Innovating College Education

Innovating College EducationWhat with all the hue and cry these days about the cost and quality – much less real world application –  of a college education I thought it might be interesting to speak to someone who’s both active in the arena and actually doing something about it.

Steve Spinelli became President of Philadelphia University in 2007, and under his leadership PhilaU has enjoyed enormous success. Perhaps most notably, they’ve pioneered a new model for professional university education, featuring the Kanbar College of Design, Engineering, and Commerce which employs an innovative curriculum based on trans-disciplinary, real world learning infused with the liberal arts.

Having consulted for a number of major corporations, including Intel, Fidelity, IBM, and Allied Domecq, Dr. Spinelli was formally Vice Provost for Entrepreneurship and Global Management at Babson College. Before that he was a co-founder of Jiffy Lube International, and then the CEO of its parent company.

Innovating College EducationMy discussion with Steve didn’t venture into the somewhat charged arena of evolving education, rather we focused instead on what innovation means to a man who’s brought it as a comprehensive curriculum to college students. Steve is by reputation serious, focused, and successful. His responses are reflective and well informed as they’re also quite crisp; you might say no nonsense, delivered with the assurance found in a man on a single-minded mission.

Steve Spinelli is a college president with as sharp a real worldview as any of the remarkably gifted innovation practitioners I’ve ever met. Imagine that; and what it might mean for his students, business, and society at large as a result…

Lou Killeffer: Steve, what is “innovation” today?

Steve Spinelli: It’s the invention or improvement of a product or service that’s desirable, feasible, and valuable.

LK: Do you feel there’s consensus around your definition?

SS: I believe the components of the majority of definitions you’ll hear about are shared, but no, there’s no consensus.

LK: Why do you suppose there’s so much confusion around innovation and what it means?

SS: (Smiles) Change is a natural and ubiquitous phenomenon. And I believe change and innovation are sometimes confused…

LK: And what makes innovation so difficult? Why do so many companies fail at it?

SS: My view of innovation requires a rigorous and purposeful approach to change. That is, outcomes are important.  These outcomes are necessarily best judged in the marketplace, not in the boardroom.  Also, the simple pace of  change has increased so much that innovation is becoming a required core competency – even a necessary cultural phenomenon.

LK: Why do those who do succeed find it so hard to build on their success? To innovate again, and then again?

SS: Most companies mistakenly see innovation simply as a unit function. That dramatically constrains cultural acceptance and reduces trans-disciplinary involvement in the process and the outcomes.

LK: Are there a set of core principles or “best practices” you believe can be applied to innovation?

SS: Yes, indeed, I believe there are four: (1) Trans-disciplinary decision-making.  (2) Opportunity recognition and shaping skills (3) Iterative prototyping, and (4) business model building and shaping.

LK: What else is at the core of your approach? What’s essential to your model?

SS: A trans-disciplinary approach supported by design thinking, self-awareness, and teaming skills.

LK: What, if anything, do successful innovation projects typically have in common?

SS: An extensive review of the eco-system in which the “project” exists and a deep and meaningful investigation of the ethnographic landscape.

LK: So understanding consumer behavior is essential to your approach? Is intuition as well?

SS: Yes, ethnographic analysis is a skill that incorporates behavioral investigation. Intuition is part of the iterative process.

LK: What role do teams play in successful innovation? What are the roles of individuals?

SS: Self-awareness builds individual skills and empowers the individual to be a  better team member. The individual skills are both technical (based in one’s  discipline, like engineering or design) and the interpersonal skills that foster empathy and understanding.

LK: Steve, where, do the best innovators come from? What do they have in common?

SS: The best innovators by far are those people who’ve developed deep   disciplinary skills and perspectives and have also learned how to transcend those views and incorporate other discipline’s decision making frameworks into their thinking and execution.

LK: What was you first innovation project? How did it go?

SS: My first experience with innovation came in the creation of Jiffy Lube.  The existing solution was expensive, time consuming, and opaque to the customer. It went very well and we created an international company.

LK: How do you determine what the real problem is? How do you know when you’ve succeeded and the problem’s solved?

SS: The customer forms all of the conclusions…that of expressing a problem  and in deciding if value has been created.  If you have an open and continuous  dialogue with your customer you have a good chance of knowing if you will  succeed.  And this is a lot  harder than I make it sound here.

LK: Which of your projects was the thorniest?

SS: Lou, all of them are thorny.

LK: What project are you most proud of?

SS: The development of our approach to teaching innovation at Philadelphia University.  It has the greatest potential to be leveraged and create value.

LK: Who do you admire today in terms of innovation expertise and execution?

SS: Steven Blank ( He’s an entrepreneur and educator on the west coast.

LK: Is there someone you’d enjoy discussing innovation with? If so who and what would you tell them?

SS: I’d like to talk to every high school student and encourage them to be self- aware, work on becoming a better team member, and honing their vision of the world around them.

LK: What most attracts you to the practice of innovation?

SS: It is a required skill to be successful in 2013, it can be taught, and it makes a  better world.

LK: When did you decide that this was what you most wanted to do; where you’d like to make your mark?

SS: It became obvious to me when we started Jiffy Lube that innovation was a  necessary component of the entrepreneurial process. As an educator I see the potential for the exponential growth of innovation.

LK: What do you enjoy most about pursuing innovation? What, if anything, disturbs you about it?

SS: The enjoyment comes from the faculty collaboration and our students’  success.  Pain comes from reframing the linear educational processes that mute the creative instincts already inherent in students.

LK: Where do you go for inspiration or ideas?

SS: Our students.

LK: What did you want to be growing up? What path did your career follow to bring you to where you are today?

SS: I desired self-sufficiency from my first memory. Entrepreneurship was the vehicle and education became the mission.

LK: What makes a great problem?

SS: Its context.

LK: What particular problem would you like to tackle given the time and opportunity?

SS: Creating the curriculum and education system to teach innovation…as     we’re doing here and now at Philadelphia University.

LK: What do you think the role and responsibility is for social innovation? What drives it; where is it headed?

SS: If a new or improved product or service is desirable, feasible, and valuable then it creates social value.

LK: Steve, thank you for your inspiring perspective and a wonderfully crisp conversation.

SS: You’re quite welcome, I enjoyed it.Copyright Lou Killeffer August 2013. All rights reserved. Five Mile River Marketing, LLC

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How Companies Pursue GreatnessLou Killeffer is a Principal with Five Mile River Marketing. A versatile marketing strategist, Lou’s passion for communications and innovation has made him a trusted advisor to some of the world’s most enduring businesses and brands, from AT&T to UPS, where he helps enterprises embrace change, look ahead, and focus on sustaining success.

Lou Killeffer




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