Can employees learn to be innovative?

Can employees learn to be innovative?

There is a frenzy of discussion on the Front End Innovation LinkedIn group around the following question: can employees learn to be innovative?

I think this a question many executives are asking themselves, and undoubtedly are looking for a silver bullet answer. My answer?

First, let’s get a few things out of the way…

Innovators share some common characteristics:

  1. Knowledge in their expert area where everyone places him in the top few percent;
  2. Wide knowledge and a curiosity about almost everything;
  3. Respect for how things are done but willing with reason to try something different, often to take something from that wide field of knowledge and apply it where it has never been considered. They realize that things can always be improved, and you need to test the boundaries to find improvements.

For non-innovators the qualities that matter is curiosity and a willingness to learn from failure, which you know are in short supply…

A few more things:

The first point matters more than anything else. There is conclusive research that the environment where we work has a big influence on how people act. To follow on that, other research has found that three conditions foster an environment conducive for innovation in the workplace: freedom, challenge and support.

This opens door for the two key ingredients necessary to accelerate innovation: engagement and diversity.

If you are not innovative in life outside of work, why would you expect to be while at work?

Too much information to get your head around? Ok, let me put it to you another way: yes, people can learn the skills necessary to be innovative. But all is for naught if the environment where they work at is not conducive to take advantage of their skills. 

Why?

I know because I’ve trained and mentored people who wanted to be innovative. I’ve filled them with the desire to create new things, and do things differently. Then they go back to a job where they can’t apply what they’ve learned, and nothing happens. This is where leadership comes in…

To follow up on this last point, let’s also get something out of the way: most innovators are not renegades who act without permission. They still need to rally a team to help them build the vision.

I’ve also been in the situation where a company asks me to come in and train employees, but I make sure they are ready to take advantage of the training before even considering doing it. Most are not because of the previous points.

I’ve also come to accept that no everyone has the desire to create new things and do things differently. There are many who are just happy with the state of things, they simply want to continue doing the same thing just a little better, but not differently, than before.

What does this tell you? Two things:

  • You can acquire the skills, but if you are not someone who can lead by example and inspire, you are in for an uphill battle;
  • Just like not everyone has it in them to be an entrepreneur, not everyone is up for the innovation challenge; of doing things differently.

So, can employees learn to be innovative?

This is a topic that is close to my heart and which I’m invested in. I enjoy developing people, I care about reaching ones own full potential; pushing it further. But the truth is there is no easy answer, no template, no 3 step process anyone can pick up and voila! they come out a changed person.

There is only commitment. Give a damn.

You can learn all the stuff related to innovation. But, that doesn’t mean that you can do it. As written before, creativity is thinking up new things, innovation is doing new things. Getting people to think up new things is easy, getting them to do those things is the challenge.

If anything, people can become innovative, but just for a little bit of time. The challenge is for them to continue the journey, in all contexts. And that is more of a choice than a mandate.

More importantly, innovation is a team sport, and people play a different role. Innovators certainly share key skills than anyone can develop, but it is wise to understand that everyone is different in their own way, and that in most situations not everyone is cut out to be an innovative leader.

Finally, any company that wants to turn their employees into innovators should ask itself the following question: how are we inspiring our employees to be innovators in their life outside of work?

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