Technology Alberta – Company-building Conversation Series

Innovative Thinking

Adriana Lopez Forero—CEO of Onlea, a Technology Alberta Community Partner and Edmonton online learning company which produces interactive educational materials and courses designed not only to teach, but also to captivate and inspire students—knows a thing or two about innovative thinking. Devising and creating learning experiences for diverse groups across a wide range of disciplines requires that she and her team employ a broad spectrum of tools, techniques, and approaches on every project they undertake in order to achieve their overarching goal of educating with empathy.

This month, she shares her thoughts on what innovation is and how it can be incorporated into your business model; how to develop your own skills as an innovator; and how to encourage innovative thinking on your team.

Tell us a bit about yourself, what’s your background and what are the passions you bring to the Alberta tech community?

My background is in computing science, and I have a master’s degree in Artificial Intelligence from back in the early 2000s when it was just at its beginning as a field. The reason AI and computing science were attractive to me is that I like challenges, and I believe I also have a mind for patterns. I truly enjoy that combination of something that is challenging and something where you can discover a pattern to solve the challenge. Computing science ends up having a lot of examples of that, where, through an algorithm you can solve a problem by creating a pattern out of it. But beyond computing science, what I’ve found is that that same technique of finding patterns to solve problems can also be applied to teams and society, and to how we work together in creative fields like video games, and now, online learning.

That interest took me from master’s study in artificial intelligence to my next job which was at a video game company here in Edmonton, BioWare. I was at BioWare for eleven years and during those eleven years I was always thinking “what is my next challenge?” A long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away) I was a software developer, and, eventually, I went from software developer to team lead, project manager, and then to development director. After that, I saw a new application for my skills in IT consulting, and I became part of the data centre development for the Rogers Arena. The arena is an amazingly large project that is composed of many different small projects, and my little part in managing it was in the data centre, which was really cool. That experience took me to where I am right now; in 2017 I was given the amazing—and humbling—opportunity by the founders of Onlea, Dr. Jonathan Schaeffer and his wife Jennifer Griffin Schaeffer, to manage their company. They told me we believe you can manage this company, we believe in you, and I thought, “well, that’s a good challenge.”

What is innovation and how do you incorporate innovative thinking into your business model?

I like this question, in that, for most of my career, I have been in creative fields related to digital media of some sort, whether it is video games, or Artificial Intelligence or even IT consulting and e-learning. I think all of us can innovate, and, the more I learn about it, the more I discover new ways of framing innovation that help make it more comprehensible and achievable. Many of us might imagine innovation in terms of a product or a service; you come up with a new idea, and voilà, it is the perfect idea, and then that’s it, the rest of it is just cashing in on your idea. But actually having the idea is the easy part. All of us have good ideas, and all of us have ideas that are good in different respects, but it takes execution, it takes a team, and it takes a different set of variables to bring an idea to reality. The idea is just the little seed, but, as with any plant seed, if it falls in the wrong place, or if it doesn’t have enough water, or dirt, or whatever it is, it will not grow.

The most important thing in innovation is motivation; as a person you have the ability to innovate in any field and, in many cases, I find that what it comes down to is your motivation. Like many of us in the tech community I take a lot of inspiration from reading, and there’s a framework in a book, Simon Sinek’s Start With Why, which addresses the way in which so many people are motivated by a “what”: you might be motivated by and passionate about being the best cook, or the best painter or creating the best video game. Being motivated by the what is good, but if you are motivated by the what, you tend to innovate in the what; in the cooking example you’re innovating by trying to come up with the best recipe, and this is just one axis. On another axis, you might be motivated by a “why,” and it’s in the why that, for example, you get really great innovations in the social sciences. If you are motivated by the why, you might be motivated by thinking that “I want to change society, I want to stop poverty, I want to help people in this community thrive and grow.” The other axis is the “how,” which is where I personally get motivation; how do you do something? I mentioned patterns and challenges. For me this is what patterns are: how are we going to make this happen? I think there is great beauty in that for me personally, but I also think we have to understand that we are all different.

