In this CTDO Next series of articles, we’re discussing five levers of innovation—the places where talent development can lead:
3. Building innovation capability
4. Empowering teams to innovate
5. Optimizing systems and processes for innovation
And though this article focuses on what is, perhaps, the most natural responsibility of TD—building innovation capability—it is important to note that those first two levers, culture and leadership, are the necessary precursors to the final three. Without a culture demanding and rewarding innovation and without leadership modeling and expecting it, no amount of training will move the needle.
On the other hand, in the right culture and with supportive leadership, innovation becomes endemic, the natural way the organization works. TD can not only help the business achieve huge innovations but also enable individuals to make what I call the little i’s, small innovations that can be made everywhere every day, adding up to huge change.
Building on Current Development ResourcesAn organization’s capability to innovate resides in people. The most obvious way the talent development function can drive innovation in any organization is by developing the skills and capabilities enabling everyone in the organization to innovate. That includes the skills needed to be creative or innovative and those required to inspire and manage innovation.
We can start by examining our current development resources through the lens of innovation. Do they explicitly state the importance of applying learned skills to enhance innovation? Do they offer opportunities to practice new skills to be more innovative? There are many opportunities:
- Problem solving can emphasize the value of new and even radical solutions.
- Decision making can highlight the value of diverse experiences and points of view.
- Listening skills can focus on looking for new ideas, being open to critical feedback, and even seeking it. Augment traditional resources on effective listening to include developing skills for effective observation.
- Teaming can include collaboration’s role in fostering innovation, the importance of creating new and diverse teams, and the need for networking beyond the team.
- Presentation and persuasion skills can include resources to help sell pioneering ideas.
- Critical thinking can include exercises to improve or radically change existing systems, processes, and requirements.
- Human-centered design can teach team members problem-solving techniques to help solve real business problems with customer-centered solutions.
- Project management can go beyond command and control to offer tools for adding flexibility to adjust and improve throughout the project.
- Brainstorming can transition to supporting hackathons. They can be one of a host of approaches to more innovative thinking, such as lateral thinking, simplification, affinity, pattern recognition, macro or micro level thinking, and more.
These are just some of the resources most talent development teams typically provide. More recently, new resources are being added to also play a critical role in building innovation skills and capabilities. Some organizations teach experimentation. New offerings also aim at resilience and organizational agility. Data collection and analysis are becoming increasingly important. Storytelling is another skill that can be critical to spreading radical ideas through an organization. And all these skills can place a premium on innovation as a goal.
Existing resources can also be revised to support better organization and management of innovation:
- Delegation can highlight the value of getting more and better ideas by pushing responsibility and authority into the organization.
- Goal setting can emphasize the value of audacious goals and the critical importance of learning from failure.
- Lean organization can encourage radical change. Lean certification teaches team members how to recognize opportunities for improvement, challenge the status quo, use data to represent the value of the opportunity, and become active innovators and change champions.
- Facilitation skills are critical to managing innovation. They can encourage and speed up ideation and implementation.
- Coaching can include how to mentor innovators and create new ones.
- Change management capabilities are already aligned with the effective management of innovation.
Exploring New Resource OpportunitiesBut there are new skills we can focus on as well. Leading-edge companies are already focusing on fostering these competencies.
- Some organizations are working to develop entrepreneurship as a skill set throughout their workforce. Often called thinking like an owner, the effort aims at encouraging everyone in the organization to generate and implement ideas that create new value, especially based on customer demand and employee expectations.
- Others, like my own, make special efforts to teach everyone in the organization to be more creative. Our “Sparking Creativity and Innovative Thinking in You” program teaches individuals that creativity goes hand in hand with innovation, and there is no innovation without creativity. While creativity is the ability to produce new and unique ideas, innovation is the implementation of that creativity. Creativity is the driving force behind innovation—looking at things from a different perspective. It is the freedom from restrictions, rules, and written (or unwritten) norms. Creative ideas and innovative approaches can come from almost anywhere.
- Today’s programs on managing risk don’t just look at risk mitigation; they also develop skills to implement significant change and innovation more effectively.
- Design thinking, a methodology putting human needs at the center of design decisions, is increasingly on the development paths of employees. Such approaches, and those focusing on data interpretation and reporting, can help discover and gain acceptance for new ideas.
- Data-focused skills in search, research, and benchmarking are improving the ability of organizations to find and employ new ideas and new practices based on metrics.
- And some organizations are emphasizing the importance of reflection and the skill of associating—taking ideas from totally unrelated businesses or fields.
In my organization, we’ve used a business model canvas to teach leaders how to uncover, sketch, and test new business ideas. We’ve also developed digital primers showcasing cutting-edge digital solutions shaping our future and adopted gamification. This includes our innovation challenge, where team members compete with original ideas and are rewarded and recognized for their contributions.
Putting It All TogetherBe deliberate. Whatever the development opportunities, building the capability to innovate should be an explicit objective in each program, tool, or experience. Some of these may be broader programs aimed at the entire organization. Others will be specific to the geographies, departments, or functions where you’ve determined innovation is most critical. And yet additional resources can be aimed at individuals.
The design and implementation of development must be innovative to model, as well as encourage, innovation. This is likely a mission you are already on: to make development more flexible, personal, and immediate.
For innovation to flourish, learners must control how they learn. Unfortunately, in many organizations, they are still choosing from a boilerplate set of options. In support of the business, the TD function must still dictate at a fundamental level who learns what. But a truly innovative organization needs another model. The same technology that broke down old barriers and constraints has evolved to create an infinite, boundaryless, and perhaps unmeasurable universe of learning opportunities.
Innovation demands a new, open learning ecosystem. The formal courses and curriculums we build become just a fraction of the options available to the people and organizations we serve. This is more than the old concepts of formal and informal learning. Much of social learning isn’t informal anymore, nor is a lot of learning on the job. Learning in the flow of work can now be planned, deliberate, designed, and managed. And if our classes still constitute 10 percent of employee learning, it is within our power to harness, enable, and leverage the other 90 percent.
We can lean on search technologies, mobile and social learning, and the massive and ubiquitous availability of development options. We can embrace microlearning and microcredentialing.
We can become innovation spotters and promulgators, becoming experts in identifying where learning is happening, assessing its impact, and promoting its use. And as the old concepts of informal and formal learning or development lose relevancy, we can replace them with a view of development as planned or unplanned by the learner.
The pandemic-induced pivot and the lasting changes in its wake have elevated TD’s role in ensuring organizational continuation. Circumstances forced companies to think and act in new ways. More than ever, innovation has become a core capability needed in every part of every organization. The TD function’s responsibility is to build the skills and capabilities to meet the new normal’s demand for agility, diversity, and innovation.