Black Belt For Innovators

By Christine Cox | Spring 2016

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The new Certified Innovation Mentor program helps experienced innovators move to the next level

 Braylon Marsh is a skinny 12-year-old growing so fast, you can almost see it.

His long limbs are a special blessing because the kid was born loving basketball. He joined a team at age 3, and now plays for his middle school and a traveling team.

So when Braylon’s mom, Dana Marsh, told him about a concept for a shoe designed for mothers that would feature the name and uniform number of their child athlete, Braylon loved the idea. Really, what basketball player doesn’t want to see his name on a shoe?

But the concept for the personalized shoe is important beyond Braylon’s endorsement. It represents the beauty of the innovation process and could even serve as a symbol of the new Certified Innovation Mentor program (CIMp) at the Mendoza College of Business.


CIMp was designed for experienced innovation practitioners, front-line innovators and innovation leaders and sponsors. Suitable for any organization or industry, the open-enrollment program helps participants become mentors who coach colleagues and promote a work culture that supports innovation instead of squelching it.

A 7-month program offered by the Stayer Center for Executive Education, CIMp intersperses weeklong sessions at Stayer with project work and online resources. Instructors are innovation leaders from a range of industries.

To achieve certification, students must pass an examination, complete a team project to benefit a nonprofit, submit an individual project before a panel and have an article accepted for online publication.

Three innovation forces converged to create CIMp: South Bend-based Beacon Health System, Whirlpool Corporation and the Stayer Center for Executive Education.

The idea started with Beacon CEO Philip Newbold, whose success with healthcare innovation and community and corporate innovation training earned coverage in The Wall Street Journal. Corporate innovators who had taken Beacon’s training courses kept asking him to develop a course to take them to the next level.

He eventually approached Nancy Tennant, the now-retired chief innovation officer at Whirlpool, and Paul Slaggert, the director for the Stayer Center. These partners were ideal: the Stayer Center provided a cutting-edge facility, faculty resources and the Notre Dame reputation. Tennant had already implemented an innovation mentoring program at Whirlpool and brought valuable materials and processes to CIMp. The partners got to work and launched the CIMp pilot program in November 2013 with 14 students. The first official class started in 2015 with 17 participants. Students have represented corporations including Bobcat, John Deere, Allstate, Johnsonville Sausage and Exelon.

“You couldn’t ask for a more perfect collaboration,” Slaggert says of the CIMp partners. “Each of us brings different strengths and different skills, so the sum of the whole is bigger than sum of the parts.”

CIMp certification can be seen as innovation’s answer to a Six Sigma blackbelt, explains Newbold. “Nothing like this exists in the innovation space,” he says. “CIMp really has the potential to make the South Bend area a hub for innovation and innovation leadership.”


The timing for CIMp seems perfect, as corporations and other organizations are focused on innovation like never before.

For instance, a 2013 survey titled “Breakthrough Innovation and Growth” examined trends and best practices in innovation by interviewing 1,757 global executives. Conducted by PwC, the survey revealed these facts about corporate innovation:

•  During 2010 to 2013, companies identified as leading innovators grew at a rate that was 16 percent higher than the least innovative companies.

•  Innovative companies forecasted their rate of growth over five years to increase by almost twice the global average and more than three times higher than the least innovative companies.

•  Of the most innovative companies surveyed, 79 percent reported a well-defined innovation strategy, compared with only 47 percent of the least innovative.

•  Top innovators “treat innovation like any other business or management process that can be disciplined and successfully scaled” as opposed to an informal approach.

This idea of a disciplined approach to innovation is exactly what CIMp teaches, dispelling any notion that innovation results from brainstorming or bursts of creative thinking to spark new ideas.

Instead, practitioners and experts define innovation as following steps and processes that require discipline, deep listening and research skills and embracing failure. Further, the processes do not focus on products, but on thorough understanding of consumer needs and discovering the best ways to meet them.

“In its most beautiful sense, innovation is providing solutions to the world’s greatest challenges,” says Matt Krathwohl, who oversees CIMp for the Stayer Center. “For example, providing clean drinking water in certain areas of the world has made an enormous difference, and innovation is responsible.”

While various experts describe the innovation processes differently, CIMp doesn’t teach or promote any specific innovation framework. However, the program creators do identify basic steps that form the foundation for successful innovation, which they call the Unified Innovation Methodology™. Innovators in CIMp follow this basic outline:

•  Frame opportunities by preparing the environment for innovation and change, which involves clarifying problems and identifying resources.