I think, then, when you think about long-lasting innovation, if you have a team, you need to have one person on each of those axes: the what, the why, and the how. You might have a situation where a company is about its product, or about its processes, but if you have a team where you have individuals who are actually motivated by what, why, and how, you can create truly innovative things, and continue doing so in a sustainable way. If you are just innovating product, a product can get copied; for example, the iPhone can be copied in multiple ways. But , if you are innovating on the product and you are also innovating on the question of why you are doing it—staying with the iPhone example, because design is beautiful and they want to create tools that are beautifully designed—and, if you add to that to the how—Apple has a whole how composed of frameworks, and a closed system of manufacturing pipelines to create that beautiful device—you can create the conditions for innovation that’s self-perpetuating. The minute you have a team that is passionate about each of these axes and innovating on them, that’s where magic happens. It’s not easy, and it still requires a little bit of serendipity for it to spark, but when I frame innovation in my mind it’s the beauty that comes from a team that is passionate about different things creating ideas within their fields that happen to be in sync and moving something forward.

How do you become an innovator? Is there a specific thought process or practice to grow that skill?

All of us–especially if we have found something that truly motivates us–have the ability to innovate. Creating something new requires finding a problem, having the time to solve that problem, and having access to sources of knowledge and mentorship to navigate through the problem. Imagine a learning designer has a problem where there is a really complex piece of knowledge that needs to be transmitted to the learner and they are stuck on how to make it digestible. You can apply the tools you know, so for example, the learning designer can go through the literature or their training and conclude that if they take a larger block of information and synthesize it into smaller pieces students will find it more understandable; this is a thing we know to do in this situation, a known tool. But sometimes the innovation comes from using something that is known and maybe changing it, putting it in a different light, or combining two different things. So, it could be that the person trying to solve the problem in this example takes this knowledge and combines it with something else that comes from a different field—let’s say music. In music you learn that there are audible patterns that engage the mind, so maybe the answer to making this paragraph more digestible is to combine it with a piece of music in some way; suddenly you have a creative idea that has not seen the light before. I think the first step is being open to using new tools and trying things outside the box. It requires time, it requires finding a challenge that you’re passionate about solving, and it requires curiosity. There is nothing wrong with using tools that you are comfortable with to solve a problem, but a curious mind asking “hey, what else can we do here?” leads to new and often unexpected outcomes in problem-solving.

How do you identify or create opportunities for innovation on your team? How and where should you encourage innovative thinking?

For me, this is about process; through the process you can either propel or hinder innovation. Sometimes a project is about “let’s just get it done,” but sometimes it’s “no, now is the time, let’s make sure that in this one we create something new.” So, innovation is a little bit in the process, but it’s also a little bit in having a safe environment. When there’s the time to innovate I think part of the spark comes from why are we doing it—by innovating, how are we helping the world to be better? And creating spaces for that to thrive, where something new can happen that we haven’t tried before, requires permission. I find that, in our minds, sometimes we don’t permit ourselves the time to innovate, so it almost requires us saying aloud in a specific context “ok, we need to try something new.” That then sparks the curiosity which will lead to people trying new things.

There also needs to be a give and take when we talk about constraints such as time; there is too little, which kills innovation, and there is also too much, which also kills innovation. There is a book, Dreaming in Code by Scott Rosenberg, which has the most perfect example I have ever seen of a project that was never finished in the end because it was designed as the perfect software, with the perfect team, using the perfect process, with an infinite budget. There’s definitely a middle ground; the question is, what is the right middle?

What have been some of the benefits of innovation at Onlea?

I’ve mentioned in many places that we have a learning culture. A learning culture means a culture that can adapt to changes, that can stay ahead of the curve, and that provides a safe space to fail. We know that you might not get it right all the time, but we are here to support each other, because sometimes it’s in those failures that you discover something new. Learning is at the core of what we do, so where innovation comes in is in our ability to support the learner. I think we are still in the very early stages of online learning as a discipline. I believe that, in society and for Onlea as a company, we have found a few tools that work in online education, but I don’t think we are yet in a place where we’ve explored all the possible ways to create environments where knowledge can thrive online. So all our innovation is in service of the learner. We can learn processes and tools within our company, but unless we are able to move ourselves forward, we are not truly serving the learners. We’ll only truly be serving the learners if we can keep thinking of ideas for how to engage them with the knowledge we are providing online. It’s something that involves our own continual growth.