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This chapter is from the book

Section 5: Putting It into Practice: Stories from the Field

This section of the book offers some intriguing true stories about interdisciplinarity and disruptive innovation, from branding to designing products and services for women, to technology adoption in healthcare, to launching disruptive innovation business models from within established companies.

Examples from Philadelphia University

As a lifelong entrepreneur and entrepreneurial educator, I have seen my share of real-world projects, largely rooted in business. My role as president at Philadelphia University affords me a view across a broader set of disciplines, notably those working in interdisciplinary projects, that yields an interesting set of examples of the power of collaboration and disruptive innovation even at the student level.

Following are three recent examples of industry “problems” that were solved by transdisciplinary teams of students. Fortune 500 firms presented the assignments to students in the broadest form, and teams were given great latitude in their responses.

  • DuPont: “Define beauty.”
  • Armstrong: “Think vertically.”
  • Federal Mogul: “Make a mother’s life better.”

Define Beauty

DuPont dominated the kitchen countertop market for many years with their Corian product. As markets and tastes changed, instead of yielding to competitors they began to innovate, embracing design thinking and the educational system. In a one-week “Sprint” competition students conceived of and prototyped a dozen new uses of Corian. Through discussions with customers and DuPont executives, the teams believed they needed to connect to customers through an aesthetic lens before considering the practical. The teams consistently heard customers talk first about beauty before any other issue such as utility and cost. The teams constantly probed for the connection of beauty in the new products students were designing. The discourse continued with each product feature and characteristic. There were dozens of iterations during the week yet the pace didn’t seem frenzied. During the final presentation of the concept prototypes to a team of DuPont management, Philadelphia University faculty, and potential customers, the judging panelists asked as many questions about the process as they did about the final output. Several innovations went on to the next steps in commercialization.

Think Vertically

Armstrong World Industries, Inc.,4 is a global leader in the design and manufacture of floors and ceilings. In 2012, Armstrong’s consolidated net sales totaled approximately $2.6 billion. Based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Armstrong operates 32 plants in eight countries and has approximately 8,500 employees worldwide. Armstrong ceiling tiles are a ubiquitous presence in architecture, construction, and the built environment.

In this project students had six weeks to investigate spaces and people that could benefit from a vertical spacing interface. They had to conceive of an improvement of a space using a “vertical perspective,” create drawings, make a prototype, and estimate the potential market. Armstrong has been in the tile business in one fashion or another for more than 150 years. Virtually everyone in the U.S. has experienced the horizontal Armstrong ceiling. The mental model of an Armstrong tile is a drop ceiling. Breakthrough thinking could occur only if the old perceptions were abandoned.

Transdisciplinary student teams argued intensely about the potential for vertically improving space. Each argument seemed to break down another preconception. When the silos are removed, a new palate is formed. We found that when team members transcend their own disciplinary understandings, the team achieves breakthrough innovation. We found that statements or questions that imposed definitive strictures blocked creative solutions. “It must” as a beginning of a sentence typically meant the team member was imposing his or her disciplinary perspective on the solution. It is the death knell of new ideas.

In the Armstrong example our methodology of team interviews in a broad ethnographic perspective triggered innovation that transcended individual disciplines.

Make a Mother’s Life Better

Our third example required the students to “make a mother’s life better.” This was the most interesting challenge because of the historical perspective of the company presenting the project and the experience of the teams accepting it.

Federal-Mogul Corporation is an innovative and diversified $6.7 billion global supplier of quality products, brands, and creative solutions to manufacturers of automotive, light commercial, heavy-duty, and off-highway vehicles, as well as in power generation, aerospace, marine, rail, and industrial. That’s right. They are a supplier to industry. Their brief was a message to us—and to themselves—that innovation was a cultural requirement that stretched their organization beyond their traditional markets and focused on the needs of customers. The leadership of the company was impressing on both students and management that Federal-Mogul’s culture of innovation has to be constantly renewed. None of our students was a parent. The issues presented by motherhood are so vast and complex that I thought, “They’ll never get this one right.”

I was wrong.

The students met with young and old mothers, single and married mothers, poor mothers and rich mothers. They went to cities and suburbs, racially diverse neighborhoods, and ethnically rigid communities. A disciplined approach to “talking with customers” is integral to the design process and becomes a distinct competitive advantage in creating valuable innovation. The students proudly delivered their answer. The clear and unequivocal problem was...a lack of sleep.

Federal-Mogul has deep expertise in materials science and an intimate understanding of lightweight materials. The team conceived of a wall that was thin and lightweight but virtually soundproof. Noise external to the baby’s room would be greatly muffled. Because the wall was thin and lightweight, a fiber-optic wire was easily threaded through the wall for a video and audio monitor inside the baby’s room. The baby would sleep better and the mother would sleep better. The solution is patent pending.

How were teams of undergraduate students able to define the opportunities, map solutions, and recommend a pathway to success?

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