•  Discover insights by talking to consumers, observing environments, mapping findings and other exploration.

•  Collaborate to come up with ideas, concepts and solutions.

•  Prototype by creating a quick, crude model of a solution to gain feedback and adjust or scrap as necessary.

•  Launch the solution.

“One of my favorite definitions of innovation is ‘implementing creativity,’” says Krathwohl. “Innovation has to create value.”

To internalize the innovation process, students participate in such unconventional experiences as creating prototypes in Beacon’s innovation lab, learning about failure at the Studebaker Museum, participating in a Shark Tank simulation and even taking part in a hilarious but powerful session on communication through Second City Works, a corporate training arm of the renowned improv comedy theater in Chicago.


While CIMp reinforces basic innovation ideas and processes, the ultimate goal is to help participants become mentors. And beyond that, it aims to develope facilitators who smooth the path for innovation in their organizations, and who become global-minded citizens who search for innovative ways to create a better world.

As mentors, participants learn to not only teach and coach, but encourage exploration and creativity while reminding teams to stick closely to the innovation process.

Another crucial role for mentors is to find ways to blend new ideas with the existing culture, while simultaneously finding ways to advance that culture’s acceptance of innovation. “If you’re in a toxic culture, you can come along with the next iPhone and it’s not going anywhere because nobody’s going to support it,” Newbold says. “Culture is crucial.”

Then there’s the social responsibility component. With a tagline of “Big thinking for a better world,” CIMp was built around the concept of giving back. “It was imperative from the beginning that our students understand the importance of applying innovation for the greater good,” Tennant says.

Team projects focus on discovering ways to make an impact in areas of social concern. The pilot group partnered with Habitat for Humanity International. The 2015 class worked with the YWCA of North Central Indiana.

“This focus of social responsibility really aligns with missions of the founding organizations,” says Krathwohl. “This is who we are.”


But before any of that, CIMp starts with a shoe. On the first afternoon of class, teams are charged with interviewing Stayer staff members to develop a shoe that meets the consumer’s needs. The exercise reinforces three steps of the innovation process: discovering consumer needs, coming up with ideas to address those needs and creating a prototype of the solution.

Which brings us back to Dana Marsh, the office services coordinator for the Stayer Center. Off the bat, she told her team that she wanted a comfortable and stylish shoe in a neutral color and with a wedge heel.

That’s straightforward enough. But innovation requires deep listening, interviewing and observation to get at the heart of a consumer’s needs. So the team kept asking questions. What about your family life? What do you do after work? Do your shoes transition between work and evening activities?

“I told them about my son and that he loves basketball,” Marsh says.

A few days later the team delivered a crude prototype made with cardboard, sculpted foam and molded plastic. The shoe would be sophisticated enough for work, and also feature a sporty strap in a team color and Braylon’s name and number on the back.

Even if the prototype didn’t look like much, the idea not only delivered what Marsh wanted in a shoe, but also gave her a greater connection to her son and his world of basketball.

“I love that shoe,” says Marsh, who keeps the prototype on her desk. “And it really felt great to have them listen to me.”

CIMp students also rave about the shoe exercise. “I used the ideal shoe exercise with 200 trainees in my corporation,” says Angelique Plugge, an innovation driver with ING in Amsterdam. “It was a fantastic way to introduce them to innovation. In general, CIMp offered information and strategies that we can immediately implement in our corporations. It was extremely valuable.”


As CIMp’s founders predicted from the start, interest has grown rapidly. Word is circulating at innovation conferences around the world.

To further develop the program, Krathwohl, who helped create CIMp in his previous role as executive director of innovation at Beacon, has joined the Stayer Center to support CIMp full time.

Beyond the certification course, CIMp facilitators have delivered a five-day version of the program in Chicago and at a conference in Japan.

An advisory board has formed with members representing a variety of corporations, including Pfizer, Hallmark and Hershey.

And Krathwohl says more programs and events are forthcoming.

“From the beginning, the vision was to create a platform that would provide a continuum of education about innovation,” he says. “It’s exciting for us to be in a position to potentially transform so many organizations and causes through innovation.”   

For more information about the Certified Innovation Mentor program, visit



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