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Is innovation training the key to transforming your organization?

Innovation training encourages the kind of creativity and problem solving that can lead to breakthroughs in business.
innovation training
Credit: Elena Poritskaya; tarasov_vl, designsstock / Adobe Stock

Innovation training helps organizations develop the ideal conditions for ingenuity to thrive. It can also equip employees to respond more positively to industry disruptions, viewing them as opportunities to reinvent and reimagine. 

A 2020 study by Microsoft found that organizations that foster an environment of continuous innovation outperform those that don’t, in terms of long-term success. Additional research shows that innovation training programs lead to greater employee engagement. So, what is innovation training exactly? 

Innovation training: explained

Innovation training solutions can focus on products and services, or processes and business models. In both, organizations set the stage for employees to accomplish something truly transformative, think: market-disrupting innovations like the rideshare industry, commercial space ventures, and the online homestay marketplace.

In general, innovation training encourages the kind of creativity and problem solving that leads to game-changing breakthroughs in business. The skills taught can motivate employees to shake up the status quo, whether that means reimagining a product or reshaping an entire industry. Those skills might include:

1. Creating stretch goals

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy articulated an incredibly challenging stretch goal when he committed the nation to landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth within the decade. This is a prime example of how innovation can be driven from the top down, with a vision that’s communicated throughout an entire team. 

But this requires leaders to learn how to dream big, without imposing limits on thinking. In the video below, Charles Duhigg — author of the New York Times bestseller, Smarter Faster Better — highlights the importance of setting “stretch goals.”

“If you just look for incremental growth, incremental changes, all the improvements will also be incremental. You’ll never turn the world on its head,” Duhigg states. Innovation training programs can teach leaders how to establish a culture of experimentation and equip their team members to operate within that environment, unconstrained by norms and precedent.

2. Harnessing disruption 

The late professor Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School developed the theory of disruptive innovation, which proposes that smaller companies with constrained resources can successfully challenge larger, well-established organizations. This usually occurs in a series of five steps:

  1. Incumbent businesses innovate to appeal to their most demanding or profitable customers, ignoring the needs of others.
  2. Entrants target the ignored market segments and begin to gain traction.
  3. Incumbents overlook the new entrant and don’t expand their focus.
  4. Entrants then move upmarket by appealing to the incumbent’s “mainstream” customers.
  5. The new entrant starts attracting the incumbent’s mainstream customers in large numbers, and disruption occurs. 

Innovation purposefully disrupts the status quo by shifting from the current reality to a vision of a possible future state. The best innovation training programs help learners harness the power of disruption and create new realities. 

3. Experimenting and risk-taking

Creating an environment that encourages risk-taking, without negative consequences for failure, may require leadership training to bring about changes in an organization’s culture, particularly in the area of employee empowerment. Teams should fully understand that if their efforts fail, they will be viewed as learning experiences.

Beth Comstock, author of Imagine It Forward, describes changemakers as leaders who give themselves permission to realize a vision and extend the same permission to their teams, without giving them a roadmap. This requires a great deal of trust among all parties. 

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Senior leaders and managers need to resist the temptation to micromanage, trusting team members to operate autonomously in their search for innovative solutions. At the same time, innovation training courses can help employees hone the problem-solving skills necessary to make the best use of that creative freedom.

4. Creating psychological safety 

According to McKinsey & Company, organizations are more likely to innovate when employees feel comfortable challenging the status quo without fear of the consequences. This level of comfort can be achieved by creating a psychologically safe organizational culture.

Research demonstrates that a positive team climate is “the most important driver of a team’s psychological safety.” A positive team climate is defined as an environment where team members value one another’s contributions, care about one another’s well-being, and have input on how the team carries out its work.

Employees feel comfortable challenging the status quo without fear of consequences.

Leaders are responsible for setting the tone for this type of climate through their actions and more specifically, their leadership techniques. The research showed that consultative leadership and supportive leadership behaviors have the biggest impact.

Consultative leadership is when leaders welcome input from their teams and consider that input when making decisions. Supportive leadership involves caring for team members as people – not just employees of the company. An innovation training program should develop these skills in leaders at all levels.  

5. Being an internal entrepreneur

A recent Training Magazine article cites research showing that over 70% of the most impactful innovations come from individual employees, not R&D labs or the executive team. Dr. Kaihan Krippendorff, author of Driving Innovation from Within: A Guide for Internal Entrepreneurs, identifies seven skills L&D leaders can focus on to increase employees’ capacity to innovate:  

  • Resilience and self-awareness to combat beliefs that inhibit innovation.
  • Strategic acumen to find the congruence between what customers need and what the organization needs.
  • Innovative thinking, or techniques for generating solutions for the identified needs.  
  • Business model design, in case the innovation is not aligned with the organization’s current business model.
  • Experimentation skills, which decrease risk by putting ideas to the test on a small scale.
  • The ability to rally excitement across functions and encourage collaboration on the idea.
  • Political acumen to navigate one’s way through hierarchy and around the barriers that exist in some organizations. 

Good ideas can originate anywhere within an organization, but it’s easier for them to come to fruition when there are processes in place to ensure that they’re prioritized and tested. 

6. Utilizing advanced digital tools

There is a range of advanced digital tools that can come into play when researching and testing new products, processes, and business models. McKinsey & Company found that committed innovators — companies rapidly outpacing their peers on the innovation journey — use digital tools twice as often as other organizations. 

It also reported that these companies use artificial intelligence applications three times more often. Consider the advantages of including training in the tools commonly used to support innovation. This may include tools used for knowledge management, digital prototyping, and advanced analytics.

Final note

The attributes most often associated with highly innovative organizations, such as cross-functional collaboration and team empowerment, can be modeled by L&D teams. In fact, SHRM recently reported that organizations with L&D teams that try out new learning technologies and experiment with a variety of learning theories are more than twice as likely to innovate as those that don’t. 

By starting from within, and offering innovation training programs, L&D leaders can bring about the kind of cultural changes that support innovative thinking. 

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