” and “relax.” Their question: how might we save time and relax while commuting?

For their final project, the class will apply the day’s innovation process to one aspect of their jobs. On Thursday and Friday, the class, assisted by Haas lecturer David Charron, used the same process to help students innovate new business models for their own organizations.

The innovation work proved more difficult than expected, said Ryan Blood, EMBA 15, who works with a Seattle-based energy company.  “I have to solve problems at my job but I don’t think of myself as an innovator,” he said. “But even though it’s not my usual role, I’m discovering that I can learn to innovate.”

– Sara Beckman photo by Lucky Sandhu