Mar 31, 2010
I’ve been thinking a lot about whether you can teach people how to be innovators. As North America and EMEA slowly loses production and manufacturing work to countries like India and China, what is left behind is the design and innovation work that is the starting point before production can shift to those other countries. Problem is that countries like India and China are turning out highly qualified engineers at a faster rate than the U.S. turns out graduates in any area. However, what countries like the U.S. have as an advantage is that we’ve been at the forefront of innovation for much longer. Somehow, I believe that innovation can to some degree be taught.
I start with a comparison between competencies required for consulting and innovation. As a consultant, I consider the amount of actual intelligence and knowledge a good consultant has to have to be about 20% of the equation – not much. The other 80% is all about the consultant’s approach to looking at and working through a problem. You’ll notice that all consultants have the same basic approach – current state analysis, future state analysis, business case. But how the details of those basic steps is applied can be very creative. The next degree of success for a consultant is how they are able to apply the 20% of knowledge and intelligence and 80% of approach to a flexible offering that works for their client. In essence, the successful mix is mostly about approach, but the higher volume you have for each part of that mix, the better off you’ll be.
In contrast, I believe the exact opposite for innovation. The mix is approximately 20% approach and 80% intelligence and knowledge. You see, for someone who is innovating, it’s about how their brains are wired. When they see something that is wrong, the fact that it is wrong has to “bother” them. They have to have a deep desire to fix what is wrong. On top of that, they have to be able to see multiple (often many) objects at a time and understand the connection points between them. Innovators can see many things, put them together in different ways to solve complex problems. Unfortunately, I don’t think you can teach 80% of this equation – the smarts and how the brain is wired side. The last 20% is approach, and I think you can teach this part. You can put people in a place where they have a higher chance of success by teaching them a structured way to look at problems and analyze possibilities. However, if the innate ability is lower, then you can only make someone a proficient innovator, not a great one.
I think that there are lots of learning organizations out there who are training people for knowledge, and of course we have talent mobility programs out there that are moving people around to give them the right experiences. But I don’t think we’re thinking enough about making people into innovators, yet this is where the future of countries in N.A. and EMEA lie. I’m not against some competition, but I am against getting utterly squashed by India and China. Let’s start teaching innovation principles within our learning programs.