The terms innovation and design thinking are used so often in so many different contexts, often interchanged, and sometimes misused. What do they really mean? More importantly, how do they relate to each other?

SpiralThese questions set the stage for “Innovation and Design Thinking,” the first Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) offered by the University of Cincinnati and the largest course ever taught since it was founded in 1819. Nearly two thousand students from around the world are participating.
The truth is, from our experience, there is no consensus on a definition of innovation or design thinking.  Jim Tappel and I have had many conversations about it with a variety of people through the years. Finding agreement has been elusive.  Perhaps these terms are so broad that seeking a definition is like seeking a definition of leadership. There are many, many ways to approach it.
Consider just a few of the comments from participants in this week’s Discussion Board:
•    From Francis Milbower:

“In my mind, I see innovation as a solution to some sort of need, such as a customerneed, market need, performance improvement, etc. Design thinking is then thesystematic tools or process used in order to make that innovation come to life.Innovation can occur but some sort of design thinking is required in order for thatinnovation to prove to be successful.”

•    From Bernardo Szulanski:

“In my perspective innovation provides value and actually deliver a solution to aproblem, and Design Thinking is a discipline and a methodical way to identifyproblems and analyse the capabilities to create innovation.”

•    From Ashley Moran:

“In my mind, design thinking comes into the process – using tools like the spiralmodel – in order to keep the team on track toward achieving the innovation goal(i.e., solving customer problems). Design thinking is to clearly and thoroughlydefine the problem, think inside the box to postulate ideas to fix the problem andthen see those ideas come to fruition – all while keeping the target audience inmind.”

•    From Paul Reader:

“In discussions around a perceived problem it can often be the case where someonesays “That’s not the problem!” Asking the question “Why is it not the problem?” canelicit either: a solution to that part or perception A. of the problem; B. a more refined definition; and/or C. a discovery of dependence/independence between attributes of the problem. By doing this the focus remains ‘inside the box’, even if we don’t normally think of it that way when we are doing it.”

•    From John Bowen:

“How I am understanding this is that Design Thinking can’t happen withoutInnovation. First you have the Innovation that then leads you to the DesignThinking but the Innovation piece means very little without the Design Thinking.Innovation is the problem being solved with an idea and Design Thinking takes it astep further by thinking about how this idea would be put into action.”

You’ll find even more evidence of this debate when you watch the “Voice of the Practitioner” video in Week One. These five seasoned pro’s have their own unique take on it depending on their experiences and what is working for them in their organizations. (Hint!)
We advise the following. Don’t worry too much about nailing down precise, universal definitions of these terms. We encourage you to use this course as a way to provoke new insight and understanding about the world of innovation and design. Then, use those insights to craft a meaning that is right for the type of company you work for and the culture that exists there. The structure of your innovation and design thinking programs should follow the strategy of your company, not the other way around. In other words, you get to choose what innovation and design thinking mean!
By now, you should have noticed the peer-to-peer interaction in the Discussion Board. Learning is a social phenomena, and we are encouraged how participants are helping each other and debating issues between each other, not with us. As faculty, our job in this course is to provoke you to think in new ways, not to give you definite answers. We see ourselves as equal participants in the Discussion Board along with everyone else. Trust us: you will learn more from the wisdom of this highly experienced and diverse group of MOOC participants. Just look at where our participants come from – 55 countries!
MOOC Usage Map 10-13-10
In closing, we want to thank you for joining us on this pilot program. We hope to learn as much as you, and we want you to know how much we appreciate your engagement and passion for this topic.