Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Innovation Training works when ...

We at OVO deliver innovation training for our clients.  Surprisingly, it's a service we are frequently asked to deliver, and a service we get great feedback on.  You might think then that we are aggressively selling this service to our existing customers and to our prospects.  If so, you might want to keep reading to understand when we think innovation training works well, and when it is just an exercise to demonstrate innovation activity.

First, let's consider training delivered in any organization.  Most people have some awareness of the tools and methods they use to do their jobs, and some welcome the chance to brush up on those skills or learn new skills.  Unfortunately, training budgets are often the first items cut when times are tough, and there's clearly been fewer training dollars budgeted in the last two years due to the slowdown in the economy.  Most training, therefore, had to deliver real payback quickly, which meant that most training in the last few years has been focused on helping people do their jobs more effectively or efficiently.

And, in many ways, that is helpful.  If we can find ways to help people do the jobs they are already doing in a more efficient or effective way, then they can take on more work or deliver higher quality goods and services.  Since productivity has gone up while employment has fallen, that has happened.  What makes any training along these lines successful is that we are REINFORCING an existing job or process and helping people improve skills they consistently use.

Now, let's look at innovation training and the opportunities and challenges associated with it.  Innovation is something that most organizations do haphazardly at best, with few defined processes or methods.  That means we have to train people on specific tools and techniques, as well as on processes.  Even tools and techniques that are fairly regularly used, like brainstorming, are typically misused and need to be relearned.  So we are introducing a range of new methods and skills.  Add to that the fact that since most organizations aren't structured to support innovation consistently and haven't been aggressively innovative in the past, we are also introducing new skills and changing what is important for people to do.  Rather than REINFORCING existing skills, we are INTRODUCING new skills that may, or may not, be reinforced when people go back to their jobs.  This should give you some indication of when innovation training is valuable.

Innovation training is valuable when it is immediately followed by opportunities to implement the tools, techniques and methods as quickly as possible after the training.  When we reinforce existing skills and knowledge, people return to their jobs and implement that training fairly quickly.  When we introduce new skills and knowledge in innovation training, the recipients need to return to their jobs with the expectation that they'll implement the new knowledge quickly, on meaningful work.  Otherwise the training doesn't "stick" and everyone reverts to their comfortable processes and methods.

When we deliver training we try to reinforce the concept that the tools are useful in many situations, and we ask people to bring real world problems to solve into the training.  We also recommend that the individuals who receive training are expected to work on innovation activities as quickly as possible after the training is complete.  This reinforces the training and allows the team to exercise their new knowledge and skills.  Even if the organization doesn't have an innovation initiative, it is helpful to attack a new project using an innovative approach to allow the team to use its new knowledge.

Training people on new skills that aren't immediately put into practice is less than useless - it can be damaging.  Once the team sees the power of innovation tools and techniques but is denied the opportunity to use them, they can become frustrated and cynical about innovation as a strategy.  Training for training's sake is OK when you are reinforcing existing skills, but off-putting and disheartening when introducing new perspectives and skills that won't be implemented.

One other point needs to be made here.  We are often asked to provide innovation "training" to teams for one hour in a team meeting.  This is work we almost always refuse.  It is barely possible to introduce one tool or technique in an hour or two, much less give the team an opportunity to try it out in real time.  We can possibly introduce an innovation method or process to the team, but can't expect them to learn how to apply these skills in such a short period of time.  Would you suggest that people can learn bookkeeping or how to operate a sophisticated piece of equipment in just a few hours?  Why would you provide such a limited amount of training for what can be a strategic initiative that needs real commitment?  Simply by limiting the time you indicate to your teams the amount of commitment to the endevour.

Innovation training works when teams are convinced that the skills they will learn will help them in their existing jobs or in new initiatives, and when those skills are put to use immediately after the training on assignments that have strategic importance.  Innovation training works when the participants are given the time they need to learn the tools and the chance to try them out in practice before implementing them in the real world.  Focus, commitment, engagement and time are critical to innovation training success.  Otherwise we are training people on tools that they won't have a chance to implement, wasting their time and creating greater cynicism about innovation.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:48 AM


Blogger johnwlewis said...

Oh yes, so many of your points ring true! Many organizations have too little understanding of the value of training, so they never seem to understand the quip: "if you think training is expensive, try ignorance!"

For about 16 years, I spent much of my time training software professionals in banks, telcos, airlines and other businesses on software application design and implementation. Most courses lasted 4 or 5 days; and it takes that long!

Nowadays, I am directing this experience towards training on various aspects of innovation, and am not surprised at the issues that you describe!

Of course, the terminology has shifted from talk of "training", which is what we do, to "learning", which is what they do. In a sense this is purely semantic, but is also rather important; and it fits with the trend from "push" to "pull" as applied, in this case, to communication models.

When done well, training/learning is very effective; when not, then ... it is "challenging"! One of the major success factor seems to be length of experience. This includes the experience of the trainer/instructor; we do get better! Also, it includes the experience of the trainee/student; people who are accustomed to being training (to learning) tend to learn much more. Less recognised is the sense in which the "experience" of the course is important too; courses which have been subjected to many years of delivery, feedback, careful modification and reorganization can come so much better over time.

The motivation to learn is another issue and depends so much on the organizational context of the learning. These days, as you relate, there are continual attempts to cut training costs. For some subjects, this has the tendency to result in the use of self-paced electronic communication to provide "just in time" training; this works better for some kinds of knowledge than others. The more effective instructor-led training has, sometimes disparagingly, been referred to as "just in case" training.

People who understand these issues really well (such as, for example Kathy Sierra) identify one of the major challenges as "making 'just in case' feel like 'just in time' "!

Perhaps, inversely, the challenge is to develop innovative methods of learning!

Keep up the good work!

3:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting piece Jeffrey, your arguments for the successes of innovation training link very nicely to an interview that I came across today. It highlighted various aspects of innovation strategy and execution touching upon innovation training, a facet that is seemingly not possible until you begn to change processes and help discover different insights. Definately worth a watch

8:40 AM  
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