Capability-building: Learning By Doing

    Amy Muller

    Building an innovation capability seems to be the holy grail of many companies these days.  Unfortunately, some of these companies seem to think that a simple classroom style training program will instantly transform their employees into talented innovators and that the company will reap the rewards of their clever innovations.  Fundamentally, there are two critical parts to any capability development system:  personal skill development and the infrastructure to support innovation.  Developing the innovation skills of employees, while building the infrastructure (processes, governance, etc.) to support innovation, assures that innovation supply and demand stays in balance.

    Personal Skill Development

    Although classroom style training can be an important part of a capability building program, there is no substitute for hands-on learning by doing.  Innovation can be “messy” – each new project presents new challenges and requires a lot of adaptation along the way.  While innovation principles can be taught in the classroom, the application of these principles requires interpretation, adjustment, and refinement in the context of real world issues.  Important topics for innovation training include developing new insights, generating ideas based on these insights, synthesizing and prioritizing ideas, developing business models from the ideas, and developing experimental plans to test the assumptions of the business model.   Tools exist for each of these topics; but tools should be thought of as the “scaffolding” that helps innovators to apply their skills.  The tools themselves do not deliver the innovation; skill does.

    Here are two approaches to innovation learning-by-doing:

    1. The dedicated project team approach:   Recruit 5-10 of your most inquisitive and contrarian employees and assign them ~2-3 days per week to an innovation team.  Provide the team with a meaningful innovation challenge.  As the team moves through the project stages of insight development to idea generation to business model development and testing, targeted just-in-time training will enable the team to use the techniques of innovation immediately in their project.  Because this approach requires a commitment of resources that many companies find hard to make these days, a second “lighter” approach may be more attractive.
    2. Individual project approach:  This approach does not require a 2-day week dedicated team; rather it involves approximately 4 half-day training sessions and limited independent work between sessions. The idea here is to provide a program of classroom style training on the topics listed above and then to require each individual to apply those techniques to a personal (business-related) innovation challenge.   The first session may involve teaching the techniques of acquiring different kinds of insights, followed by the student independently discovering the insights that are relevant to his individual challenge.  The second training session would teach techniques to derive ideas from these insights, and the student derives ideas from his insights for his challenge. Training, followed by doing, would move on to business model development and experiment development. The progress on the challenge should be monitored and mentored by a small cadre of experienced innovators.

    Both of these approaches require real work for the students, rather than passive listening. Peter Drucker said it well:  “Above all, innovation is work rather than genius.”1

    Before initiating either of these approaches, a company should establish its goals for innovation capability development.  Do you want everyone to be capable of initiating and developing game-changing innovations?  Or do you want targeted individuals to lead the charge; relying on their colleagues to help bring the innovation to fruition?  The answer to these questions (and others) will help you to determine the scope and the scale of your innovation capability building program:  How many are trained?  At what level?

    Innovation Infrastructure

    Of course, all those innovations need someplace to go – a robust system to absorb, prioritize, and launch innovations.  Everyone should be taught what your innovation system is because there is nothing more frustrating to a fledgling innovator than to have their ideas go nowhere (see: talent needs their ideas realized) or to be sucked into a bureaucratic black hole.  Make someone accountable for the success of your innovation system.  Establish an innovation board to regularly review the innovation portfolio.  Establish guidelines for the types of innovations you are looking for (incremental vs game changing; product vs process, etc.).  Communicate the need for testing assumptions and learning.

    Building an innovation capability and culture takes work and it takes time.  But one of the keys is action – getting  people to innovate on real business problems.  An innovation culture is achieved by doing innovation not by talking about it.

    1Peter Drucker, The Discipline of Innovation, Harvard Business Review, Nov.-Dec. 1998.