Monday, October 09, 2006

Can you train someone to be innovative?

In discussions with some new prospects and existing clients, it is becoming clear that larger firms are very interested in training their managers to become more innovative. Over the last few years, the idea of a learning organization has gained significant traction. Many firms we work with have internal training organizations, even "universities" that provide deep, detailed training to people within the company.

Much of that training has focused on the latest management trends like Six Sigma and Lean. Now, many of those universities and internal training programs are turning their attention to training individuals to become more innovative, through the way they think, the way they organize and the way they reward. My question is: can you train someone to be more innovative, or does the culture and his or her surroundings and reinforcements enable or inhibit innovation? Can a very restrictive culture force even a well-trained individual to struggle at innovation, while a very supportive culture helps an untrained person to succeed at innovation?

To become more innovative and to innovate repeatedly, sustainably, successfully, a firm needs three key ingredients: individuals who are willing to innovate, a culture that enables and rewards innovation and the tools and processes that support the efforts. Focusing attention on the individuals is great - that's part of becoming a learning organization. For too long we've reinforced behaviors that focused on the small items and may have left people afraid to take risks and see what's possible. Innovators ask questions, take risks, go where others don't, and that behavior has not been encouraged or taught.

However, let's make sure we set the right expectations and smooth the way for these innovators. People coming out of training want to implement what they've learned. If the culture, motivation and tools aren't supportive of innovation, most of these new innovators will end up frustrated and jaded. It's not merely a question of education of the people, but also how much the organization as a whole will change to support those willing to innovate.

Don't get me wrong - training people to become more aware of the possibilities of innovation is a good thing. What we don't want to do is motivate them and then set them loose in an atmosphere that will work against all the training they've received. And innovation training is not like other types of training. To train someone in Six Sigma or Lean usually reinforces the firm's goals to cut costs or reduce wastes. To train someone in innovation may mean to increase experimentation and increase failure - which could be at odds with prevailing culture.

So, can you train someone to become more innovative? I think the answer is yes. The real question is whether or not that person or team can use that new training in an organization that may not be ready to change to accomodate innovation.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 2:18 PM

29 Comments:

Anonymous Roger von Oech said...

The title of your post is a question I used to get all the time (except the word was "creative" instead of "innovative").

And this is how I would respond: in my seminars, I try to do three things: 1) for the really creative people in attendance, I reinforce the importance of their being creative (and they love it); 2) for the people in the middle who are capable of learning new skills, I give them new creative thinking skills; and, 3) for the people who get in the way of innovation and undermine other people's ideas, I show them how their behavior is detrimental to the success of the organization, and what they can do to be less of a drag on the process.

You'd be surprised at how often group #3 was the agenda of the person bringing me in.

9:17 AM  
Blogger Terrence said...

Jeffrey,

You asked "Can you train someone to be innovative?" I think you can, only I think it works better if you train a bunch of people all at once. More precisely, if you train an intact team or organization.

This way, all of the people have a shared experience that they all take back with them to their workplace.

Many years ago, when I was Training Manager in a science-based organization, we did just that. And it helped fuel a significant increase in innovation, as measured by the number of new product ideas entering the commercialization pipeline.

Interestingly, one of the external consultants that helped us was Roger von Oech.

Terry

9:45 AM  
Anonymous Valeri Souchkov said...

During last 15 years I have been doing exactly that: training people worldwide to become innovative, or, it is better to say, to unleash their innovative skills based on a systematic approach to solving problems and generating innovative ideas (TRIZ and its modern extensions). There is no doubt that these methods work. But what I could observe was that these trainings brought real results only when top management of organizations recognized the need for sustainable innovation and supported those who were trained. Innovation always means risk; but it is the nature of a human being to minimize potential risks and establish risk-avoiding culture. And it is impossible to change the culture overnight or by CEO's order. An answer is in the emergence of new business models and new organizations where innovation will be a pillar of their existence.

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of course we can train someone to be innovative, but it needs time and a lot of effort and it also depends on the character of the person

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