Is Innovation Training a Waste of Time?

In a recent survey, we had anonymous respondents write comments in the line of “innovation training does not work”. I wondered what they meant, besides not getting the results from innovation training that they expected. Is innovation training a waste of time?

Googling “Innovation Training”

When googling for innovation training, you get a list of paid ads for training programs. Harvard Business School and Ideo are the most familiar names in the list. These first two are followed by a series of consultancies who all offer innovation training programs.

The organic results are perhaps most interesting. In the top 10, I got:

Top 5 Innovation Training Program Pitfalls | HuffPost

The Huffington Post article explains that often innovation training starts with ideas and light-bulb moments. While commonly associated with innovation, it is the wrong approach if you want to innovate successfully. The article also explains that training is given in a safe and context-less environment, while it is the organizational context that makes innovation challenging. Lastly, the article points out that without adequate organizational support, newly trained innovators are set up for failure. Acting upon what they learned will in most likelihood get these innovators fired.

Why your innovation leadership training will fail | Forbes

The Forbes article explains that a different approach to leadership will not change the culture for innovation in an organization. It takes systems and processes to innovate. So just focusing on transforming leadership does not work and explains why these programs fall short.

So, what is the verdict? Is innovation training worth the time, money, and effort?

Teaching innovation

I have taught many innovation courses. It is a fun and exciting class to teach. Students generally love it and the examples of novel technologies and other opportunities gets everyone excited about what is possible.

However, when teaching undergraduates, I always feel that I fall short in delivering these students with the knowledge they need to become innovators. Why? Because to them, concepts such as brainstorming, teaming, experimenting are oh-so-obvious. Of course you need a team. Of course you need a free flow of ideas, a save environment, etc.. Of course you need to set up valid experiments. If school has been your main life experience, all these things are common activities. Since, as a student, you have been asked to express your ideas, work in teams, and do (scientific) experiments for the past 12-16 years! Duh!

When teaching graduate and executive courses, it becomes more interesting. In these groups, I get to work with participants who have experience with (trying to) bringing their ideas to practice. They bring their experiences and frustrations to the classroom. Giving me plenty of examples to use to explain why expressing your ideas, working in teams, and running experiments is oh so challenging in any work environment. The examples of the participant make the course lively and relevant, make the innovation training practical, and invaluable (based on what the participants say on their course evaluation forms).

What is the difference?

Innovation training in context

Bringing an idea to practice is challenging because of the context. If you take an innovation training that just explains how to act upon an idea and develop it to a solution – in general terms – it will fall flat. As no innovation project is the same and the context you have to navigate is often the most difficult aspect of managing an innovation project.

Certainly, there are generic challenges. However, when participants don’t have a practical case to understand the actual challenges or real life experience to put the tools and exercises in perspective, I doubt the lessons taught will stick.

The Harvard Business School – known for its case-based teaching – makes sure that the context is always taken into consideration, because all of their teaching is case-based.

Any training program that is just focused on building skills – from brainstorming, to building a safe learning environment, to forming teams, and executing experiments, will do a disservice to their students if this training does not also require the participants to apply these learnings in practice. Not in the classroom, but in their own work environment.

Next generation of innovation training

How then should innovation training be taken or taught?

  • In context

    • Innovation training needs to be practical. The theories are easy to understand, applying these in practice is what makes innovation difficult. Thus, have participants bring in their own innovation project and have them learn while executing their projects.
  • Just in time

    • Teach the skill set innovators need to bring their projects forward. The skills you need are dependent on the phase of the project. For example, in the early phases, you will need to learn how to engage in customer discovery. In the later phases, you need to know how to set up and run experiments
  • Performance driven

    • Not all innovation projects are successful. Period. So, performance-driven training should not be focused on the performance of the solution, but on the progression of the team. Finding a “no” is a successful outcome too.
    • Feedback on a team’s progress and performance is key. For example, you can tell that confirmation bias is a problem. However, it is more effective to point out the confirmation bias that exists in a team’s questioning, reporting, or experiment design, and then discussing how such biases can be avoided in the future.
  • Team-based

    • When we think of training, we think of a person learning a skill. However, innovation is a team sport. Teaching individuals would be like sending a soccer team to a skill-clinic, where each player would only learn how to kick, receive, and dribble. Such a clinic certainly will hone their skills, but don’t expect this team to win the next game or tournament. For that to happen, the team has to practice as a team and practice playing the game. Innovation teams also need to learn how to act and respond as a team. Just teaching individual innovators a set of skills will not be sufficient.

Innovation practice or innovation lessons?

At Organizing4Innovation we have incorporated the above in our training sequence.

What I have struggled with is what to label this program. An innovation training program? That however does the program short and may even be confusing, as it is not a training program in the traditional sense.

Perhaps we should label it innovation practice. After all, my kids go to soccer practice, not to soccer training. Or innovation lessons, since you take swim lessons, piano lessons, or drivers-ed classes to learn how to swim, play the piano, and drive respectively.

Experiential learning

Then again, practice is not the real deal, the games and competitions are what matters. We are working with teams on their actual projects. You don’t take biking lessons or go to bike practice to learn how to bike.

David Kolb labelled the latter form of learning ‘Experiential learning.’ You can only learn how to bike by doing it, falling, getting up again, until you know what it takes to peddle and stabilize yourself with the front wheel simultaneously. As a parent who taught three kids how to bike, I now know that side wheels are not a good idea. Bikes without pedals are a more useful intermediate step. However, at some point they must try themselves. Running along, holding your child by his or her shirt, you can somewhat break their worse falls. Falling from a bike hurts, yet in the end it is the traffic that makes biking dangerous. Anticipating traffic is another skill set that cannot be learned from books. You as a parent need to take the time to guide and assist your child until they are comfortable navigating traffic on their own.  

Innovation is the same. You cannot learn it from a book. You have to learn it in practice and in a real-life context. In other words, in an environment where failing is going to hurt. As a coach and teacher, it is my task to assist and guide innovators and innovation teams so they can avoid and reduce the impact of their worst mistakes.

Do we still call this way of learning ‘training’?

Kolb’s experiential learning process

Is innovation training a waste of time?

After looking into the topic, I am afraid to say that indeed in many cases innovation training will be a waste of time. That is, don’t expect innovation training to help you innovate, unless the training provided is in context, just in time, performance driven, and team based.

Practice is what makes perfect and learning while doing makes it rewarding and worthwhile!





P.S. You can find more information about our team-based, hands-on, just-in-time, training sequence here.

P.P.S If you are an innovator or innovation manager and would like to read more of our blogs, you may want to subscribe to our newsletter or join the online discussion in the “Innovators in the Professional services” linkedIn group