How to train people in innovation?

Training people to be innovative is not just about teaching a specific range of skills. It is far more complicated. Managers looking to create a high-performance and innovative team will also face several cultural challenges. Fortunately, there are also some strategies to overcome the obstacles and get some results in the midterm.

Is not just about training individuals

Perhaps the first question to ask about this topic is whether people can be trained in innovation or not. Some recent research on this topic suggests that innovation requires certain personal traits that every individual already has to a varying degree. Therefore, training people in this field means helping people to “awaken” this traits in order to unleash their innovative genius. Some of these characteristics include the ability to think abstractly, having deep and broad knowledge, curiosity, openness to take risks, and dissatisfaction with status quo.

What is the best way to train these traits? Basically, by doing them. Obviously, we can use a wide range of tools, such as those created by design thinking, to design and run an innovation process. But learning the recipe is not the same as actually cooking it. It is through a hands-on approach, applying the toolset we have gained, that we will learn how to drive an innovation process.

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Moreover, this training is not straightforward. As soon as people start to work with innovation they find that it is intrinsically messy. They will need to get used to trying many things many times before they find an approach that works. Innovation requires iteration, developing faulty prototypes, and testing assumptions just to immediately dismiss them. This try-and-fail approach requires people whose feelings are not easily hurt as well as those who are not quick to throw in the towel. This is a real challenge, but it is a requirement, since learning comes from failing, not from success. In fact, “overnight successes” or “light bulb moments” are often predicated by long periods of failed attempts.

On the topic of innovation, Marja Makarow, vice-chairwoman of the Aalto University (a Finnish educational institution highly praised for their entrepreneurship teaching programs) clearly states that “You cannot teach innovation, but you can teach a mindset that is receptive to new ideas and provide an enabling environment that breeds innovation.” Following this statement, we can conclude that training innovation means teaching a mindset, providing some tools, and letting people freely apply them to learn by themselves what innovation really is.

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This same approach is further explained by Henry Doss with a brief statement: “Innovation is a product of culture (not individuals).Culture is an emergent factor of systems (not individuals)”. This statement helps us to better understand the previous one: we have to facilitate the appropriate environment that systematically creates a culture which allows people to learn by doing. Indeed, this is not an easy task, but we can summarize some basic advice to start:

  1. Let´s promote trust. Innovative cultures are known to have a remarkably high level of trust as a core value.

  2. Creating a culture based on trust means empowering employees to make their own decisions without fear. We should encourage our people to be proactive, and let them be free to follow up on whatever choices they make.

  3. If you need to approve your employees ideas before they became real projects, don´t make them go through several layers of approvals. Try to streamline the process so people can clearly understand it, and even participate in the decision making.

  4. Innovation comes from iterative failures paving the way for big outcomes, so you should invite your employees to try often, fail faster, and learn from failures until they find the right approach to the challenge.

  5. Trust also requires transparency in decision making. Manager´s doors should always be open to employee inquiries. And do not conceal your decision making process. Nothing is worse for trust than hiding important decisions from those affected by the choices made by managers.

  6. Promote the value of collaboration through open communication and team-first attitudes. Innovation is not a single person task. It should be done by teams, where ideas, tools and approaches are commonly shared, fostering the ideation of new possibilities to explore.

  7. Together with collaboration you should promote diversity within your team. Diversity means including several kinds of people, points of views, ideas, beliefs and life approaches. A group of people with different backgrounds will boost the potential for innovation, as it could create more fruitful interactions between team members.

We can probably better understand what creating an innovative culture means by looking to an outstanding example: Bell Labs.

An outstanding example of innovation culture: Bell Labs.

Everything in Bell Labs, including the building, was carefully designed to promote innovation.

Everything in Bell Labs, including the building, was carefully designed to promote innovation.

Bell Labs is probably the oldest research and innovation facility in the world, founded in 1925 by AT&T, and right now part of Nokia. Many formidable innovations were born thanks to this company such as the transistor, the laser, the fiber optic, the charge-coupled device, the mobile phone, the silicon power cell, the information theory, and the programming languages C and C++. Many top-level innovators were trained and worked for Bell Labs. Their achievements have won eight Nobel prizes and became the foundation for the current digital world.

All of this is an outstanding record for any innovation institution. But what kind of culture made that possible? At Bell Labs, the man most responsible for the culture of creativity was Mervin Kelly. He believed that a successful innovation institution needed a critical mass of talented people to foster a busy exchange of ideas. But there were also other factors involved:

  1. Everybody was encouraged to start their own projects with full autonomy, but always with a practical, not just theoretical, approach in mind.

  2. In fact, many times managers would go months, even years, without receiving an update for a particular project. They trusted people to learn by trying, and at the end they got exceptional results.

  3. Every worker was instructed to mix with other individuals to create innovative teams made up of engineers, physics, mathematicians and chemists.

  4. People were also encouraged to choose their own teams. Mathematicians, for instance, were free to select their own internal “clients”, working with their preferred projects.

  5. There were no secret projects. In fact, it was pretty unusual for people to put their nose into other workmates projects, just to know what they were doing.

  6. Bell Labs was not only a theoretical lab. There was also a place to experiment with building things, trying as many times as necessary to build a prototype. In fact, the company was called “lab with a factory underground”.

  7. Newcomers found a thriving environment where they could learn with seniors how to untap their creativity and skills to pursue whatever they believed was worthy enough to try. Failure was not punished, but regarded as a part of the process to build the next generation tech and applications.

Probably many people working at Bell Labs wouldn´t have achieved so many wonderful outcomes in another place, even with the same skills and education. It was the environment, the culture, that helped people to learn and perform, as many former members say.

Obviously, not everyone can replicate such a huge lab, with so many talented people devoted to innovation. Moreover, running an innovation project today is not just about technology. We can innovate on business models, which requires other kinds of people, from design thinking, business and marketing, rather than from the R&D departments.

Nevertheless, Bell Labs is a great example to learn the right lessons: it is not enough to teach innovation methods and tools.

To really untap the potential of every skilled worker we should also create a system and culture where trust, transparency and collaboration are core values. In such a place people can learn how innovation is done by doing, both theoretically and practically. Please, keep this in mind the next time you hire somebody to teach innovation at your company. And don’t forget to hire someone to help with building a new system of work and workplace culture too!