MBA@UNC San Francisco Immersion: Fostering Innovation

MBA@UNC’s 2015 domestic immersion was held in San Francisco, California, from March 20–22. Students attended one of two tracks, choosing from the Innovation track and the Data Analytics track, both designed with the always-evolving industries of the Bay Area in mind.

Here are some of the highlights from the Innovation track.

Innovation and Customer Insight

Dr. Sridhar Balasubramanian, UNC Kenan-Flagler

The immersion kicked off with a talk on innovation and customer insight by Dr. Sridhar Balasubramanian, MBA@UNC associate dean. Balasubramanian, or Dr. B, as he is commonly known, urged students to "think not about products or services, but customers." Customer insight, he said, comes via feedback, product pain points and more. Receiving that insight from customers is how you turn your work from a product into a solution.

The first step to creating great customer experiences is to map the customer consumption chain from end to end. Next, examine each step along the way. Ask yourself: how can I make this stage better for consumers? Dr. B offered 15 questions to help map the consumption chain, ranging from how customers find your offering to how it’s delivered, stored and paid for. Each step in this chain, he said, is an opportunity for innovation. Additionally, sub-questions should be asked of each step about the customer, querying who, what, where, when and how. With 15 questions to map the consumption chain and 5 sub-questions about the customer experience, Dr. B’s exercise gave the students 75 potential points of innovation. The students were then tasked with brainstorming innovative solutions for their existing companies, both stretch ideas (unconstrained by existing practice) and constrained/compact ideas (what can be implemented now?).

Micro-innovation, Dr. B said, is a form of thinking inside the box; sometimes the most efficient and effective way to innovate is to look at resources already available. He concluded his talk with a look at macro-innovation — that is, learning to think out of the box (but still doing so systematically).

Wow! Three hours felt like 30 minutes. Dr. B offered insight into innovation processes that was both hilarious and imminently useful! —Katrina Benishek, January 2014 Cohort

Company Visits

After Dr. B’s talk, students split into five groups for visits to local Bay Area companies at the forefront of innovation including Glassdoor, Udemy, Eventbrite, Prosper and Salesforce.

As part of the Innovation track, we visited various companies. I was part of a group that visited Eventbrite. During our tour of the company, we heard from three speakers, including the co-founder. The speakers really reinforced how a company needs to be true to itself and develop a culture that fosters innovation. The passion with which the speakers described Eventbrite was contagious. The question-and-answer sessions afforded us a wonderful opportunity to see how a high-growth industry leader operates and how it sees itself. —Daniel DeCoen, April 2013 Cohort

Upon returning to the immersion, each group debriefed on what they had learned, noting how the companies foster innovation and the role top management plays in the process. Students observed that the companies shared a few traits in common:

  1. Using culture to influence innovation (hiring the right people)
  2. Connecting buyers with sellers directly and building the platform (two-sided market)
  3. Generally avoiding hiring too much for competencies and too little for cultural fit

The students observed that many of these companies sponsor “hackathons” or provide other time for creative thinking, a factor that likely fosters innovation. Dr. B was in agreement, saying that "if we don't create the time and opportunity for innovation, innovation will not happen." The students also noted from their visits that the physical layout of office space can have an impact on collaboration and output, as can the hierarchical structure of a company’s workforce itself. Dr. B noted, "If an organization is too hierarchical, it's hard to be innovative. Once people gather to innovate, hierarchy must go out the window."

Innovation at Electronic Arts

Carolyn Feinstein, formerly with Electronic Arts (EA)

Carolyn Feinstein, formerly with Electronic Arts (EA), was another popular speaker in the Innovation track. When asked how EA keeps ahead of the competition, she reiterated what the company visits had already revealed: "The only true competitive advantage a company has is its culture." Like Dr. B, she urged that companies hire for culture, not competencies. “The people you want are the most passionate, brightest people who are a great culture fit,” she said. “These types of people can learn skills on the fly.”

In order for a cutting-edge company like EA to innovate on the regular, she said, priorities emerge. It’s important to value analysis over blame, growth over comfort, team over ego, and communication over assumption, she noted. At EA, as at other innovative companies, the responsibility for problem solving and innovation rests with everyone, not just with the "creatives." In fact, Feinstein said, "Driving innovation today takes a fundamentally different team than it did a few years ago.” All stakeholders must be willing to adapt in order to move the company forward. Innovation is not easy, but Feinstein said it's never been more critical to meet the rising expectations of consumers.