Engineering, Marquette Business

Igniting Insights course fosters culture of innovation

Lauren Woelfel knew she needed more.

She had been with ManpowerGroup, a multinational staffing firm headquartered in Milwaukee, for almost eight years and enjoyed her work. However, Woelfel had recently moved into an elevated role on the global innovation team; one that required a whole new mindset.

“I’m at a point in my career where I’m moving a bit more from that individual contributor level into a leadership and management role,” Woelfel says.

That job requires Woelfel to go beyond holding local teams accountable for running efficiently; it demands that she alter existing best practices to proactively identify and solve problems. That challenge led Woelfel, a 2010 advertising graduate, back to her alma mater.

“My team was going through a bunch of changes and I saw there was definitely a need for me to look outside for additional guidance and innovation leadership,” Woelfel says.

Woelfel and dozens of other professionals have filled that need through Igniting Insights: Innovation Leadership, a seven-week virtual program powered by Innovation Alley in partnership with the Fotsch Innovation and Engineering Leadership Development (FIELD) Center. The program is a cross-disciplinary experience that encourages transformational thinking that translates into action and innovation.

Participants looking to increase their leadership capacity learn from proven innovators, take part in interactive exercises and engage with small groups on hard questions surrounding creativity, courage, failure and personal change.

The course may be as much defined by what it doesn’t focus on as what it does. Nobody in the class is designing new technology or coming up with the latest cellphone app — at least not yet. Instead, Igniting Insights teaches the thought process behind innovation: how it works, why certain people approach it in different ways and how to spread it to others.

“We are in the people development business,” program facilitator Kate Trevey says. “People have a framework for how to think about innovation and they have a network of people, but behavior change takes time and commitment. Being able to develop these capacities is important.”

Trevey, the Nana Fotsch Director of the FIELD Center, draws a distinction between merely managing —maintaining the status quo — with leadership, which involves identifying opportunities and charting new directions. Fellow facilitator Andrea Minkley, associate director of engineering and innovation leadership development, says Igniting Insights offers an opportunity to grow as a leader with people from outside of your organization.

“A big part of innovating and thinking differently is getting outside of your existing comfort zone,” Minkley says. “In Igniting Insights, you’re meeting with a small group of people from various disciplines and backgrounds. That’s where the magic happens, in those team meetings.

We call those small groups ‘teams’ very intentionally because we want them to see themselves as interconnected and going on this learning adventure together.”

The large group meets virtually once per week, often joined by guest leaders such as Marquette Innovator-in-Residence Chuck Swoboda, a former CEO of Cree Inc. who played a pivotal role in the nationwide transition from incandescent lightbulbs to more energy-efficient LED lighting. Reading materials and teachings from such change agents are regularly incorporated into the course.

Igniting Insights was launched in spring 2022. Trevey and John Knapp, executive director of Innovation Alley, identified a group that could be better served by the higher education industry: professionals looking to upskill without having to commit the time or money necessary for a full degree program. The COVID-19 pandemic offered proof of concept for virtual learning, which made it easier to create opportunities that fit around busy schedules.

The decision to launch Igniting Insights also aligns with a shift in the broader educational world. Instead of simply being four-year institutions with undergraduate and graduate programs, many universities now strive to be places of lifelong learning, which requires offering opportunities to people at any stage of their careers.

“We have participants with anywhere from two to 38 years of experience learning together,” Trevey says. “Regardless of where we are in our career, we are all on a development journey as leaders. At Marquette, we are pushing ourselves to reimagine the delivery of people-development and education, which is the business that we’re in. How do we do that differently and meet the needs of today’s learners?”

Chandler North exemplifies the kind of person Marquette’s Igniting Insights program is hoping to reach. North graduated in 2018 with a degree in biomedical engineering and now works as a project manager at Plexus Corp., helping to bring new medical devices to market.

While at Marquette, North was part of the Excellence in Leadership (E-Lead) Program, a three-year undergraduate program developed by Trevey, Minkley and their colleagues that develops students’ capacity and confidence to lead themselves, others and innovation. North heard about Igniting Insights and recognized it as a valuable continuation of the E-Lead courses he’d taken five years ago.

“I felt so well set up to work in my job and in an industry environment. This was a chance to reconnect with the program and the curriculum. It was a no-brainer to me, really,” North says.

Woelfel, who completed the Igniting Insights program in November and still holds regular virtual check-ins with former participants, feels the same about her experience.

“The return that I’ve gotten on my seven weeks in Igniting Insights has been really beneficial and I haven’t really seen something like this anywhere else,” Woelfel says.

If the program’s early feedback is any indicator of its future, Igniting Insights will be sharpening innovators’ minds for a long time to come.