Expert innovators know from experience how to innovate while minimizing hassle, needless tasks and wasted effort – they’ve been successful (and unsuccessful) countless times through trial and error. Using flight simulators and surgical learning tools as examples, it’s been proven that teaching veteran skills to ‘newbies’ isn’t science-fiction, especially in more ‘exact’ disciplines such as medicine and math. But is it possible to design a crash-course that teaches young and inexperienced innovators the less-definable skills, attitudes and insights necessary to ideate, champion and implement without having to go through all the awkwardness of being a rookie? We think so, and here’s why.

We have good reason to believe that innovation is a teachable skill. From helicopter piloting to neurosurgery, simulation is an effective method of imparting expert-level ability or knowledge to newcomers. However, while simulation is a relatively straightforward process for a procedure with known elements, limitations and results, finding the best way to simulate less tangible skills – like innovation – opens up a whole new can of worms.

So, how do we go about designing an ‘innovation simulation’ that imparts valuable implicit knowledge to new innovators, with measurable results? Science suggests that it’s possible, but first we have to figure out a couple of important things – namely, what are the knowledge structures and processes in place that expert innovators rely on, and what’s the best way to transfer them to new innovators?

Transforming ‘newbies’ into ‘old hats’

Contrary to the beliefs of some, being an expert isn’t as easy as having a fast internet connection and set as your default homepage. Interviews with experts and students demonstrate a difference in explicit and implicit mental models, with experts possessing more abstract knowledge that is highly-structured in nature. On the other hand, students tend to focus on details, relying on their executive functions and intuition to guide them.

Nowadays, many people do have the opportunity to jump-start their model building through tools like simulation, roleplay, business games and other targeted training methods that allow them to avoid some of the pitfalls of being the new kid in the surgical suite, flight deck or control room. The same should be true for innovation, right?

Teaching implicit innovation knowledge

While the knowledge structures that define skillful surgeons and fighter pilots are relatively straightforward, innovation experts, on the other hand, have to blaze trails of their own. They’ve seen success and failure. They’ve approached problems from different angles and achieved a wide range of outcomes, and this subtle mastery sticks with them in the form of implicit knowledge. We can point our fingers at expert innovators, and we have all seen and marveled at the results of their efforts – but what exactly do they do?

In spring of 2017, we’ll launch a joint research collaboration between Ghent University and Avans, a Dutch college for advanced business creation, to investigate the transference of mental models to improve innovation behavior and self-efficacy. Nine experts will be used as models – all individuals from R&D with over 10 years of experience each in large Belgian organizations with strong track records in innovation. Several situations have been designed that require innovative approaches to specific problems, and the experts’ approaches to the problems will be used as benchmarks in the study.

Which learning techniques work best?

Through an online platform, new innovators will be presented with the business innovation situations – representing the ideation, championing and implementation stages – and asked to describe how they would approach each one.

More importantly, the research will focus on investigating which style of learning is the most efficient and effective. Four different learning strategies will be explored, with the researchers following up on the participants one month later to see if their innovation behaviors and self-efficacy have improved, and also if they feel more confident in their innovation choices.

If this research is conclusive, ours will be the first ever to offer implicit innovation knowledge structures, as well as proof that innovation knowledge structures can effectively be taught. If all goes according to plan, we’ll have understandable results by summer 2017.

By Saar Van Lysebetten

About the author

Saar is working as a PhD student at the Department of Personnel Management, Work & Organizational Psychology of Ghent University. She is responsible for the psychological aspect of and is specialised in the development of simulation tests & training.