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ATD Blog

Empowering Teams to Innovate

Thursday, April 13, 2023

This is the fourth article in a CTDO Next blog series exploring the five levers of innovation. The first three levers are:

1. Drive a culture of innovation

2. Foster an innovation mindset among leadership

3. Building innovation capability

Developing innovation skills at the individual level is critical but not sufficient. With rare exceptions, innovation must be a team effort. Building on others’ ideas can only be done nimbly in teams. Innovation requires the creation and use of networks and communities. And though there will always be a need for ad hoc and short-term innovation teams, a truly innovative organization will foster these capabilities in existing teams for the long term. There is a lot that talent development professionals can do to empower teams to innovate. Here are seven ways TD can lead:

1. Help Organizations Build Teams With Innovation In Mind

Organizations with a growth mindset know that intellectual curiosity can be taught. We teach team building and can extend those resources to include training on team selection and formation. We can teach leaders, managers, and team members how to assess the strengths and weaknesses of potential teams. We can manage skills databases and capability inventories that help the organization deliberately build broadly skilled teams. We can create non-traditional career tracks that bring people to teams from vastly different professional backgrounds. In our offerings, we can demonstrate the importance and value of thought diversity and experience.

And we can use our unique knowledge of our organizations to identify champions of innovation and power innovators so that those people can be leveraged across the organization as teams are being created. We can teach the “time zone teaming” process where team members in different geographies hand off innovation work so that the process continues around the clock.

2. Disseminate a Common Language of Innovation

Teams will be more effective at collaborative innovation if they share a common language. It begins by cultivating a shared understanding of why they’ve been asked to innovate. This can entail continuous improvements, solving a chronic problem, or pursuing a specific outcome. Team training can accomplish this goal. All the tools for collaboration can be taught to those who must develop the skills but reviewed with everyone to give them common terms and definitions. We can help teams develop common language around ideation, analysis, and even questioning and listening.

In our trainings, we can develop shared terminology for iteration, trial and error, and team members’ roles. We can also teach and sustain design thinking, another approach optimized for teams.

3. Help Organizations Deploy a Shared Purpose for Innovation

The TD function already plays a pivotal role in deploying a shared mission. This starts with onboarding. We can ensure that, from day one, new employees understand the mission of the organization and the importance of innovation to that mission. We can offer the tools and language of a “learn it all” rather than a “know it all” culture and emphasize the role of the team in continuous innovation. Ideally, onboarding intrinsically involves teams.


We can provide managers and leaders with tools that help them align individual motivations with team and organization missions and goals. We can show them how to challenge teams and set team-based objectives with shared measures that lead to incentives. Finally, we can teach approaches to team innovation that involve members in the process and give them true ownership.

Our training and tools should emphasize the connection between team-based innovation and the mission and purpose of the organization and show the impact it has on customers and the bottom line.

And we can provide everyone in the organization with a sense of common purpose by infusing the language of innovation into every resource we provide—to include the “why” behind what to do and how to do it.

4.Enable (Even Build) Common Processes for Ideation, Evaluation, Idea Sharing, and Implementation

From making a sale to managing performance to driving a forklift, the TD function teaches employees how to work effectively within an organization. We can propel a well-structured and transparent process for empowering teams. Such a process enables teams to take ownership, define and solve problems, research issues, and make decisions and recommendations. A focus on design thinking can offer clear processes for research, prototyping, and usability testing.

The common approaches we teach can be simple and powerful, like starting every meeting with a provocative question. Or they can be more fundamental, like helping teams be intentional about virtual versus in-person work. We can help teams leverage physical time together for inductive work, like idea generation and problem and opportunity definition, and take advantage of virtual connections for deductive work, like idea evaluation or action planning.

We can provide the structure for teams to analyze data better, gain insights, create action plans, and test new ideas.

5. Work With Leadership to Provide Team Resources

We’re already providing teams with the most critical resources for innovation—knowledge and skills. And we can offer coaches and mentors to help the team use those KSIs. Additionally, we can serve as facilitators for teams, using our content expertise and group process insights.

We shouldn’t overlook the vast amounts of organizational data that our work produces. We can provide key information to teams gleaned from our analysis efforts.


Our unique position in an organization allows us to create and extend networks for broader collaboration. And we can use our leverage with leadership to lobby for funds and equipment needed to support team innovation.

It will be critical to work with leaders to ensure that teams have access to these resources and the time and money to make the best use of them.

6. Enable Organizations to Provide Psychological Safety

The tools and training we provide should promote self-awareness. The more team members understand their preferences and biases, and those of other team members, the more candid they will be with their views and ideas.

We can encourage candor and transparency, provide tools for seeking and acting on feedback, and design and manage our programs to be intentional about diversity. One of our jobs is to provide resources for the organization to embrace inclusion and belonging, recognizing that diversity of experience is critical to innovation. And we can enable our organizations to pursue holistic wellness to promote creativity.

Let’s give all employees equal footing by providing ample information about the organization. It’s easier to jump in when everyone on the team has the same information.

We must train team leaders and members to be authentic, patient, curious, empathetic, and open to set guidelines for team behavior. And we can train teams to remove barriers and dated mental models, promote candor, ask better questions, and use collaborative tools.

7. Establish Venues for Team Collaboration and Innovation

The TD function should also work with leadership to provide multiple venues for idea sharing and generation. We can sponsor hackathons, retreats, and innovation conferences that feature leading thinkers from inside and outside the organization.

Let’s make our training facilities innovation spaces and fill them with tools, software, and coaches and facilitators that optimize collaboration and innovation. These can become regular meeting spots for continuously improving teams and sites for spontaneous sharing and collaboration.

We should host feedback sessions and idea meetings, encouraging “intrapreneurs” to become our speakers, advisors, and subject matter experts. We may want to take a more active role in the company suggestion program, creating a venue for regular reviews and idea-building.

Innovation is a team effort. In fact, it often requires multiple teams. To be great at it, companies must recognize the importance of teams and be explicit and intentional about encouraging them to innovate. TD plays a critical role in empowering teams to innovate. Are you ready?

About the Author

Kimo Kippen, Founder of Aloha Learning Advisors, is a thought leader, speaker, and advocate for life-long learning and talent development. A native of Hawai'i, the former Chief Learning Officer at Hilton and and VP of Learning at Marriott International, Kimo has been creating life-long learning solutions for hundreds of thousands of people worldwide.

Kimo is also a founding member of ATD’s CTDO Next Organization and McKinsey’s Consortium for Advancing Adult Learning & Development.

Kimo’s passion for learning, facilitating, and teaching has drawn him into the academic world as an adjunct professor at the Catholic University of America, and George Mason University. Kimo also serves on the Rochester Institute of Technology Advisory Board for the Saunders College of Business. Kimo is also a lead facilitator for iVentiv – an HR Executive learning events Company. (London, Berlin, Amsterdam, New York City, Sydney, etc.).

Kimo has an M.S. in career and human resource development from Rochester Institute of Technology, a B.S. from the University of Hawaii, and is a graduate of the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland's Post Graduate Program. Kimo’s home base alternates between Warsaw, Poland, Washington DC, and Honolulu, Hawai’i where he and his spouse, Dorota Kowalska, regularly spend quality time together.

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