Employee Innovation Training – What Approach Works Best?

As organizations increasingly focus on building corporate cultures that are more open to new ideas, they are examining ways that they can engage a range of employees in innovative thinking and actions. In the past, the answer to this kind of effort was to run a challenge and pat yourselves on the back for a job well done.

Over the last couple of years that thinking has evolved, and innovation leaders are now considering approaches that are perceived to have a longer-term impact on their employees. In response, there is now a rush for innovation leaders to train and engage their employees on innovation skills.

Just as every company has its own unique innovation mix, there is no one prescribed pathway towards boosting innovation skills for employees.

The choices of training approaches are endless; top-down, bottom-up, self-managed, employer led, online, in-person, etc. Similarly, there are many methodologies to be considered, such as Design Thinking, Lean, TRIZ, business case development, business model canvas, etc. Just as every company has its own unique innovation mix, there is no one prescribed pathway towards boosting innovation skills for employees. Admittedly, some ways are more effective than others, and in this era of blended learning, companies are likely to employ a mix of training methods that can be directed to different employee groups, at different points of need. But, there is one way, which is guaranteed not to work, and that is closed-minded one-way instruction.

Building a framework

When considering training for employees on innovation skills, it is important to visualize (and record) the desired results and impact. This often results in an employee engagement framework around innovation concepts and skills.  As part of this framework, employee training may be viewed as an opportunity to engage key employees and expand organisational capacity for developing innovative ideas. In this case, skills such as collaboration, communication, idea development planning, and stakeholder identification may all help to increase interactions and thus boost the flow of executable ideas. But beware; using a broad brush or scattergun approach to instilling these attributes is not necessarily going to result in a culture of innovation. Whatever method–or methods–of training are followed, they have to be targeted and focused on achieving the specific, achievable goals.

With this in mind, let’s take a brief look at top-down and bottom-up training opportunities. At a strategic level, bottom-up approaches work particularly well when an innovation program is trying to make a statement about a move to a more open culture and also broaden the capacity to innovate. Because we are looking here towards a broad-based approach it is important that training is scalable, incorporates an understanding of the corporate priorities of the organisation, as this will help participants to direct their thinking towards future innovation possibilities. In addition, this kind of training is generally more focused on skills to move ideas forward.

Innovating with purpose

Employees develop the skills to frame problems in the first place, and then better understand the viability and path to implementation of their best ideas.

We call this approach “innovating with purpose”. It encourages employees to understand real problems and then to work towards creating a solution. This, in essence, is the difference between invention and innovation. When you want to invent, to come up with new ideas, you simply sit people in front of a whiteboard and brainstorm or ‘ask’ for their ideas. When you want to innovate, you start by identifying real problems and then look to devise solutions. You still need their ideas but it’s not about ‘asking’ for random ones, it’s about asking for solutions to genuine problems. The key to “innovating with purpose” is that employees develop the skills to frame problems in the first place, and then better understand the viability and path to implementation of their best ideas.

In line with the more holistic view of innovation training, approaches and channels should be scalable across an organisation. This means that training can be carried out over a period of time as well as being phased across the organisation, thereby helping to maximise the impact. For example, those who have a natural inclination around innovation can be used to reinforce training for those who follow later. These “early adopters” can help to drive innovation value and assimilation across the organisation. When formalized into networks, those with the most interest and investment in innovative thinking can be called i-agents, intrapreneurs, innovation catalysts, champions, ambassadors, etc.

As with bottom-up training, the top-down approach requires the development of a longer-term engagement model and should align with the broader corporate strategies and goals. However, unlike the bottom-up approach, top-down training tends to focus more around enhancing innovative teams and organizations, rather than focusing on the development of specific ideas. These efforts often tend towards more personalized training approaches, in line with the expectations of this group.

Whichever direction innovation training takes, in order for it to drive cultural change it needs to be at the top of the agenda. CEOs and leadership teams simply cannot afford to pay lip service to the vital subject of building a culture of innovation. It’s one thing to establish a strategy around engaging employees in innovative thinking, quite another to personally buy-in to the required change in attitude and behaviour. As innovation is cascaded throughout the organisation (up or down), leaders at every level have to support the end goals and drive the change. If they don’t, the innovation imperative will stall, leading to employee cynicism and disengagement.

Training is not an end in itself, but innovation leaders who use the right mix of training to develop the skills which enable organizational innovation will see their people start to create game-changing solutions to real problems and in turn, real competitive advantage.

By Anthony Ferrier and Cris Beswick

About the Authors

Anthony Ferrier is the CEO of Culturevate, an organization that empowers a company’s employees to execute ideas and inspire a culture of innovation, through employee networks, a resource portal and training programs (developed in association with Professor Chris Labash from Carnegie Mellon University). Anthony is a widely read author, speaker and advisor to industry leaders at organizations such as Pfizer, U.S. Postal Service, Johnson & Johnson, ADP and Fidelity. He previously led the BNY Mellon innovation program and has a Masters of Commerce (University of Sydney) and Bachelor of Economics (University of Newcastle).

Originally trained as a product & industrial designer, Cris spent over a decade as a successful entrepreneur & CEO building an award-winning design group. He is now recognised globally as an expert on strategic innovation and creating innovative organisations. As well as being an author and speaker, Cris is the Founder & CEO of niche innovation consultancy The Future Shapers. He specialises in working with CEOs and senior teams on the strategy, leadership and culture innovation requires and has coached, advised and delivered keynotes to some of the worlds most successful companies on how to become exceptional by building game-changing innovation capability and embedding it into organisational culture.

Image credit: Business executive delivering a presentation from Shutterstock.com

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