Innovation: can you teach it?

It may have been a rhetorical question but I still believe it is one worthy of taking a look at. That it is often asked with a degree of cynicism hints at part of what is wrong. Two other things cause me a problem. Firstly, innovation is a label that is attached to a result or an outcome. Secondly, if I’m going to teach you, it implies I can do it and you can’t. I don’t believe that is the case.

The most basic understanding of innovation is a different (better) way of doing things. In some cases that is an improvement, in others, it is a new capability. Just as with evolution, most innovation is iteration over time.

If we approach the question with this mindset then the answer changes. It isn’t about being taught how to innovation but creating the conditions under which innovation is more likely to happen. For me there are three things to consider:

1) Mindset

2) Behaviour

3) Values

The person who has a fixed mindset is unlikely to be innovative. The way they see the world isn’t expected to change. The process they have been given a part in is there for them to accept and nothing more. Unfortunately, the fixed mindset often belongs to someone who adopts a victim status. At the mercy of what others are doing, the bottom of the food chain, the receiver of instructions from others and nothing more. As with all change, it starts with the individual. An awareness that things don’t have to stay the same is the first aspect of enabling innovation.

Behaviour isn’t just about the individual but those around them. It is here that my second point on the teacher-pupil aspect also comes out. Children are natural explorers. They push boundaries — for good and for bad. Questions, experiments, getting things wrong and trying again is their everyday life. At some point, we shape them to see these things as bad and over time they forget how to do it. The point is reinforced even into adulthood where those who are seen to do those things are labelled rebels.

Innovation is more likely to happen when we behave in a way that creates space for things to be wrong. When we accept that the first suggestion might not be perfect. We go further — we’re disappointed when it isn’t getting the result because we know that through that process we will learn and get better.

Finally consider values. Many organisations will spend hours debating their values. They come up with some good intentions and pithy statements but rarely do those things translate into real values. Values are something that emerges from individuals and groups. They are about the standards we work to, the things we believe are important, and the things that motivate us.

It is rare for innovation to happen because of the lone individual. Sometimes it does, but it is the exception. If we value openness, collaboration, challenge and participation then we’re more likely to see innovation occur. If we believe we have to have the answers, be the one who is right and cannot be questioned then it will stifle innovation.

It is these three things — mindset, behaviour and values — that a leader needs to be thinking about if they want to foster an environment that innovation will occur within. Too often we act like the grip on of the sloth, who when relaxed grips tighter — the opposite to the human whose hand will let go.

Innovation isn’t something that can be taught. It is possible to demonstrate the things that leaders can do which will allow the natural desire that humans have for experimentation to flourish. That’s as much about a decision and willingness to do so yourself as it is a training course, model or methodology.

It isn’t that models and methodologies don’t help — I’m a firm believer they are useful tools that help you be less wrong. However, when you come to rely on a process and treat innovation as a science with rules to follow you ignore the very thing that differentiates humans — our ability to have original and creative thought.

To see the benefits that innovation can bring you first need to focus on creating the environment and conditions where it can take place. No training course, certificate or methodology will do that for you.

Remember — if something is worth doing, then don’t try to take a shortcut.

A part 2 on ensuring that innovation doesn’t result in chaos has been added here.

Here are 4 tips on changing a fixed mindeset

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An experienced senior digital business leader with experience of delivering transformative change.

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