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MIT’s Blade Kotelly on Innovation – and How it Can be Mastered by All

MIT Professional Education, which provides continuing education courses and lifelong learning opportunities for science, engineering, and technology professionals at all levels from around the world, is a MassTLC member and a sponsor of our Technology & Innovation community.

Among the many courses offered through MIT Professional Education is one co-taught by senior lecturer Blade Kotelly called “Mastering Innovation and Design Thinking.”  The course teaches professionals to learn to think — and drive value — like designers. Students acquire new ways to conceive of radically innovative solutions, to create a vision that gains buy-in, and to develop solutions that people embrace, emotionally and intellectually.

Blade hosted a webinar, The Crossroads of Digital Transformation and Innovation, with MassTLC on January 28th. Listen to the discussion here:



We spoke recently with Blade about how innovation can be learned and pursued by many professionals, and how the COVID pandemic has fostered and enabled innovation.


Do you need to be a creative person in order to innovate?

Being highly creative is helpful but it is not necessary in order to innovate. Part of the reason many people think innovation in an inborn, unteachable quality is they confuse innovation with creativity. While these terms are somewhat related, they’re not the same, and the distinction is important.

There are ways to maximize your creative skills and many techniques to channel creativity, but I don’t see people actually becoming more creative. Innovation, on the other hand, is about harnessing a set of tools that enable you to discover new ideas and get the highest possible value out of them. Creativity helps with some of the steps in an innovation process, to make connections that others don’t see. But much of the process is centered around a rigorous analysis — an analysis that you can get better at by practicing.

Does it take a certain temperament to be a good innovator? Or let me ask that another way: How important are emotions to the ability to innovate?

Research tells us that our emotional reactions to problems tell a lot about how innovative we are. If, when you encounter a problem,  you become emotionally closed-off, then you’re unlikely to find an innovative solution. People who react coolly and calmly to problems are more likely to see them as opportunities for innovation, and act accordingly.

This is a skill that can be practiced and learned. You’ve probably done it. When you were a young child and hated going to the doctor or dentist — you were sensitized to something that you believed would be uncomfortable or painful. But as adults, most of us realize that while being stuck with a needle at the doctor might be uncomfortable, we can be calm and cool-headed when going for a typical check-up or routine procedure. We’ve learned to react to the stimulus differently. If you learn to do this at work when a problem arises, you will be in a much better position to innovate.

As a teacher of innovation, what are some of the obstacles you see in students that they must overcome?

Innovation is often a matter of how a person adapts to different situations. That’s something that can be taught, even to leaders and employees who haven’t demonstrated particularly innovative behaviors in the past. Here’s an example: I teach people to avoid “bikeshedding” — shorthand for the common tendency to focus on trivial details while neglecting more important matters. (The term gets its name from a hypothetical committee tasked with approving plans for a nuclear power plant, whose members might spend most of their time on trivial and easy-to-grasp tasks such as choosing materials for a staff bike shed.) By recognizing such unproductive behaviors, people can adopt behaviors more conducive to innovation.

If you are working with a business or organization — and trying to build and grow innovation — how important is it that everyone in that organization be innovative?

Well,  the accounting team might not need to be as innovative as your product development teams. But everyone throughout the organization should have at least a basic understanding of innovation, or else they might squash innovation by accident. Here’s an example: if a sales team comes up with a new contract structure that will increase overall revenue, you want accountants who will recognize the value of the change and help facilitate it.

By determining how innovative different teams need to be — and then assessing to see where people actually are — business leaders can improve innovation throughout their organizations and create a competitive edge.

I know you’ve been thinking a lot about innovation that has occurred organically in many organizations that have had to dramatically change operations because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  What innovation have you seen from remote work?

In some firms, employees are collaborating more effectively than they were even before the crisis hit, communications throughout organizations have become clearer and more purposeful, and more team members are contributing valuable ideas to in-progress projects.

Is there one company that stands out in your mind for the innovations made through the pandemic?

