The intersection between HR strategy and HR technology

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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.

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3 responses to “Training Innovation”

  1. Paul Hebert Avatar

    Great way to outline the issue of innovation – 80%/20%.

    I think you’re right on with teaching the 20%.

    I don’t think the 80% is simply intelligence and knowledge. Important yes. But… the issue in the organizations I work with is one of accepting failure as a positive outcome and learning from it. Too often the innovation process is one of “come up with a good idea that works and we’ll implement it.” There is no allowance for “come up with a good idea that doesn’t work and we’ll learn from it to come up with a better idea that works and we’ll implement it.”

    We focus on “successful innovations” over “learning innovations.” That is a big part of the 80% you segmented – messy and hard to measure – but critical to a culture that values innovation.

  2. Sean Rehder Avatar

    Fantastic post.

    As a consultant myself, your 80/20 rules I think are right on.

    One thing about teaching innovation, at my elementary school (I’m 40 now) we had a program where 2 kids from each grade would be chosen to participate in what I call an “applied imagination” program. I have idea what it was really called. I was chosen twice. As a 4th grader, I remember missing the school magic show because I had to finish producing my film. 😉

    We did things like create real cartoons, short films, do plays, etc. In other words, apply your imagination. In my consulting, I do two main things… 1) Solve Problems and 2) Apply my Imagination. To this day, I think the foundation of what I do started in the 2nd grade.

    To your point about teaching innovation…start’em young….real young.

  3. Margo Graziano Avatar

    I’m with Paul. A big part of measuring success is how you overcome and learn from failure. Good people in the workplace want to learn from their mistakes and come up with innovative ways to to turn it into a positive situation.

    Also agree with Sean that we gotta start ’em young. Along with work ethic, character, and saying please and thank you…innovation is being allowed to access your creative side and should be promoted at young age.