Innovation Workshop is already at the end of its third week and as the first group of mentors prepares to leave, another group arrives, some individuals travelling to Moscow by more unusual means! All of them are eminent figures in their respective fields and they are here not only to impart their knowledge to the students, but also to learn, and in that sense Innovation Workshop is an exchange of ideas. Dr. Maximilian Rapp, who is an Adjunct Professor at Skoltech, as well as at the International University of Monaco, teaches Innovation Management, Digital Transformation, and leads courses on corporate consultancy, design thinking and business models and transformation. Max is currently the Head of Innovation Management, Co-Creation and Open Innovation for Ernst & Young and works as a consultant for major clients such as Adidas, Intel, BMW, MasterCard, and Beiersdorf to name but a few. As he is a returning mentor, we decided to catch up with him to hear his thoughts on this year’s Innovation Workshop.
- How does this year’s Innovation Workshop compare to last year?
“I think that one of the main differences is the atmosphere. Last year it was spread out because the new campus wasn’t fully open. This year everything is centralized and located in one place, the new campus, and you can absolutely feel the atmosphere when you enter the building – you see the signs and you see the other mentors. That makes a huge difference. This brings me to the second point, which is that the level of profession in organizing this event has increased tremendously. The small details, such as the after-parties where mentors and students can have beers together and develop a rapport, improve the overall vibes and the whole concept of Innovation Workshop. Apart from the organization and the location, it is much better because of the curriculum, in that we have more time with the groups. Each mentor focuses on fewer groups, which I think is a good thing, whereas last year it was more mixed up between cohorts and teams and so on. Now you can focus on a couple of teams and I would say that this way you develop much more of a relationship with the students.
During the first after-party last Friday, you could really see that the mindset among the students showed that they were not expecting international mentors. Many people said that they did not know that there would be international mentors of different ages coming from around the globe. At the beginning, it was difficult for them to understand that they could drink with us and socialize freely, and that is what the curriculum has improved. As a mentor, you can give more focus to your teams and connect more with the students.”
- Your area of expertise is in innovation management, corporate consultancy, design thinking and digital transformation; in what ways have you applied your background to your role as a mentor?
“There are two answers to this question. The first one is that when you look at my career, I have worked at some of the biggest companies in innovation management as well as many public institutions. What I do there is coaching. Just look at what is happening with big companies; it’s not as if transformation is easy for them – it’s actually hard for them to understand new methodologies like design thinking, which is a global thing now and has been exploding for the last six or seven years. What is happening is that very young professionals and management talents are joining those companies and telling the older generation what to do, which is an everyday struggle. This also means that as one of these advisors or consultants, you get a lot of experience at a very early stage of your career; you only have to look at the mentors here, many of whom are very young and have incredibly good jobs that require a high level of responsibility. This is happening due to digital transformation; so the answer I want to give is that you gain a lot of experience at a young age and you want to share that with the students.
I think that given that there is a mix of both young and older mentors here, there is a different cultural attitude towards work and I think this is a good thing when dealing with young students. It is less about hierarchy and authority and more about trying to achieve something collaboratively as a team, which makes a big difference and I think is something I can offer the students as well.
This brings me to the second part of the answer, which is that I always try to work closely with academics, and I do this by teaching in different universities; I also aim to connect with young students. It’s not just about us giving them advice; I think the cool part is to see how young adults are behaving and reacting to ideas and products such as the ones we’ve seen at the Innovation Workshop. In that sense, we learn a lot from them as well and that is a very fruitful exchange.
- Describe some of the advice you have given to students so far.
Based on conversations with the other mentors, it seems to be that, upon receiving feedback, most groups asked the following questions: What do we do now? What is the next step? What is the operation plan? They were very puzzled about what the next step should be – that was the common denominator among the groups. For the most part, the mentors had to break down the next step for them, which focuses on project management and is the biggest piece of advice that we give from a project management organizational point of view.
From a content point of view, what is striking is that the students still think very much in terms of solutions. For example, they have an idea and immediately try to think of the best solution; the problem is that they don’t know what issue their target customer is facing. That is the classic problem that you see in all of the largest companies. I work for the biggest auto brands in Germany and quite often they spend years inventing something that might be perfect in terms of technology and engineering, but the problem is that it’s not in line with the market – you don’t know if the customer really wants the product. The thinking that the mentors imparting to the students is first to think about the customer, think about the problems of the customer, and then try to come up with a solution for where you know there is a market. The main change going on in global economics today is design thinking and other new methodologies coming into use; I think that that is where we give the best advice and that is what we’ve done here in recent days.
- As an individual with an extensive background in innovation, what are your views on the project ideas you’ve seen and heard so far?
First of all, in my cohort everything is very digital, which is good. However, I have an idea called the “phygital” world, which is a combination of physical and digital. This is a business model that is based on technology but it’s still something that you can show and touch – a haptic thing. Before, everything went to digital, and now things are going back to phygital, especially in the toy sector. This is where you combine technology and toys in order to be more precise in terms of education for small children, which is a cool idea because we are thinking about different business models and platforms, text-to-speech and so on.
What makes this example unique is that it has a strong privacy feature – we all know about the recent scandal with Amazon. Even though there are already many app ideas out there and so many apps already in existence all over the world, I think that what the students have created so far is very creative. The two projects that I have – one on toys and one on semantics – are very good, because they come from a customer and user problem. The customer problem is that when you are in a WhatsApp or Telegram chat, especially a work chat involving dozens and sometimes hundreds of people in one group discussion, when something (a file, for example) is exchanged, there isn’t a good enough search engine to find that particular thing in the chat. There is a search module on those platforms, but the issue is that it works on a very superficial level, making it difficult to locate a particular thing further back in the chat history. The team is working on semantics to improve the search function of those chats with a chat bot, which will result in a much more precise search and it could be useful for large companies.
- What advice would you offer to future mentors of innovation workshop and to prospective Skoltech students?
The first thing that I would say to the students is not to be afraid of the mentors. We want to give good feedback and help improve things; we are not being rude – people take feedback personally sometimes and this is obviously not necessary, as it is constructive criticism intended to help. Be more relaxed, but also push yourself during the four weeks of Innovation Workshop. That is the advice that I would offer to students.
For the mentors, I would say enjoy your experience, but give feedback to Skoltech in the aftermath, because we can use the power and creativity of the mentors far more and not just in the 3-4 hours of time they have with the students each day. They should give everything they have in terms of input and feedback. Apart from that, just enjoy your time.
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