As organizations increasingly focus on building corporate cultures that are more open to new ideas, they are examining ways that they can engage a range of employees in innovative thinking and actions.
As this kind of thinking has evolved leaders are now considering approaches that are perceived to have a longer-term impact on their employees. In response, there is now a rush for innovation leaders to train and engage their employees in innovation skills.
The choices of training approaches are endless; top-down, bottom-up, self-managed, employer led, online, in-person, etc. Similarly, there are many methodologies to be considered, such as Design Thinking, Lean, TRIZ, business case development, business model canvas, etc. Just as every company has its own unique innovation mix, there is no one prescribed pathway towards boosting innovation skills for employees. Admittedly, some ways are more effective than others, and in this era of blended learning, companies are likely to employ a mix of training methods that can be directed to different employee groups, at different points of need. But, there is one way, which is guaranteed not to work, and that is closed-minded one-way instruction.
Building a framework
When considering training for employees in innovation skills, it is important to visualize (and record) the desired results and impact. This often results in an employee engagement framework around innovation concepts and skills. As part of this framework, employee training may be viewed as an opportunity to engage key employees and expand organizational capacity for developing innovative ideas. In this case, skills such as collaboration, communication, idea development planning, and stakeholder identification may all help to increase interactions and thus boost the flow of executable ideas. But beware; using a broad brush or scattergun approach to instilling these attributes is not necessarily going to result in a culture of innovation. Whatever method – or methods – of training are followed, they have to be targeted and focused on achieving the specific, achievable goals.
With this in mind, let’s take a brief look at top-down and bottom-up training opportunities. At a strategic level, bottom-up approaches work particularly well when an innovation program is trying to make a statement about a move to a more open culture and also broaden the capacity to innovate. Because we are looking here towards a broad-based approach it is important that training is scalable and incorporates an understanding of the corporate priorities of the organization, as this will help participants to direct their thinking towards future innovation possibilities. In addition, this kind of training is generally more focused on skills to move ideas forward.
Innovating with purpose
We call this approach 'innovating with purpose'. It encourages employees to understand real problems and then to work towards creating a solution. This, in essence, is the difference between invention and innovation. When you want to invent, to come up with new ideas, you simply sit people in front of a whiteboard and brainstorm or ‘ask’ for their ideas. When you want to innovate, you start by identifying real problems and then look to devise solutions. You still need their ideas but it’s not about ‘asking’ for random ones, it’s about asking for solutions to genuine problems. The key to 'innovating with purpose' is that employees develop the skills to frame problems in the first place, and then better understand the viability and path to implementation of their best ideas.
As with bottom-up training, the top-down approach requires the development of a longer-term engagement model and should align with the broader corporate strategies and goals. However, unlike the bottom-up approach, top-down training tends to focus more around enhancing innovative teams and organizations, rather than focusing on the development of specific ideas. These efforts often tend towards more personalized training approaches, in line with the expectations of this group.
Whichever direction innovation training takes, in order for it to drive cultural change it needs to be at the top of the agenda. CEOs and leadership teams simply cannot afford to pay lip service to the vital subject of building a culture of innovation. It’s one thing to establish a strategy around engaging employees in innovative thinking, quite another to personally buy-in to the required change in attitude and behaviour. As innovation is cascaded throughout the organization (up or down), leaders at every level have to support the end goals and drive the change. If they don’t, the innovation imperative will stall, leading to employee cynicism and disengagement.
Training is not an end in itself, but innovation leaders who use the right mix of training to develop the skills which enable organizational innovation will see their people start to create game-changing solutions to real problems and in turn, real competitive advantage.