Q&A: How to start education, training initiatives on innovation?

Our Q&A series gets member questions answered; if you’ve got one, just drop us an e-mail. This question was handled by Maggie Pfeifer, Director of Education at Eureka! Ranch, which is a nearly 30-year-old firm that has developed a method for increasing innovation speed and decreasing risk. A partner of Innovation Leader, Eureka! developed a field of study known as “Innovation Engineering” with the University of Maine. Because of Eureka’s extensive experience educating executives at many of our members’ companies, we thought Maggie was uniquely positioned to answer this member question.

Question:

I was fascinated by the educational / training data in your 2015 Innovation Benchmarking Report. We’re in the process of starting an educational / training initiative around innovation, and could use some guidance on where to start. Is there a typical starting point for these programs? We’re a relatively big company (15,000+ employees) and are struggling with whether we begin in marketing, product management, product development, executive management, etc. Any thoughts or best practices on the progression / trajectory of such programs?

Answer:

Over the past decade, we’ve been experimenting, failing, and pouring over the academic research to find the most reliable methods for transforming an organization’s culture to one that embraces and practices innovation.

The transformation can be achieved with three simple principles in mind:

  1. Autonomy for your employees to opt in;
  1. Opportunity to apply a new skillset and mindset; and
  1. a Sense of Belonging to something greater than a job or silo.

Here are a few lessons we’ve learned with regards to how to get started.

1. Start with the Willing.

Leaders, managers and employees need to make the decision to adopt a new mindset. You cannot force it.

If your aim is culture change, you will eventually reach a majority of your employees with some level of training. However, the way you start will influence the rate of adoption and implementation of innovation across the organization.

curveBy making it the employees’ choice, rather than a mandate, the first wave of trainees will be those who are most likely to influence the culture at your organization, in other words, your Change Agents. From there, each subsequent wave will be influenced by the first, following the Bass Diffusion Curve.

Innovation is messy work at the very start of your transformation and is not for the faint of heart. Your first wave of volunteers will be more comfortable navigating the uncertainty of applying new methods to an organization that is not yet set up to support them. These pioneers will bump into the limitations of your existing systems and help you architect new ones that enable innovation to thrive.

You should also consider your needs when it comes to innovation. What offering is most in need of reinvention? What new customer opportunity have you not acted on? What internal systems are most broken? Having a specific objective for the first wave of trainees to focus on will help you rally those who have some experience and interest related to that objective.

How do you find your organization’s first wave, the Change Agents? My advice is to ask for volunteers to be part of a pioneer group to lead innovation (within a particular area). Call upon a vertically and horizontally diverse pool of employees. There will be Change Agents at every level.

Need more data to determine if volunteers are the right people? We have used a 21-question survey to help predict an individual’s odds of taking action with their innovation education. I’m happy to send Innovation Leader members a copy of the survey, as it can map Change Agents based on three characteristics:

  1. Entrepreneurial: Adventurous; comfortable with multi-tasking and uncertainty.
  1. Optimistic: Positive attitude; high energy; healthy self-confidence.
  1. Proactive Scientist: Passion for discovery and applying technology, facts and data.

(Editor’s Note: For a copy of the 21-question survey, please contact Maggie directly by clicking here.)

Here’s an example of one predictive question in our survey:

How much do you agree with this statement: “I need to feel closure on a learning activity to feel comfortable moving on.”

This is an important indicator, because it is difficult to master a skill like “innovation” without failing a few times first. In our training, for example, individuals must fail to learn. That means not getting the closure they may crave.

2. Educate and Enable.

Next, educate the willing and give them the opportunity to implement their new skills. We recommend that you only train folks when you can give them a clear, and strategically aligned, area to innovate within. For example, “We need ideas for how to 10X the number of face-to-face conversations we have with potential customers,” or “We need ideas for new streams of revenue to fund our wildlife research.” If possible, before they complete your training program, they will have a specific objective to work on.

Consider the amount of training needed for different employees to achieve your objective. We typically categorize our training into three functional levels: Process Experts, Informed Management, and Innovation Contributors.

  1. Process Experts: This level of education should enable folks to facilitate culture change by architecting your innovation infrastructure, leading and coaching project teams, and educating other employees. Sometimes, executives whose style is to “lead from the front” will attain this level of education. In our particular program we call this a “Black Belt.”
  2. Informed Management: Leaders across the organization need to understand what innovation means to your organization, why it’s important to your organization, and how it is executed at your organization. Though they do not need to achieve mastery of every skill when it comes to executing innovation projects, it’s important that they understand the principles because they will be making the “Go, No Go” decisions related to allocating resources for those projects.
  3. Innovation Contributors: This basic training is designed for employees at any level in the organization, and should give them the fundamental skills needed to be members or leaders of innovation projects. As I mentioned above this can be taught by your “Black Belt” Process Experts. Our particular program involves three classes for this group on how to Create, Communicate and Commercialize ideas.

For a company of your size (15,000+ employees), I would recommend your first wave of trainees include at least two Process Experts, at least one Informed Manager, and at least a dozen Innovation Contributors. This mix will give you coverage from those that are working on designing the solution, those that are focused on the innovation process, and at least one senior person who can keep the whole thing aligned with the organization’s strategic intentions.

3. Sustain with Communication.

The key to sustaining the culture change is to create the sense that people are part of something bigger than themselves.  Belonging to a group gives strength to the new mindset.  It provides reinforcement, purpose and meaning to life and work.

Each wave of trainees will start their transformation together. Maybe they meet for the first time during training and work in parallel small teams to address the same strategic objective. But often times, trainees work in different departments and it can be easy to lose track of what the other teams are up to, or how the company is progressing in general. The solution? A conscious communication plan.

My recommendation is to find a platform to easily communicate with your employees. Publish frequently on the successes (even the small ones) and failures (yes, celebrate the failures) of your innovation efforts. We recommend total transparency when possible and encourage discussion rather than one-way announcements.

We will typically create one stream of communication for those who have been trained and actively working on projects to give them an internal support network and source for collaboration. And we create a second one for a broader employee base so that we can generate awareness and build trust for the innovation transformation that is underway.

In summary, here are the key principles to consider as you start educating your organization on innovation and in doing so, igniting a cultural transformation:

  1. Start with the Willing
  2. Educate and Enable
  3. Sustain with Communication

Good luck to you!

To access the resources that Maggie graciously offered to share with Innovation Leader members, please click here.

What’s your take on this question? Post a comment below…

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