Teaching Students Next-Level Innovation
- According to Google’s Amy Waldron, business students need to learn to view managing through failure as a skill, not something to be avoided, if they are to keep up with the increasing pace of innovation.
- Google’s eight pillars of innovation offer business schools a blueprint for preparing students to thrive at a time when the workplace is being continuously transformed by technology.
- Waldron advises business schools to teach students to be curious, encourage them to experiment, and inspire them to solve problems that matter to them.
When Amy Waldron started her career over two decades ago, she was hired by Pricewaterhousecoopers (now PwC) because of a chance connection. She had attended a university that was not one from which the company recruited. “I got the job because I had a female neighbor who worked there. She looked at me and said, ‘You’ve got to work here.’ She opened a door to a company and career I knew nothing about at the time.”
Waldron stayed with PwC until she was 40, before taking a position at a mission-based healthcare firm. What she learned in that position laid the groundwork for her current role: Global Director of healthcare and life sciences solutions at Google.
Successful business careers have long been founded on meaningful connections, such as the one that Waldron had with her neighbor. But now such connections have become critical, said Waldron, who spoke to members of AACSB’s Innovation Committee at a Firestarter presentation in April. Today’s business students will need to possess “competence, confidence, purposeful networks and a strong moral compass.” They will need to learn to embrace failure, take advantage of opportunities, and make leaps of faith even when they aren’t sure how things will turn out.
How can business schools effectively prepare students to thrive during a time of great technological and social change? To help educators answer that question, Waldron not only shared experiences from her career, but also delved into lessons she learned during her own graduate management education. Finally, she outlined Google’s eight pillars of innovation, designed to help individuals maximize the positive impact of their best ideas.
‘Five Memories of Grad School’
Waldron credits her long-term career success and personal growth to experiences she had while earning her MBA at Loyola University Chicago. She shared five memories of grad school that she said “changed me as a person.” These included:
- Meeting a nurse who was pursuing an MBA so she could improve how healthcare was being delivered throughout the U.S. This new friendship provided Waldron with a new perspective on the value of a strong business acumen and the impact it could make on something as meaningful as the access to and quality of care.
- Traveling to Italy on a three-week study-abroad experience. Nothing is better, she said, than connecting with people while trying to navigate and learn about a new country.
- Hearing a professor in a technology course declare that “technology is not a differentiator” in an organization’s success. “I didn’t understand it immediately, and now I do,“ she said. “It’s the value you can create with technology that is the differentiator.”
- Taking a course in finance, the topic she had most wanted to avoid. This class turned out to be where she gained skills that she would rely on for the rest of her career.
- Learning about the 1984 Union Carbide explosion in Bhopal, India, in which more than 3,800 people were killed and more than 500,000 people were exposed to toxic gas fumes. That was when Waldron learned “the power of a business decision on a community and the responsibility we all have to understand the impact of our actions.”
These five experiences, Waldron said, “opened my eyes to things and experiences I didn’t know about.” More importantly, she learned that “it’s OK not to know everything, but it’s important to be curious and learn from others along the way.”
That’s the kind of transformational learning experience that business schools can offer, she stressed. “You have no idea how important your jobs are. You are a bridge to important experiences and development.”
‘Eight Pillars of Innovation’
That said, Waldron admitted that the working environment that today’s students will enter is far different from the one she entered 20 years ago. With the rise of data analytics and artificial intelligence, students will need to learn how to manage careers where they’ll be challenged to be highly adaptable, break new ground, and bring their best ideas to fruition.
Waldron noted that Google’s approach could offer useful insights to educators as they consider what—and how—to teach this generation of students. She then described each of the company’s “eight pillars of innovation”:
1. Strive for continual innovation, not instant perfection. It’s been heard at Google, “if you seek perfection, you’ll never make progress.” Determine when something is good enough, Waldron added. Then, “share it for real-world feedback—and embrace the feedback.”
2. Share everything you can. In most corporate contexts, employees want to be recognized for their work, so they often keep their best ideas to themselves. But this tendency stifles innovation. The goal, Waldron noted, is for people to share their ideas and create something bigger and better together —and then “have them be just as proud, if not prouder” of their collective work.
Today’s students need to learn that “it’s OK not to know everything, but it’s important to be curious and learn from others along the way.”
3. If you’re brilliant, we’re hiring. According to Waldron, Google hires based on talent, not titles. As a result, the company employs anthropologists, sociologists, technologists, and many more. These people have three things in common: They’re intelligent, inventive, and adaptable. This principle underscores the fact that people’s ability to learn is often more important than what they already know. “When I was in school, the types of capabilities that exist today didn’t exist,” Waldron said. “The tools, environment, and politics have all changed over time.” That’s why the company’s recruiters “look for a diverse set of brilliant people. Brilliant people just kind of figure it out.”
