Innovation: it's never too late (or too early)

What could a bunch of children teach the rest of us about how to innovate? A lot, as it happens


What happens if you ask a group of 12-year-olds to design a children’s toothbrush? Micha Verhagen, an alumnus of London Business School’s Executive MBA programme, knows the answer. That’s because he has firsthand experience of asking youngsters to do just that.

Keen to put his 25+ years of experience helping corporations innovate to broader use, Micha has come up with the novel idea of running lean start-up workshops for schoolchildren in Switzerland. And the results have been “surprising”, he says.

“The idea came to me in 2016 when I was visiting the high school that my wife attended. I wondered how children would respond to the kind of coaching and teaching that I have been doing with businesses for the majority of my career. It was a kind of experiment.”

Armed with an adapted version of his lean start-up and business model canvas coaching materials, and a resolutely open mind, Micha organised a four-week innovation and design thinking boot camp for the youngsters. Driven largely by curiosity, he was keen to see if the innovation skills and mindsets would “stick” in this young demographic, and what the results might be.

“I used the same approach as I do with my corporate clients. So the kids had to grapple with a business case study and come up with product development and marketing strategies, as well as real-life social campaigns to get their product out there.”

The experience, he says, was “easily as enlightening” for him as it was for the schoolchildren. Most significantly there was a tolerance for risk and for failure that marked a stark contrast to his corporate clients.

Taking failure on the chin

“With innovation, ideas get killed off usually from within when you’re working with large corporations. People who have been working at a senior level within an organisation tend to become risk averse over time, so when you’re trying to start-up inside the business or try something totally new, you usually encounter plenty of obstacles. With the kids this didn’t happen.”

“Not only were the schoolchildren more willing to accept failure and take on risks, they were pleased with themselves in trying something different. Where adults are hesitant and take longer to reach decisions, the kids were happy just trying things and were much faster in getting their ideas out there.”

Micha’s experiment has had repercussions for his professional life. Beyond the pleasure of contributing something of his expertise to his local community, the experience has given him greater insight into how to embed learning and help develop habits that endure beyond a period of teaching or coaching.

“Ideas usually get killed off from within. People who have been working at a senior level within an organisation tend to become risk averse over time.”

“When you’re working with companies, quite often you become aware that the change in habits is temporary and limited to the contact time between you and the client. Working with the children over a more extended timeframe, you realise that you need to space out the learning experience to allow for the presentation of a new idea or concept, and then the application of that idea and the learning that comes from actually doing it.”

Extended learning in situ empowers people to try something and then figure out why it went wrong – or right – he says. And it’s a discovery he is now building into his innovation programmes and his work with corporate clients.

A scientific mind

Micha is well versed in learning from experiments. His career began in research for technology behemoth Philips. A scientist by training, he has always been keen to push the bar on understanding and has a natural appetite for innovation – an appetite that has not always been shared by colleagues.

“At the start of my career I was interested in looking at how we could innovate or improve things at my company, but I got a lot of pushback from other colleagues and departments that were more resistant to change.”

His eagerness to build the interpersonal and leadership skills to negotiate and align others brought him to the Executive MBA at London Business School in 2002.

“In my first class I remember being asked about a business case and giving what I thought was really comprehensive answer. I remember feeling really pleased with myself. Then a quiet young woman next to me raised her hand and said that she saw the problem a different way. I had this stunning moment of realisation that you alone don’t have all the answers – and I wondered how on earth I could have missed her perspective.”

This broadened perspective – what Micha describes as “an opening of the eyes” – has fuelled his appetite to push the boundaries and sustained a 25-year career helping corporations – and most recently schoolchildren – to do the same thing.

Skills for life

Micha hopes that his experiment with the high school will yield similar experiences in the future. Business and business practitioners, he believes, have a lot to offer the education system which is still encumbered by methodologies that haven’t kept pace with progress elsewhere.

“I believe that business and people like me can really help overcome some of the scepticism and resistance to change in our school systems. I think we have a lot to offer in terms of enriching the curriculum and the learning experience for children.”

He also hopes that the experience can help incubate an appetite for new ideas and a start-up mindset, as well as skills that will be valuable in later life.

“Ask a bunch of 12-year-olds to design a children’s toothbrush and they invariably create something smaller – smaller than the adult product. But in reality, children need a more ergonomic toothbrush – something that they can hold and manipulate more easily.

So the learning here for the kids is that they need to start with the customer. Before they can innovate, they need to interact fully with the end user to really understand his or her needs. Grasping this, embedding this through experience and building it into your thinking about how you solve problems… it’s a lesson for life.”

Photographer – Lily Engelmaier


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Comments (1)

Prof.Salam Al Shereida 4 years, 10 months and 15 days ago

While the aspiration beats,innovation lingers.