After 20 years of an amazing innovative career at P&G, although it was an extremely difficult decision, I was ready to expand my horizons.

At the same time, The School of Business at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario was searching for an individual who would launch a brand-new program in organizational behavior with the unique component of establishing collaborative ties with local industry. I was drawn to this opportunity because McMaster was known for its innovative practices. Labor Day of 1981 my family and I were back in Hamilton ready to start the first semester.

I now fulfilled my vision of combining teaching and research and practical application at both McMaster University and my newly formed Center of Research in Applied Creativity. My work needed a brand name and to find this, I realized that the common thread of success in my work at P & G was getting people to think in simple terms – like children. From simple, came SIMPLEX and later SIMPLEXITY – the skill of simplifying complex problems of any kind. I now had the freedom to continue to learn, experiment and consult with top corporations throughout the USA, Canada and internationally. Additionally, I developed a wide network of international teaching and consulting associates who promoted my work through their own practices.

innovation teaching

I felt there was a need to document my work as well as share my knowledge as much as possible and with as many people as I could. This led me to attempt to write my first book – A Flight to Creativity. This book captured my journey after graduating from engineering school. I had learned that there existed important knowledge and skills that had not been identified in engineering schools. These were creativity and innovation skills that could only be learned by experiencing and these skills could not be found in textbooks. My first attempt at writing a book was a challenge, it was difficult to communicate experientially learned skills in the written word. I only succeeded when I applied my innovation process to the problem. The Power of Innovation soon followed and both books are still in circulation.

My approach to innovation was different, I didn’t look at innovation as an event, accident or luck, but rather a process; one that can be learned and become an ongoing habit. The process begins by discovering a new problem, possibility, or opportunity. This is followed by defining the problem, often with unexpected insight and clarity, solving it and implementing the solution. The process is circular and once a solution is implemented, new problems are always discovered leading to more innovation.

By 1990, my curriculum at McMaster University included an MBA class, Organizational Change and Development. In this course, I chose to deviate from the established course outlines prevalent in academia and instead taught the students how to innovate. I helped them help local businesses successfully deal with their various growth and change problems. One student, Pamela Pringle, enjoyed the course and learned so much that she asked to come back as my Teaching Assistant. In time, she began her own career and became a faculty member at another university teaching and conducting research on my methodology. An example of our published research follows:

My students reacted favorably to my teaching approach in all my classes. For example, when I was asked a question, I would turn it back and ask, “good question – what do you think?” Usually, the student asking the question would already have an answer but was afraid it might be wrong. I would also receive several more answers from other students and they were all correct, depending on their different perspectives. I was helping them discover that innovative thinking involves valuing all potential ideas and answers before evaluating them.

I tried not to be “the sage on the stage” but instead, the “the guide on the side”. I was teaching them not what to think but how to think. Helping students learn how to think innovatively was not amenable to traditional teaching methods. Students could not be “taught” innovation because they had to discover it themselves, experientially. Each person had to participate by applying new concepts to solve their own real problems. Also, students had to take ownership and responsibility for their learning, instead of waiting for me to explain what the course would do for them.

To get started into this mind shift, I would ask them to write down the following four words.

  1. Assume – Be aware of unconscious assumptions that you may be making that are roadblocks to your creativity
  2. Adapt – How might they adapt what they are learning for their own uses and purposes.
  3. Result – Any result they will achieve will be dependent on them and not me
  4. Simple – Think like children who tend to be the most creative age group in our society.

Never assume any question is too simple, never be afraid to ask and always use simple words.

teaching innovation

I encouraged them to be curious, wonder, and to keep asking questions. I tried to get them to feel good about accepting that there are many things they don’t know, instead of thinking that they should know and being afraid to ask or being “found out”. In all walks of life, being unwilling to admit that you don’t know what to do next is a roadblock that most people face. I also tried to get students to understand that many things can only be learned by experiencing. After finding a solution, the solution must be tried to see if it worked or not. Take a risk, ask a question you are unsure of, and see what kind of answer you get.

I tried to teach the difference between problem solving and innovation. In innovation, it is important to first find new problems worth solving yourself ; don’t wait to be given the problem. That is the difficult part. To practice being innovative, you must take the time to identify problems that mean a lot to you. This could include challenges, opportunities, wishes for the future, goals, objectives, and desired achievements.

Innovation requires problem finding ahead of problem solving and unfortunately finding good problems is the difficult part. Problem solving usually involves a problem given to you by someone else. In innovation, no one gives you a problem, you’re going to have to to find your own problems and pursue them.

Along the way, I wanted to write an article to call attention to the dearth of Generators in the business world. I called the article “Where are the Generators?” (2011). In the opening paragraph, I featured a graduate student who worked for a global delivery company. She felt her job was mundane because she did the same thing over and over again. When she tried to advocate for change or made suggestions, no one listened to her ideas. She was a generator. She wanted to create more and do more but was not given the opportunity. Often, people like her are not liked within organizations. It is felt that they disrupt normalcy by continually looking for new problems. Instead, people like familiarity and they can be very resistant to change because even a small change is a risk many aren’t willing to take. Generators are underrepresented in industrial and business organizations, but they are precisely the people needed to drive innovation.

Basadur Innovation

I ended up engaging the student to co-author my “Where are the Generators” research paper and I understand that this student is still with the same company, continuing to challenge the status quo but now being recognized.

Though my formal teaching career started at McMaster, I had begun teaching at Xavier University in the 70’s as an adjunct professor. I taught a capstone MBA course in the business School. Additionally, I had taught a non-credit course on Saturday mornings at the University of Cincinnati in creative problem solving. My philosophy was to always facilitate students to experience and engage in the process. Textbooks certainly serve a purpose, but my classes involved immersion in real-life situations.

This was a special challenge for under graduates who would have limited real-life experiences. So, I would invent scenarios that they could relate to, such as problems that their grandparents might experience residing in a retirement home.

teaching innovation

As a professor, I would apply the scientific method that I had learned i.e., observe; hypothesize; test the hypothesis and draw a conclusion for new learning. In class, I would share a current event with the class and engage them to think of interesting questions that the event stimulated and then, I would ask them to think of solutions that might work and how we might try them out. Teaching innovation was fun. I always felt that I was a teacher, helping others solve problems, achieve more, and be happier. I also found myself doing some career counseling, using my innovation process to help people find more satisfying work.

Our current societal thinking is quite toxic. With social media, people contribute only by judging what others have already said and they rarely offer any independent thinking. Carl Jung is reputed to have said “thinking is hard, that’s why people judge instead.” The secret to innovative thinking is the ability to know how to defer judgment. When we come across something unfamiliar, if we defer our judgment, listen and think about it, we just might open our minds to find a new unexpected perspective. I always encourage myself and others to think about HOW to think, not just what to think. If we focus on the HOW, this will lead to thinking better together, collaborating and innovating; which is so much better than thinking on our own. I am so lucky to have and enjoy the opportunity to teach and help people discover how to innovate.


Part 1 – I Was An Innovator, But I Didn’t Know It

Part 3 – Proof that anyone can learn to innovate