4. Have a mission that matters. Many are familiar with Google’s 20% Project, in which all of its employees are encouraged to use 20 percent of their work time to pursue their own passion projects. In some cases, Waldron said, the equation flips, and those 20-percent projects become 80-percent projects. Waldron noted that one of the solutions she recently released for Google started as a 20-percent personal project to improve access to healthcare. “I was given the space to figure out how to solve a problem and then how to sell it to the industry.”
5. Look for ideas everywhere. To explain this pillar, Waldron told the story of how her personal project came about. Two years ago, her daughter, who was born with only half of a heart, required a heart transplant. While the procedure was covered by insurance, Waldron was taken aback when medical staff told her it would take at least a week to have the procedure pre-authorized by the insurance company. Waldron began wondering how much such an inefficient process costs annually.
After her daughter received and recovered from her transplant, Waldron worked to better understand the process, which involved many phone calls, many faxes, and administrative back-and-forth. She realized that such an inefficient system doesn’t just make sick patients wait. It also costs the U.S. healthcare system billions each year.
After she made the business case at Google, she teamed up with two other people living in different geographies. After six months, they had a working prototype to pilot at a few large healthcare companies. They accomplished this during COVID-19 lockdowns—the three didn’t meet in person until after the product was tested in the field.
Within two weeks of the pilot, the product had reduced the administrative work involved in prior authorizations by 50 percent, and Waldron hopes to get that number to 80 percent. This example, she said, proves that ideas come from everywhere. In this case, it came from “me, trying to get my child access to a heart.”
6. Spark with imagination, fuel with data. Great ideas are important, Waldron added, but without the ability to gather and analyze data, students will not be able to take their ideas very far. “I knew prior authorization was broken, but I had no case until I had that data,” she emphasized. “Teach people how to measure things and make their business cases. ... Help them think through how they can get someone to say yes to something that doesn’t exist.”
7. Creativity loves restraint. Students should also know how to identify the boundaries of their ideas, so that they aren’t focusing on too much data at once. Perfecting ideas is about “shrinking, testing, shrinking, and then testing again”, she said, in order to narrow in on the paths that are most promising.
Great ideas are important, but without the ability to gather and analyze data, students will not be able to take their ideas very far.
And as they work through the creative process, Waldron added, students also should learn to connect and collaborate with diverse individuals. More important, they should view failures as a form of progress. She characterized failure as a “basic human survival skill.”
8. Users, not competition. Finally, Waldron stressed that it will be critical for students to understand that in today’s market, the most successful people will not be focused on outperforming their competition. They’ll be focused on providing the greatest value to consumers and to society.
Confidence, Connections, and a Moral Compass
Waldron left the committee with a few final thoughts on what students will need to learn to be successful:
- Confidence—how to “have it, fund it, or build it,” she said. “Give people the confidence to be heard when they have an idea, and to show up where they belong even when they don’t feel welcome. Innovation requires diversity of thought.”
- An ability to know what they don’t know—and to find people who do.
- A willingness to challenge themselves.
- A willingness to set aside their egos and address problems honestly.
- A willingness to fail and learn from their mistakes. “Sometimes you have to make a decision, [and do] what’s good enough,” she said. “If you’re wrong, accept it and adjust. That’s what leaders do.”
- An ability to connect the unconnectable. Waldron referred back to how she put together an unlikely team to bring her idea for a healthcare solution to fruition. Good leaders “connect teams, industries, communities, countries, generations,” she added. “Your fiercest competitor today could be your best friend and partner tomorrow.”
- A moral compass. Waldron could “not be more adamant” about the importance of helping future leaders develop moral compasses and an appreciation of the impact their actions can have on the global ecosystem. “A decision you make here might be destroying a community around the globe,” she said. At every stage of their careers, students should be working to help communities advance and thrive.
‘What Experience Are You Providing?’
Her last word was this: Teach students the important business fundamentals. Then get them out into the world “doing cool things” and inspire them to make a difference.
Now’s the time for business schools to ask themselves, “How do you earn the right for people to pay your tuition? What are they getting in return? Why do the businesses want your students?” she advised. Business education remains in demand, she added, but “the reality is, the student is going to you for an experience—what is that experience you’re providing? You need to redefine where you fit in that value equation.”
Just as they were for her, transformational experiences are still what make business education so valuable. The lessons she learned during her MBA program, were “worth a lot more than the tuition.”