The question of whether employees can learn innovation is I seem to be getting asked more and more lately. This is especially true when a company already has an innovation program in place and are looking to increase the execution flow of ideas, or to enhance the culture of innovation within their organization. So I might change the question to, “Can we train our existing staff to identify, build and execute innovative ideas within the current organizational structure?”
If you have been reading many of my articles, you might already guess that my answer is going to be a firm yes. Pretty much any employee can learn the main skills needed to identify, build and execute innovative ideas, even within large, mature and conservative organizations.
The big caveat here is that those employees need to have the appropriate infrastructure, training and incentives to support their efforts, which can be difficult in a large organization.
Before proceeding, it is worth noting that there is no shortage of courses, including those run by some of the world’s most prestigious learning institutions including Harvard, INSEAD, Berkeley, etc, that focus on the strategic and executive side of innovation development. This article will focus on how general employees can learn about how to be innovative, rather than a senior leader managing towards innovation.
So on that note, let’s examine at least some areas of innovation that can be taught:
Knowing how to identify and early stage sorting of ideas – There are many different approaches, tools and methodologies around generating and sorting innovative ideas. Probably the most common approach is brainstorming, which is a great way to generate quick ideas (though others don’t necessarily agree). Other examples include running innovation challenges, customer observation approaches, idea prototyping, action learning teams, etc. You can Google any of these terms to find examples, or I have samples if you need any. The point is that these techniques can be taught without too much trouble.
Business plan elements – Within a large organization an unformed or incomplete idea isn’t going to get very far. Ideas need to be developed into a format that is both acceptable and thorough enough for the organization to make a proper assessment about moving forward. Every business has their own business planning templates and approaches, but there are definitely some central components which are consistent with a business plan, including a SWOT analysis, competitive positioning, idea articulation, financial forecasting and analysis, benefits outline, risk profile assessment, resource requirements, etc. Employees can be trained on how to come up with at least the basic elements of a decent business plan without any problem, often with an off the shelf training program. The company specific elements and processes can also be learnt in a more tailored format.
Generating buy-in – As we all know, getting an idea moving forward within an organization often involves a process of identifying, addressing and reaching out to stakeholders, who will (hopefully) support the idea going forward. You can give employees materials and templates to help them identify and plan for the needs of the various stakeholders around an idea. In addition, understanding the processes for idea development can be easily addressed and taught to employees. Once again, not a big deal to teach, as long as you have the correct tools and approach in place.
Development planning – Learning how to create a more detailed implementation plan, beyond the initial business plan, can be an important element for employees to learn. This is often more prevalent in new product development, as the specific process for generating new ideas should be well established and generally centralized (especially for large companies). Process development is often more ad-hoc in its approach and could be a little more nuanced to teach.
Available channels and resources – Understanding what resources, tools and individuals are already available within an organization to support innovative idea development is essential to encourage employees to move forward in developing their ideas. It isn’t that hard to educate your employees around what is out there to help them create innovative ideas, and for them to see the benefits that can be generated, not just for themselves, but also for the company as a whole. Without the awareness of the resources to support new idea development employees often just give up, as it all becomes too much of a burden to execute ideas.
All of these elements can be taught to employees and are important in encouraging employees to support your innovation program. Does you company train its employees around innovation? If so, let me know how?
As always, happy to discuss further insight, if needed.