Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Train, apply, repeat

So the question of the day is:  can innovation be learned, or "taught"?  The underlying assumption is that innovation is inherent, a creative spark that one is either born with or cannot hope to possess.  The rationalist in all of us considers this unusual and unfair.  Certainly everyone can "learn" to innovate, no?

This begs the question of whether innovation is simply a skill reducible to practice, which can be taught through instruction, application and repetition, or whether innovation is mystical and poorly distributed capability that few possess and even fewer can learn. And, to paraphrase Henry Ford, whether you believe the former or the latter, you are probably right.  That is, if you believe that innovation is a capability that you simply don't possess, then no amount of education or training will change the fact that you'll struggle to innovate.  If you believe that you have even the smallest spark of innovation capability, training and instruction will only magnify the skills you have.

But the real question should be not whether we are innovative or not, but how we can become more innovative.  That is, let's accept that we all have some spark, some inherent creativity or innovation potential.  Once we accept that concept, how do we become better innovators?  Is education enough?  Can we find good training?  What does it take to build and reinforce the skills so we become better innovators?

I've hinted at the answer above:  instruction, application and repetition.  No one becomes good at any vital skill without all three components.  Sure, Mozart sat down at the piano and was a virtuoso from the start, but those types of savants are few and far between.  You will need initial instruction, to learn the tools and techniques, as well as the necessary perspectives and mindsets.  You'll need to apply what you've learned to reinforce the tools and try them out.  And then you'll need to consider your successes and mistakes and repeat the process until it becomes second nature.

This is where basic "innovation training" gets it all wrong.  Plenty of firms are popping up everywhere offering innovation training - over the web, in classrooms, instructor led or self-paced.  Absolutely nothing wrong with getting training on tools and techniques, unless that training isn't reinforced with application.  Imagine learning to hit a baseball by reading about it in a book, but never going to the batting cage.  That's what a lot of innovation training looks like.  Academic information with little practical application.  We at OVO believe in innovation training - we believe that everyone has the innovative spark - but we practice "JIT" training.  That stands for Just In Time.  This allows us to deliver innovation training in the classroom days or weeks before an innovation team will attempt to use the tools in a real innovation project.  Offering the tools and techniques without practical application means the concepts will be lost very quickly, as people turn their attention to their "day jobs".  Innovation training is a side show, and what little information is presented is quickly lost. 

There's one final component to real expertise in any subject or skill, and that's repetition.  Take our batting analogy.  A good batter hits hundreds of baseballs a day, every day, under a lot of different conditions, in order to improve his swing.  He watches film of his at-bats to identify weaknesses in strikeouts and good swings when he connects.  He learns from mistakes and constantly repeats the skill, growing in confidence and moving from needing to think about the technique until the technique becomes second nature.  How many of us can claim that innovation is "second nature" when we practice it so infrequently?

Instruction, application, repetition.  If you want to "learn" innovation and grow in proficiency, these are the steps.  As in many other facets of corporate business, we place far too much emphasis on the gathering of knowledge, and far too little on the application and repetition.  And then executives wonder if "anybody here can play this game".

So I come not to bury innovation training, but to praise it, if innovation training is followed rapidly by actual innovation work to put the tools just learned to use, and if the innovators themselves have the opportunity to try, to fail, and to repeat their innovation work.  Everyone can be innovative, but few have the staying power to make it through the entire process.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:42 AM


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