When Innovation Is Guided by Character

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Monday, August 7, 2023
By Daniel Gruber, Jared Byrne
Photo by iStock/dontree_m
Arizona State University follows design aspirations that direct its actions. The newest, Practice Principled Innovation, focuses on societal impact.
  • Principled Innovation recognizes that society cannot pursue innovation at any cost, but must consider how inventions might be used and how they will affect different groups.
  • ASU’s teachers’ college was the first unit at the university to develop and incorporate a PI framework, but the design aspiration is now being adopted by all schools on campus.
  • The W.P. Carey School of Business is considering how existing programs align with PI and how new programs can be designed to incorporate it.

Innovation is a cornerstone of the philosophy at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe. But merely producing novel research or products does not enable the university to meet its innovation goals. We want to create positive change for humanity by imagining new concepts, catalyzing ideas, and forming new solutions.

We call this approach Principled Innovation (PI), and it is guided by moral, civic, intellectual, and performance character. PI acknowledges that what we do at the university affects the lives and learning of others, because we create conditions for humans and communities to flourish.

At ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business, we know we are educating tomorrow’s leaders. Therefore, we have made it a priority to integrate PI throughout our teaching, research, and community engagement.

What Is Principled Innovation?

Principled Innovation’s origins are rooted in years of research in the field of character development and education. But it only recently became a focus of the larger university when it was adopted as one of the design aspirations that ASU uses to describe how it fulfills its charter.

While the charter emphasizes inclusivity and accountability, the aspirations set out more specific goals. The original eight aspirations call for us to leverage our physical setting, transform society, value entrepreneurship, conduct use-inspired research, enable student success, fuse intellectual disciplines, be embedded in the community, and engage globally.

By making “Practice Principled Innovation” its newest aspiration, the university acknowledges that it must place character and values at the center of our decisions and actions, take responsibility for how the things we produce might be used, and fulfill our promise of inclusion. We must consider whose voice is or is not heard, and we must monitor how disparate or unintentional impacts might affect different groups.

The idea of PI initially was introduced at ASU in 2018 in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College (MLFTC). The school had recently received a grant from the Kern Family Foundation to build character development—a lifelong process of constructing dispositions such as empathy, honesty, reflection, and critical thinking—into the systems of teacher and leader preparation. The focus on character sparked a conversation about principled innovation and decision-making at the college, and challenging questions and important arguments quickly emerged. Whose morals should be considered? Whose virtues? Whose character?

The university must place character and values at the center of our decisions and actions, take responsibility for how the things we produce might be used, and fulfill our promise of inclusion.

Representatives of the W.P. Carey School were brought in to analyze MLFTC’s early efforts. The teachers’ college had shared the concept widely, encouraging students, faculty, staff, local ASU partners, and leaders in the field of education to bring PI into every aspect of the school.

MLFTC also used PI to drive the redesign of one of its core activities: teacher-preparation programs. School administrators wanted to know how they could do a better job of preparing students who would stay in the profession and flourish. By consciously applying PI principles, administrators were able to develop a comprehensive, widely participatory review of these teacher-preparation programs.

MLFTC’s efforts set the stage for ASU to consider the broader ramifications of PI, and in early 2023 it was adopted as a design aspiration for the whole university. ASU invited the W.P. Carey School of Business and three other schools to lead the implementation of PI into their teaching, research, and community engagement efforts. The goal is to integrate the unique approaches of different colleges across the university.

PI in the Business School

Seeing what MLFTC was able to accomplish over a three-year period allowed the W.P. Carey School to think big about what we could do in a similar amount of time. As we joined the first wave of universitywide implementation, school leaders began to look differently at both our existing programs and the new initiatives that we were co-creating.

The two of us were selected to be College Catalysts for the W.P. Carey School. The university created the position of College Catalyst so each school would have someone overseeing its efforts to infuse the Practice Principled Innovation aspiration into its processes and programs. Since taking on that role, we have been able to advance several initiatives that had already been in motion while envisioning new ideas.

To begin with, we looked at ways PI connected to our school’s mission, which was updated as part of a larger strategic planning process that took place under our new dean, Ohad Kadan. We found that there are many ways in which the business school’s strategy already aligns with the PI tenets of focusing on character, taking responsibility for what we produce, and being inclusive.

For instance, W.P. Carey’s revised mission explicitly calls for us to actively engage with our campus. In addition, it requires us to infuse entrepreneurship and innovation into all our programs to help students develop entrepreneurial skills and an entrepreneurial mindset. These activities track well with PI.

We also identified ways in which Principled Innovation is all around us in our research, teaching, and on-campus experiences. In terms of research, some of our scholars focus on the mechanisms of PI by studying trust, fairness, justice, and ethics. In terms of teaching, we offer classes on creativity and innovation, entrepreneurship and value creation, and the entrepreneurship journey from opportunity to impact. Finally, many of the experiences we create for students, faculty, and staff also incorporate elements of PI.

Principled Innovation helps us recognize that society must move beyond a philosophy that favors innovating at any cost.

Another step we took was determining a set of demonstration projects that would bring the Practice Principled Innovation aspiration into the school in meaningful ways. One demonstration project is our New Venture Challenge, which is both a course and a competition. Through it, we can provide our top entrepreneurial students with funding, mentorship, and networking opportunities that will enable them to make principled changes in society.

Finally, we are changing how we utilize our physical spaces. Traditionally, schools reserve certain parts of their facilities for specific disciplines or projects, but we view that as a zero-sum way to coordinate resources. Instead, we are deliberately bringing together disparate groups as a way to make our physical spaces more inclusive and more representative of our audience. By creating interdisciplinary areas, we will promote the creative collisions that generate novel ideas and foster diverse discussions.

Three Ways to Build Momentum

Like many of ASU’s other design aspirations, Practice Principled Innovation helps us recognize that society must move beyond a philosophy that favors innovating at any cost. Instead, we must consider how each innovation will impact the users who will be directly affected. Because business schools explore how to implement innovations in the market, it is particularly important that we train students to consider end users as key decision-makers in the development of any innovation. If we pursue a more interactive, democratized form of innovation that includes more voices, we can create a brighter collective future.

AACSB member schools are already focused on innovation, engagement, and impact as they fulfill the association’s vision “to transform business education globally for positive societal impact.” But we would suggest three more ways schools can build momentum around Principled Innovation initiatives:

Align with the goals of the larger university. Because every school at ASU participates in the design aspirations, every school contributes to the advancement and success of those aspirations.

Partner with other schools on campus. When business schools become their own metaphorical islands, they are disconnected from the central leadership of the university, as well as from other schools. As the W.P. Carey School collaborates with other units on campus to implement PI, we are learning from each other. We also are considering jointly developing even more meaningful programs and initiatives.

Include all stakeholders. It is often easier to implement an initiative like PI without involving the entire school community, but such an approach misses the breadth of opportunities that are available. If schools bring students, staff, and faculty on board, they set the stage for schoolwide transformation.

Business schools play an essential role in educating tomorrow’s leaders, producing impactful research, and guiding entrepreneurs through the process of venture creation and technology transfer. When we commit our schools to Practice Principled Innovation, we can create innovation ecosystems that help business leaders realize their dreams while positively impacting society. Our schools not only can consider what we are already doing in this space, we also can come up with programs and initiatives that extend even beyond our current practices and visions.

Daniel Gruber
Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning, College Catalyst for Principled Innovation, W.P Carey School of Business, Arizona State University
Jared Byrne
Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and New Business Design, College Catalyst for Principled Innovation, W.P. Carey School of Business, Arizona State University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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