Learning to innovate

For Tim Kastelle, there is no point in running a program if you don’t think you can make a difference in people’s lives. It is that very philosophy that drives his MBA Program at the University of Queensland. The Associate Professor speaks with Jonathan Jackson about making a difference through innovation in education.

To make a difference requires an innovative approach to pretty much everything: from academia to business, government and even day to day life, without an innovative approach to moving forward, life just stagnates.

The question is how do you innovate effectively – in a way that makes a difference, creates forward momentum and future meaning?

It is not an easy question to answer.

Associate Professor Tim Kastelle is not just a business scholar, he is an author and expert on innovation. But as a recent blog would attest, he believes a simple approach is best. To steal from Nike: Just Do It.

He writes: “The most common barrier to innovation that I hear about in my classes and talks is “But my boss won’t let me…

“Actually… you just need permission from yourself. That’s all you’ve ever needed.”

It is a strong message, and one he wants his UQ students to embrace. According to the Associate Professor, the whole point of education is to make a difference. It is this foundational principle that informs the kinds of graduates he wants at the University of Queensland.

“Students and businesses should all be focused on how to create more value and increase their level of impact on global communities,” Associate Professor Kastelle says.

This is certainly his message in the classroom and the foundational principle that informs the kinds of graduates he wants at the University of Queensland. It also reflects his career in general.

Associate Professor Kastelle graduated with a degree in economics from Princeton University, before working in management roles. When his wife was offered a job at UQ, the pair moved to Australia and whilst he was doing well in business, despite the spectre of a failed start-up he needed something more.

“The reason I made the decision to move into academia is that I had come to a point where I was working in one business at a time and having an impact, but thought there were opportunities to have influence on a much broader level.

“I wanted to do work that would change the way businesses were managed. The one thing that kept coming back to me in working for different businesses was that most of them were poorly managed. I thought it must be possible to do this better and since then I have dedicated my time to figuring out how to do just that.”

For Associate Professor Kastelle, a focus on innovation is where change and growth comes from.

“Now that I have been studying it intently for 10 years, it is clear that this is an area where businesses struggle. Even agile businesses struggle in how to proceed. So through UQ Business School we are trying to figure out how to help businesses move forward and be better through innovation.”

Innovation informs the way Associate Professor Kastelle learns and teaches. Importantly, having come from business, he is aware of some of the things managers are looking for and can therefore frame ideas that might be written in an academic language in a more simple way.

What this means is that the interaction between businesses and the university, including its students occurs in a way in which everyone is talking the same language. It is therefore easier to frame innovation in a way that businesses understand, giving UQ students a distinct advantage when they either move into the workforce, or begin to innovate within their existing positions.

Associate Professor Kastelle has a great deal of praise for the teachers and students of UQ and makes an interesting comparison to the world renowned Princeton University.

“Princeton is in a private university system that is globally unique. However, at Princeton, teaching was not a priority compared with high profile research. The written texts, and the way the school of economics informs presidents on policy is astonishing, but the classroom experience is not necessarily great. One thing I was really impressed with when I studied my MBA at UQ between 2002-to-2004 was the high quality teaching at UQ.

At UQ there is a duty of care to its students, which some may say is innovative itself. However, with such a heavy teaching focus and emphasis on innovation there is little wonder why this school is so well-regarded amongst Australian business leaders.

Students are empowered to primarily change businesses.

“We do that through our partnerships with business. We have strong partnerships that set our MBA program apart from other programs. We can go to a business and say here’s a solution based on research and here’s how to use it to make fundamental change.”

Of course change can’t occur if there is a lack of understanding of the philosophy behind the change. Therefore it is not only important to give businesses the tools and techniques to change, but more importantly an understanding of the philosophy behind the change.”

The default mode is to teach techniques, but this is just one element towards fundamental change.

“The World Economic Forum polled CEOs globally and they all listed negotiation, creativity and people skills as the capabilities they look for in employees.

However these are soft skills, not tools.

“If we are going to equip people to copy the likes of really innovative companies such as Toyota and build the next version of Toyota, then a focus on tools is misguided. What makes a good business is understanding why goals and objectives exist and how to affect change. Then you can use the tools to make change happen. “What makes a strong global leader is one that is focused on the impact he/she is trying to have and who has a clear idea of the value he/she is trying to foster and how that fits in with stakeholders.”

There is a mix of students learning this philosophy at UQ, all in various stages of their career.

“When I did my MBA, about 90% of the students were basically employer funded and training for a promotion, then about 5-10% of students were trying to change career. There is closer to a 60/40 split now.”

These different demographics take up the MBA challenge differently.

“If students view it as vocational training, then they really want the tools and frameworks to move forward in their career. However, if people are viewing this is an opportunity to change themselves, then they go out and change the organisations they work in. I want more and more people to be in a transformational mindset. That is what this MBA program should be doing.”

And it is. It has built upon a program that started through a relationship with the famous Wharton Business School, where students have a chance to go out and work with a business and see what real impact can be achieved. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.

UQ began collaborating with Wharton to work with local Australian businesses trying to expand in North America. UQ put a team in place to do a six-month strategy for these businesses. It went well and slowly expanded –this type of project is now available to businesses facing a variety of talks, not just North American expansion.

“We are taking businesses from what they are to what they could  be by helping them solve their problems. I can see the differences we have in the businesses we work with and in the students who are working on those projects. I’m now excited to expand that further.

Students are demanding more intense projects, building all the soft skills such as communication, creativity and collaboration, but they also have a great opportunity to work on a project that is not predefined and really build value. That is a big difference in the way we assess our students. ‘Let’s see what you can build’ is a big change in assessment theory.”

Many of the students that have gone through this program have gone into a CEO role or founded a business. Associate Professor Kastelle says that by doing this work they have a higher level of responsibility than in previous jobs which makes them more aware of their capabilities and where they want to go next.

The fundamental  message  here is that no matter what the culture of a business is, UQ’s MBA students may not be able to change what others do, but they can change what they do and therefore have an influence regardless.

“We do everything we can to get people to look at how individual opportunities effect change. How can we change interactions with people we report to or create value for?”

Associate Professor Kastelle is focused on value creation, which is consistent across all successful organisations and is what really informs the way the UQ MBA program is conducted.

What makes the UQ program so good, the thing that really determines the quality of the MBA, is how it is able to give students the tools to focus on having an impact and how it embraces innovation that leads to fundamental change. BFM

Business First is a peer-to-peer magazine: written by CEOs and other high level executives, with interviews with some of the country’s best leaders.

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