“This company needs to be more innovative!” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But what happens next? Because a true change in how innovative a company is must also reflect a change in the skills of employees that are related to innovation. Which, of course, begs the question: Is innovation a skill set that all employees can acquire? Can employees that are not innovative learn how to be? And, if so, what are these skills? How are improvements in them measured? In this article Dr. Mark Juszczak attempts to provide HR practitioners with some guidelines and a background into the competencies linked to innovation and the extent to which such competencies are teachable.

As important as measurable improvements in corporate innovation are, developing and tracking specific improvements in innovation competencies has proven to be a difficult task. Management training programs face unique challenges in trying to ‘teach innovation’. Whereas training in financial operations, legal affairs, supply-chain management, corporate governance, etc… is largely based on the acquisition of technical knowledge and concepts, training in innovation and/or innovation management is not meant to produce employees that understand ‘innovation’ as a remote technical concept. It is meant to produce employees that are better innovators.

Innovation is uniquely difficult to teach

A fair number of training critics will point out that true innovators are rarely, if ever, the result of structured learning.

The fundamental problem with providing training programs in areas such as innovation relates to the nature/nurture argument (the argument of whether or not differences in humans are the result of genetics or upbringing) in human development. A fair number of training critics will point out that true innovators are rarely, if ever, the result of structured learning. Other factors, beyond the scope of any training program, play a much more significant role in shaping such people. This would seem to undermine any effort on the part of HR to improve, in a measurable way, the innovation competence of employees. To understand why this appears to be the case, we need to investigate the cognitive dynamics of innovation – the way in which ‘minds at work’ create new knowledge and think about innovation.

The reason that innovation is a uniquely difficult thing to teach has to do with the nature of knowledge creation as a recombinant (combining old and distinct ideas into new ones) and stochastic process (subject to the laws of probability). Knowledge creation is the foundation of innovation; innovation is, in short, the practical application of newly recombined knowledge [often from multiple domains] to produce useful effects. Joseph Schumpeter, widely credited with coining the phrase ‘creative destruction’ in the context of innovation, recognizes that most innovations are the results of recombinations of existing ideas. According to Schumpeter: ‘To produce other things, or the same things by different methods, means to combine these materials and forces differently.’

Recombination & probability in innovation

Perhaps one of the best examples of this recombinant phenomenon in action comes from Andrew Hardagon’s historical description of Thomas Edison’s laboratory: ‘Onstage, Edison abandoned the past in his search for the future. Backstage, he worked hard to create that future from the best pieces of the past that he could find and use. Edison bridged old worlds and built new ones around the innovations that he saw as a result. Much of Edison’s work combined existing ideas in new ways; in spite of such humble origins, these innovations revolutionized industries.”

Much of Edison’s work combined existing ideas in new ways; in spite of such humble origins, these innovations revolutionized industries.

Knowledge creation is subject to rules of probability. Dean Simonton, a research on scientific creativity, describes innovation as ‘a constrained stochastic process’. That is, creative behavior in science demands the intrusion of a restricted amount of chance, randomness, or unpredictability.” This view of innovation as ultimately being subject to the laws of probability is difficult to use in traditional management models for one simple reason: one of the fundamental roles of ‘management’ is to structure the future in a predictable way. Managing innovation is almost paradoxical because the more individuals display true behaviors of innovators the less likely the results of their efforts will be known beforehand.

The practitioners view on teaching innovation

Furthermore, it is virtually impossible to isolate specific variables that can be directly linked to ‘improvements in innovation’ because of a specific training event or experience. At best, trainers tackling this area must accept the fact that innovation is a probabilistic art.

Many trainers, corporate practitioners and professors readily acknowledge their own limitations in teaching this specific subject. Harry Davis, professor of creative management at the University of
Chicago Graduate School of Business, says this about teaching innovation: My role is more teaching ‘how to’, rather than ‘what to’.” “It is more mentor or coach. I help students to use innovation tools
in a meaningful way; provide opportunities for students to experience what the innovation process feels like; create a culture and environment where there is minimal fear of expression, which allows creativity and innovation to flourish.”

Professor Davis’ emphasis on mentoring and coaching fits with the probabilistic nature of innovation – that, since results are not predictable, teaching also ought not to be. It ought to be nurturing and supportive; helping students discover what they have spent too much of their life forgetting – how to be more like children and less like adults: openly inquisitive, openly curious, not afraid to take steps into unknown places and not afraid to try new things; and most, importantly, not afraid of looking silly in front of their peers.

Believing you are an innovator is key

In short, innovation cannot be taught. It must simply be tried. And the success or failure of such ventures, on any scale, must be critiqued, analyzed and supported by a trainer/mentor. Success as a result of a training experience can only be analyzed retrospectively. An employee, having become a successful innovator, can only look back and identify, after the fact, what specific experiences or insights contributed to his/her success.

In short, innovation cannot be taught

As such, what training in innovation provides is not so much a guarantee of becoming the next great innovator, but a guarantee of increasing the odds of innovation. That increase in the odds is not a function of technical information, but a function of self-perception as an innovator and a function of change in behavior. That is perhaps the most striking feature of trying to teach innovation in a corporate context: that the specific intention of teaching innovation management has to be behavior and cognition change – focused on the development of perception of self as an innovator.

Guidelines for creating innovation competency training programs

Having said all of this, it might appear that teaching innovation is at best, an improbable art. In fact, the opposite is quite true. It is just that the structure and context of teaching innovation is different. It is focused on altering not what employees know, but how they interpret, process and analyze what they know. To that effect, there are some general guidelines that HR can use to create innovation competency training programs. These guidelines are:

  1. Focus on behavior change not technical skills acquisition.
  2. Information sourcing methods must be developed.
  3. Goal-design should be a part of competency training.
  4. Probability trumps certainty.
  5. Critical analysis must be developed at the cross-disciplinary level.

Practitioners in the field of innovation management, innovation management training and HR are invited to share their experiences with us. We have heard from many companies about practices, specific methodologies and stumbling blocks that occur in the process of trying to teach innovation in organizational settings. We welcome your stories as well.

By Dr. Mark D. Juszczak

About the Author

Dr. Juszczak is a lead consultant and speaker on business education and an executive corporate trainer both within the United States and internationally. He has conducted a diverse array of customized programs in innovation, strategy, leadership, organizational behavior, business cognition and expertise management. Dr. Juszczak holds a Doctorate in Education from Columbia University, with a specialization in innovation and business cognition. He is the author of two books and numerous articles and has a patent pending for an expertise analysis system.