There are many.  One that comes quickly to mind is the software security company r2c, a venture-backed startup in San Francisco. Remote work tools  forced employees to create a written record of their work and thinking — an invaluable tool for a company striving to create innovative technical products.

When businesses are innovating quickly, they build up large libraries of institutional knowledge that often exist only in the minds of employees. People seldom take the valuable step of codifying even the foundational elements of this knowledge. So things can quickly get confusing when a company needs to onboard a group of new employees who lack access to this essential information.

Through tools like persistent chat, a remote work model tends to naturally lead to repositories of important information. This provides benefits not only to new hires, but also to existing teams. Recently, I’ve been working on a project with two colleagues — one based in Boston and the other based in New Zealand. Most of our shared thinking occurs in a Slack channel. Not only does this allow us to contribute our ideas across time zones, but it gives us a record to look back on when we need to clarify something. It’s an enormous help.

Working remotely has meant longer hours for some workers, but has given others more flexibility and perhaps more free time.  Have you seen the impact of this on innovation?

Absolutely.  You can’t innovate without solving problems, and you can’t solve problems without first thinking them through.

Often, the process of thinking out innovative new solutions to longstanding problems is slow and seemingly passive. To an outside observer, it can look like wasted time. Too many workplace cultures place such an emphasis on productivity — or even appearing to be productive — that employees don’t feel as though they can carve out this incredibly valuable time to think and reflect.

But now, working at home, employees are freed from the pressure of having to constantly look busy. If they want to go for a run or even stare at a wall for an hour to get into a creative mindset, they’re able to do that — even if sometimes they have to use hacks to make sure they appear to be online and working. This sort of “thinking time” should be a part of the workday in the office, too — especially for employees expected to contribute to innovation.

Taking the time to think, brainstorming, is a big part of one of your main areas of pursuit — design thinking. Give us your overview of design thinking and how important time to think is to it. 

Design thinking is about challenging underlying assumptions and getting underneath things in new ways. It’s a structured method for innovation – one that anyone can learn how to do. Many companies have gotten out of the habit of truly innovating. They’re good at taking existing systems and structures and improving them in some way or offering them to a new set of users.  However, with design thinking, organizations can be more disruptive and that’s what leaders today at the executive level want to do. You need to apply a proven methodology, and that methodology must include taking the time and making the effort to brainstorm the problem from a number of different vantage points.

So what are some key attributes of design thinking?

One, design thinking encourages radical thinking. For example, if someone wanted to come up with a better can opener, they could simply improve upon the existing design that fits within legacy systems and structures. However, if they were taking a design thinking approach, they would question those assumptions and take a more expansive view of the problem. Is there a way to open the can in a new way? Is the can even the ideal container – or could they design an entirely different one that is more easily opened or does not require a can opener at all?

Two, design thinking enables deeper stakeholder understanding. It is absolutely critical to identify and involve key stakeholders in a problem space. Who’s involved in the sometimes complex network of people that could solve the problem? What roles do they play?

Three, design thinking reduces risk. It can not only enable organizations to become more adaptable and responsive, it can reduce the risk associated with transformative innovation. Organizations can create a clear vision that gets buy-in from senior leaders and deliver solutions that users or end customers are more likely to adopt.  Leaders can use design thinking to envision better experiences for users or customers and build technologies and processes around that.

How can organizations keep the Covid-generated innovation going, once the pandemic recedes and — pardon the cliche — “work returns to normal?”

Well, not every company is going to stick with a completely work-from-home model as the worst of the crisis abates. But every organization should carefully consider ways to capture the benefits they’ve found from new workflows during the pandemic. A business might allow employees to work remotely on Mondays and Fridays, for instance. Or employees in the office might simply leave Zoom sessions open for hours at a time, allowing them to occasionally check in with remote workers for brief chats.

When you’re in survival mode, it’s sometimes hard to see what you’re doing well. But people are constantly innovating right now as they figure out new ways to be productive, keep their energy up, communicate with their colleagues, and maintain their sense of humor during a stressful time. By learning from current successes and applying them to their everyday workflows after the crisis, companies will more fully realize their employees’ capacity for innovation.

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