Course title: Designing an Innovation-Centered Career

Instructor: Sandra Noonan

Course premise:

Contemporary tech innovators like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and Sergey Brin have changed the way we live, work, socialize and transact. Their products have birthed new industries, shaped societies and marked whole generations of people.

These remarkable individuals are elite innovators who produce, create, and propel change. Often, their success is attributed to innate genius — they are assumed to be whiz kids who won the genetic lottery. That may be true, but it is not the whole story. Aside from fortuitous genetics, specific conditions produced these individuals. We would be remiss if we did not examine the attitudes, mindsets and behaviors that elite innovators have in common, and how these can be taught in the classroom.

The Innovator’s Elixir

Elite innovators have a propensity to spot problems that others don’t notice or simply take for granted. They combine that skill with an ability to imagine, develop, and bring to life marketable solutions to the problems that excite them. Together, these skills make up the innovator’s elixir, and help to explain their capacity for outsized value creation.

The main premise of this course is that the innovator’s elixir comprises principles, personal values and mindsets that can be studied, broken down, and passed on. This is a hybrid course – part career design, part innovation workshop. Students will learn about innovation from many angles in order to craft innovation-centered careers. The syllabus is designed to help students adopt an innovator’s mindset and apply it to their career aspirations. Given that CEOs globally rank innovation second only to human capital as a top long-term challenge, this course is relevant to any student who wishes to craft a meaningful career.

Course Description

This course is designed to teach students how to design careers that are grounded in three core values: innovation, problem solving and value creation. To that end, we will examine the attitudes, soft skills and mindsets that enable members of the elite innovative class to generate outsized economic value over the course of their careers. We’ll then apply these lessons to our own notions of career and career planning.

Throughout the course, we will study innovation as a concept, behavior and career compass. We will examine commonly held beliefs about career and achievement that undermine one’s value-creating potential. For example, students too often allow their career choices to be shaped by ego-centered visions of fame and achievement, or the cultural obsession with “pursuing your passion.” A simple reason for this is that the mainstream conversation about career planning is lacking a much simpler first principle: value creation.

Course Structure and Method

This course uses a combination of readings, lectures, discussions, in-class exercises and exploratory writing activities to internalize the lessons that elite innovators can teach us about value creation as a career choice. We will study modern innovation methods, such as the Design Sprint pioneered by Google Ventures. We will also study how contemporary innovators think, solve problems and navigate the world of work.

Learning outcomes
At the end of this course, students will:
– Be able to articulate what value creation means in the context of their own career aspirations
– Be able to apply essential mindsets, attitudes, practical tools and tactics to pursue an innovation-centered career
– Have a deep understanding of what innovation is, how it arises and how to practice it

Reading List

  • From Zero to One, Peter Thiel
  • How to Lead in the Smart Machine Age (article), Edward D. Hess
  • The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, Jon Gertner
  • The Innovators, Walter Isaacson
  • The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen
  • Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders, Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston
  • Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days, Jake Knapp
  • The Signals are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe is Tomorrow’s Mainstream, Amy Webb
  • The Economy’s Hidden Problem: We’re Out of Big Ideas (Greg Ip, WSJ)
  • The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision for the Future, Steve Case
  • Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur, Derek Sivers
  • Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday
  • The One Thing, Gary Keller and Jay Papasan
  • Linchpin: Are you Indispensable?, Seth Godin
  • Additional background readings used in the preparation of this course:
  • Architecting a New Trajectory for Entrepreneurial Leadership, Bala Iyer
  • “This Fintech Giant Wants to Create the Bell Labs Experience in NYC,” Fast Company

Course Outline

Unit 1: Career as an Organizing Principle for Innovators

In this unit we will:
– Discuss “passion” as a career-planning paradigm, and its limitations.
– Explore the roles that ego, vocation and passion play in the careers of elite innovators
– Experiment with substituting problem-finding for passion as a career-planning paradigm
– Construct vocational Venn diagrams that illustrate the intersection of societal need, our personal interests, and our unique abilities.

Week 1. Passion versus problem-finding as career-planning paradigms
Required reading (42 pages):
Anything You Want
What’s Your Compass?
Start Now. No Funding Needed.
Chapter 1, The New World of Work, pp. 7-27
Chapter 9, There is No Map, pp. 174-188
Summary, pp. 231-236

Vocation can be thought of as the place where your interests and abilities intersect with a need that is present in society or the marketplace. Sketch a vocational Venn diagram for yourself, showing how your interests and abilities can serve a particular need in the world. Do not think in overly grand terms — we are not trying to solve for world peace. The need you have identified can be confined to a small niche. The more specific you are about your abilities and interest, the better.

Week 2. The World of Work
Required reading:
Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?
Chapter 5, Becoming the Linchpin, pp. 49-79
Chapter 6, Is it Possible to Do Hard Work in a Cubicle?, pp. 80-100
(Optional: Chapter 7, The Resistance, pp. 101-149)
Chapter 10, Making the Choice, pp. 189-209
Chapter 11, The Culture of Connection, pp. 210-217
Chapter 12, The Seven Abilities of the Linchpin, 218-224

In 3-5 pages, explain the ideas in Anything You Want, Linchpin and The One Thing that were most interesting or useful to you. You might want to focus on one or more of the following themes: Ambiguity as a major force in the modern workplace and how to harness it to your creative advantage; mindsets and habits to keep workplace distractions from squelching your value-creating potential; innovating from the fringes; and/or the importance of soft skills.

