Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Innovation requires learning, relearning and unlearning

There's probably few activities that corporate folks enjoy less than corporate training.  For most it's guaranteed to be a slog, or a review of policies and procedures rarely used and important only to a specific team or set of circumstances.  While people are attending the "mandatory" training to learn material of vague importance to their day to day jobs, their inboxes are filling up, cat videos are going unwatched.  Most people assume they have enough knowledge to do the jobs they have, and they are often comfortable simply winging the rest.

That's why innovation often presents such an interesting challenge.  For the most part people have the suspicion that innovation is unusual and requires new insights and skills they don't possess.  And, since they don't possess those skills, they will avoid doing innovation work (from fear of failure) or will make innovation work align to existing programs and policies (which they know well).  In response, many organizations are turning to innovation training and innovation workshops.

I'm just back from leading a couple days of innovation training with a client, and the more we do this, the more convinced I am that 1) corporations can do a very good job innovating with the people they have 2) innovation training - learning the skills that make up a good innovation activity isn't difficult and 3) people will need to both learn, relearn and unlearn some things in order to achieve innovation success.


The fact of the matter is that most of us have spent the last 20 to 30 years learning to be efficient, to succeed at our first attempt.  This makes all of our efforts very careful and very incremental, and doesn't embrace innovation or disruption.  We aren't good at discovering new needs or experimenting with new ideas, and we need to learn some tools and methods to help us do a better job of finding unmet needs and creating interesting ideas.  You can learn the tools to innovate, and the more you practice these tools and methods the more creative and capable you'll become.  In this regard, innovation training is important, but must be quickly followed up with putting the learning into practice.


A lot of what we teach when we teach innovation skills is going back to basics.  First is doing a good job defining an opportunity or problem to tackle, rather than simply solving the most obvious problems or symptoms.  Next is taking the time to understand what customers actually want and need, rather than presenting your latest technologies.  Third is having an open mind, creating and combining ideas.  Like Fulghum's book All I needed to know I learned in kindergarten, some innovation thinking is simply taking the time to contemplate and analyze a lot of ideas, using interaction methods and perspectives that you learned earlier in life and later abandoned.  It's also important to allow ideas to evolve and not judge them immediately - to build on and expand ideas and to provide the room for really crazy ideas to develop.


There is some unlearning that's required when people learn about innovation.  For too long we've settled for success, lack of variation, efficiency.  This means we've curtailed exploration, discovery, and wonder.  We approach problems as experts rather than as naive beginners, which shuts down a lot of good ideas and exploration.  We rush to converge when we should take time to diverge.  A lot of innovation seems almost counterintuitive, not because the tools and methods are difficult but because they seem to conflict with how we operate our businesses today.  To do good innovation you must sometimes take the opposite view, take on new perspectives, ask what would happen if industry norms were eliminated.  You have to unlearn some of your assumptions and ask unusual questions.

The benefits of innovation training

Like us old guys who laughed off yoga, stretching and warming up who are, later in life, coming to realize how important core strength and flexibility are in day to day life, you can get a lot out of innovation training and can become far more creative and innovative if you are willing to adopt some new tools and a new perspective or mindset.  This is true for individuals, small teams and ideally for an entire corporate culture.  You simply need to learn the tools and methods that work, relearn how to work together and unlearn some of the things that seem so certain.  Once you do that, or your teams or culture does that, you have the chance to be far more innovative.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:30 AM


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