What’s the Big IDEA?

MBAs Confront Ambiguity to Drive Systematic Innovation
written by:
Laura Longhine
  • Education

In the spring of 2016, Darden First Year students participated in a new required course, “Innovation, Design and Entrepreneurs in Action,” or IDEA, in which they learned how to create value for real-world corporations and organizations while tackling thorny innovation challenges.

“This is about a possibility-based conversation,” says Professor Lalin Anik, the moderator of the Land O’Lakes panel. “Let’s be creative, collaborative and kind.”

It’s the final day of Darden’s IDEA course, and after seven weeks of learning about and working through an innovation framework — where students researched a real-world challenge, set design criteria, generated concepts, and then tested and refined those concepts — they are finally ready to present their ideas to the corporate and nonprofit sponsors.

Rob Duggan says that like most of his fellow First Year MBA students he had no experience with concepts such as design thinking before starting the course. “I really had no idea how exactly to storyboard something that isn’t physical,” he recalls.

Duggan’s group is the first to present their solutions to the Land O’Lakes challenge: how to increase understanding of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). They’ve come up with a concept they call “the sustainability score” — a numerical score or a set of icons that would rate products based on water, energy and pesticide use. “It helps change the conversation from ‘we swear these (GMOs) are good,’ to ‘Here are the benefits,’” Duggan explains.

In working through the IDEA framework, his team identified and tested one of their concept’s core assumptions — consumers actually care about reducing water, energy and pesticide usage. To test it, the team offered Darden students the choice of two identical-looking apples, one with a non-GMO label, the other with a GMO label that also stated that it had been produced with less water and energy and fewer pesticides.

“Our hypothesis was that Darden students would shift toward the GMO apple because of these benefits,” Duggan says. And in fact, 77% of the interviewees chose the GMO apple.

After the presentation, panelist Cameron Wallace (MBA ’08), the director of corporate strategy and business development for Land O’Lakes, praised their framing of the issue. “The thing I like the best is the apple test. You didn’t stop at the idea,” he said.

Our hope is that the students have learned a process by which to develop creative solutions to messy, open-ended problems.
Professor Mike Lenox

Later, Duggan reflected that the design thinking concept of prototyping is one he’ll carry with him in the future. “Instead of thinking of prototypes as perfect models for a product line, we used prototypes as rough tests of assumptions” he said. These are the kinds of takeaways the creators of the IDEA course are hoping will stick with all their students as they complete their Darden educations and move on to the larger business world.

“Our hope is that the students have learned a process by which to develop creative solutions to messy, open-ended problems,” said Professor Mike Lenox, who led the course's faculty team.

Reflecting on the environment Darden students will be confronting when they graduate, Professor Marc Lipson noted that the business world has changed. “Having an innovative focus and the ability to grapple with uncertainty and move forward with an ill-defined problem is what businesses do now,” he said. “The skills IDEA teaches are at the center of what leaders need to be able to do today.”