Have you ever considered using innovation opportunities to develop your talent and organization at the same time? Read below on how to use innovation activities as an effective way to groom your high-potential talent.
Personal development training
I learned a lot from the personal development training I received when I joined Fluor Corp for my first job. At the TU Delft, I had learned how to do complex calculations for chemical processes, but upon graduation, I was pretty clueless about how organizations worked or multidisciplinary teams functioned.
How do you currently develop your talent? I guess little has changed. The strategy still seems to be:
- Recruit the smartest and brightest
- Put your talent on the projects and in the business units where they can prove themselves
- Encourage them to enroll in technology-based training to deepen their technical skills
- Offer them professional training – to ensure they get/keep/maintain their professional license(s)
- Provide them with personal development training opportunities to strengthen their soft skills (leadership, collaboration, networking, business development etc.).
- Arrange opportunities to network within the firm – company events, mentoring, etc.
While it is a common strategy, this focus on individual talent development turns out not to be very effective. According to the Harvard Business Review,"For the most part, the learning doesn’t lead to better organizational performance, because people soon revert to their old ways of doing things". Training outside the organizational context is just not very effective, let alone that it provides a tangible return on investment for the organization.
An alternative path to learning
Because it is contextual, project-based learning is a more effective way to learn and retain new skills.
Project-based learning is defined as a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.” (source)
Project-based learning gives students the opportunity to develop knowledge and skills through engaging projects set around challenges and problems they may face in the real world.
It does not take much imagination to see how innovation projects would be the perfect context to apply project-based learning and use that to hone the team members' skills in areas such as teamwork, project-management, and leadership.
Project-based learning is also a great way to learn new technical skills (Source). As project-based learning allows participants to use self-directed learning principles and dive deep into a concept. And because the information has direct applicability, retention of the new technical knowledge is higher.
In a comparative study, student learning, motivation, and performance improved both in the short and long term with project-based learning. The study revealed that the incorporation of project-based assignments enabled the creation of real-life experiences, which further stimulated the creation and development of real-life competencies (source).
Creating a win-win
If you apply project-based learning to innovation projects, you have a win-win combination when it comes to talent development. It gives project-based learning a concrete and realistic goal: Address challenges and problems that your clients and/or organization currently face.
In the project, participants get to develop soft skills such as project management, working in teams, dealing with stakeholders, budgeting, etc. while acquiring the technical skills that are needed to bring the novel solution to practice.
In the above-mentioned Harvard Business Review Article, the authors advise focusing on the development needs of the organization first and putting those needs over the interests of individuals. Giving talent the opportunity to address innovation opportunities, combines personal development and innovation in a way that also puts the needs of the organization first and the desired learning and change of the individual second.
In case there is a budget for personal development, you may have a few adjustments to make. Now an innovator will need to get approval for the innovation project and the personal development opportunity at the same time.
And from an innovation budget perspective, you don't want to give these learning team carte blanche. You must make sure that your strategic objectives will be met. Learning innovation teams, can therefore only continue on their innovation & learning journey as long as they make their milestones. So, unlike other development training, participation till the end is not a given. It is something that needs to be earned, one milestone at a time.
For this reason, hackathons or other strategic challenges are great starting points. These challenges attract talent and it guarantees that the teams are working on strategically important problems. The competition among teams gives an interesting twist, and makes the process of who gets to enjoy the personal development opportunity even more selective.
During the project
It will be important to closely monitor the progress a team makes on its innovation journey. The organization will need to keep track of what these innovation teams do, learn, and deliver. After all, innovation projects are investments that take up scarce resources. You want to make sure that each team is onto something valuable.
In addition, the talent development team will have to evaluate if it will pay off to send a team, or a delegation of a team, to training programs, conferences, and/or webinars to learn specific technical skills. The new technical skill that these team members would need to advance their innovation project and get to apply right away.
On average, expect about two of every ten initiated innovation projects to be a revenue-generating success. That does not mean that the other 8 are a waste of money. The participants of those projects are at least an experience wiser, learned more about a strategically important issue of the organization, and in most cases gained invaluable business experience. Outcomes that would be difficult to achieve if similar time and money were spent on traditional personal development programs to learn project management, leadership, and technical skills.
When using your most motivated and talented employees and allowing them to learn on the job, the metrics you use to guide your innovation investment decisions probably need to be adjusted. Especially in the early phases of these initiatives, the focus should be on learning, effort, and outputs, not potential outcomes of the innovation project.
Of course, the actual outcomes matter too. You have to meet your strategic objectives through these innovation efforts. Interestingly, in our experience, the metrics that focus on learning, effort, and outputs are remarkable good predictors for which projects are on target and likely to make a valuable contribution to the organization.
From what we have seen, the development of talent and the organization truly goes hand-in-hand. If a team's learning progress stops, the innovation project is not worth continuing. In that case, it is better for the team members and the organization, to stop the current innovation initiative and be given a chance on the next project.