Week 3. The challenge of innovating on the job
Required reading (71 pages):
Article: “Leadership in the Smart Machine Age”:
The Innovator’s Dilemma
Chapter 7, Discovering New and Emerging Markets
Chapter 9, Performance Provided, Market Demand, and the Product Life Cycle, pp. 222-234
Chapter 10, Managing Disruptive Technological Change: A Case Study, pp. 235-256

Week 4. Vocation: The intersection of societal need, personal interest and innate ability
Required reading (65 pages):
Ego is the Enemy (17 pp)
Part I, To Be or To Do?
From Zero to One (33 pp)
Chapter 6, You are Not a Lottery Ticket
Anything You Want (~15 pp)
No “Yes”. Either “Hell Yeah” or “No”
Just Like That, My Plan Changed Completely

Choose one of the following:
Analyze the role that ego, vocation, ability and/or value creation have played in your academic pursuits and career aspirations to date. (Discuss at least two of these factors.) In discussing ego, describe the mental images, anticipated rewards, or visions of glory that accompany your career aspirations. In discussing vocation and ability, explain the innate calling and/or talents that attract you to a certain line of work. In discussing value creation, explain what value you wish to leave the world through your work, and what form that value will take. (3-5 pages)
Identify a business person, entrepreneur or thought leader whose commercial/professional success you were impressed or surprised by. What problem did this person solve? Were you aware of this problem beforehand? Do you think you could have solved it in the same way, or would you have missed it entirely? Explain and discuss. (3-5 pages)

Unit 2: Innovation as Mindset and Practice
We all have brilliant ideas from time to time — but how often do those ideas leap into the physical world and create real value? Have you ever wondered why a certain coffee chain, mobile app or eyewear company is so wildly successful without creating anything truly “new”? Today, we are likely to attribute those success stories, at least in part, to “good design”. But what does that mean? Daniel Burka, a Google Ventures partner and design pioneer, has called design “the scientific method for business.” In this unit, we’ll In this unit, we’ll practice seeing the world as one great problem oyster. We’ll discuss how to find promising problems worth solving and learn how successful innovators find problems worth solving and turn ideas into products through the application of design thinking.

Week 5. Problem Finding, Part I
Required reading (38 pages):
From Zero to One
Chapter 1, The Challenge of the Future
Chapter 8, Secrets
Anything You Want
Ideas Are Just a Multiplier of Execution

In Zero to One, Peter Thiel shares one of his top interview questions: What important truth do very few people agree with you on? Think deeply on this question and explain your answer in 1-3 pages, making sure not to use any of the “wrong” answers Thiel discusses in Chapter 1.

Week 6. Problem Finding, Part II
Required reading (146 pages):
Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders
Chapter 1, Leading the Possible
Chapter 2, Engage with Complexity, but Keep it Simple
Chapter 4, Create a Clear Vision for an Unclear Future
Chapter 5, Make Rational Use of Human Irrationality
Chapter 6, Communicate Your Certainty about Uncertainty

For the next three days, make a list of 10 ideas pertaining to business, design, technology or anything else with the potential to create economic value. As we have already learned, the ability to solve problems is preceded by the ability to identify good problems worth solving. Find inspiration from any of the following areas: points of friction within your daily life, problems you read about in the news, questions you find on Quora, or reviews of certain books (such as those in this course) on Amazon.

Week 7: Design thinking
Required reading (288 pages):
Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days

Week 8: Execution
Required reading (58 pages):
The One Thing
Preface: The One Thing
Preface: The Domino Effect
Preface: Success Leaves Clues
Chapter 5: Multitasking
Chapter 9: Big is Bad
Anything You Want
If It’s Not a Hit, Switch

Week 9: Case Studies in Innovation: The Internet, Personal Computing and the Innovators Behind Them
Required reading (247 pages):
The Innovators
Chapter 7, The Internet
Chapter 8, The Personal Computer
Chapter 9, Software
Chapter 10, Online
Chapter 11, The Web

In 5-6 pages, connect your college coursework and activities to the outside world and the problems you plan to solve during your career. If your plans or ideas on college have changed since the start of this course, discuss how and why. Provide an honest assessment of how ego or vocation affect your vision for your future.

Unit 3: Becoming an Innovator

Week 10: The State of Innovation Today
Required reading (10 pages):
The Economy’s Hidden Problem: We’re Out of Big Ideas (WSJ):
Silicon Valley Stumbles in World Beyond Software:
Trailblazer video series:

Week 11: Defining problems and recognizing opportunities for innovation
Required reading (28 pages):
The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future
Chapter 3, The Third Wave
Chapter 5, The Three Ps

Weeks 12-13: Putting problem identification and problem-solving into practice
By this point in the course, I hope you are able to see the world as one great problem oyster. For the next three weeks, you will focus on solving one worthwhile problem. Your assignment for this week is to identify the problem you are interested in solving. You can do this by either going back to the list you created in Week 6 of this course and picking the one idea you find most promising, or by drawing on our readings, particularly from Weeks 10 and 11, which highlight various areas in need of innovation. Explain the problem and create a roadmap for solving it. Describe the solution and what form it takes — a product, process, organization or something else. (10 pages).

Week 14: Final presentations

Students will be assessed as follows:
Attendance and participation (10%)
Written assignments (40%)
Final project (50%)