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ATD Blog

Managing for Innovation


Mon Sep 15 2014

Managing for Innovation

Innovation is the current buzz word, and it’s not hard to understand why. As the rate of information production accelerates, competition becomes more robust, and resource limitations and material costs increase, innovation is the only sustainable differentiator for organizations.

Indeed, everyone wants to know what innovation is, how to foster it, and how to harness it. What do you need to know?


Defining innovation

Before we can foster or harness innovation, it is important to define innovation. Innovation is often considered as synonymous with invention, but more refined definitions include the notion that the idea must not only be new or different, but also useful. That is, a creative idea has to present itself AND make a difference before it is considered “innovation.” Nonetheless, sponsoring creativity is the first challenge in enabling innovation to happen in our organizations.

Similarly, innovation isn’t just about improvement. Fine-tuning your existing processes isn’t innovation. Innovation requires finding a new way to do things.

Note that innovation is a probabilistic game. That is, the likelihood that a novel and useful idea will emerge, be developed, installed, and lead to good outcomes is not a given. Consequently, innovation is best thought of as a process—not an event.

Continual experimentation and a willingness to fail (as long as lessons are learned) is an important component—and critical if you want to increase the likelihood of good ideas emerging.


Fostering innovation

The second thing to recognize is that innovation flourishes in some environments, and founders in others. An important realization is that an overriding myth regarding innovation has been busted: rarely do creative individuals go away by themselves and come back with new ideas.

Instead, innovation is the product of people interacting together. Whether it’s the story of the development of the game Monopoly over time as told by Keith Sawyer in Group Genius, or the recognition of the myriad contributors to the discovery that cholera comes from contaminated water that Stephen Berlin Johnson outlines in Where Good Ideas Come From, it’s very clear that it takes communication and collaboration for innovation to occur.

There are several conditions that are conducive to innovative outcomes.

  • Being open to new ideas is an obvious prerequisite; if you hear “that’s not how we do it here,” you have a barrier.

  • Diversity of contributors also yields a better outcome. Too many people who think alike aren’t as likely to generate new ideas.

  • It also has to be safe to contribute. “Miranda” organizations, where anything you say can and will be held against you, aren’t going to realize the innovation opportunities that would be possible.

  • There needs to be time to reflect. If you don’t have time for ideas to incubate, they won’t.

A third point is that there are also process issues in innovation. The saying that the room is smarter than the smartest person in the room has a caveat: IF you manage the process right (otherwise, the room is as smart as the most dominant or authoritative person in the room).


The outcome is better if you make sure that everyone has a chance to contribute. It also helps if you have potential contributors think alone on the topic and capture their individual ideas before sharing with others to avoid prematurely limiting the possibilities.

Moving beyond the ideation stage, making it safe to experiment is another positive contributor. Consider the saying: “It’s ok to lose if you don’t lose the lesson.” Learning from “smart” mistakes—ones that haven’t previously been made or could have been foreseen—is a part of innovation as well.

Harnessing innovation

To harness these new ideas, the organization needs to ensure mechanisms for innovation to go through trial and refinement phases. It then needs to support the organizational change to put them into practice. Documenting and selling significant improvements is required.

I’m talking about organizational issues beyond the scope of management—unless they’re just within the scope of the managed unit, such as internal processes. However, ensuring that the unit can contribute to the larger organizational idea generation process and ultimate success is an important role for management.

Clearly, the role of manager is to create a culture and guide processes that enable creativity to flourish. This requires leadership, not just management, as most new ideas on organizational thinking now indicate.

L&D’s role

Innovation doesn’t come from above, although the benefits of support are substantial. The real initiative, however, comes from below and requires active facilitation, which is a key role for management.

Support for developing management—and innovation processes—can come from the Learning & Development (L&D). L&D must not only optimize performance with training and performance support, but facilitate innovation with coaching and mentoring on the processes and tools that support communication and collaboration.

That’s a revolution L&D needs to have—to support the changes management needs to have. Are you ready to innovate?

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