What’s Innovation got to do with learning?

Paper prepared for the Chatities Conference 15th September 2010

Innovation and creativity are going to be at the heart of many learning and development conversations over the next year.  I can almost guarantee it.  The current financial crisis has prompted organisations in the public, private and non-governmental sectors to be thinking hard about how they can manage their way through crisis, and deal effectively with the, as yet, unknown.  If you want proof, look at the new book by Thomas Freedman: ‘This Used to Be Us’. In it he argues strongly that innovation is the only option if the US is going to flourish again, as most of the innovation is happening elsewhere in the world.

In the charities sector it is no less true.  The current funding malaise will require organisations to think in entirely new ways in order to survive, and those that do will leave those that do not a long way behind.

If you want additional proof, I have been reading a timely book.  Havard Business Press has just published:  Innovation to the Core by Peter Skarzynski and Rowan Gibson.  I think you should read it as well as Friedman’s.

This is a book that gives case study after case study of organisations thriving through better investment in people, and through building an effective environment where ideas flourish and diverse communities feel empowered and motivated.  And the message is really simple:  you can innovate your way out of almost any crisis.  And you can innovate your way to game changing successes.   And the places that innovate, are the organisations of the future, because they can cope with uncertainty, ambiguity and volatility better than the average operator.  And increasingly we live in uncertain times. 

The book takes apart the processes required to embed what it defines as three separate kinds of innovation.  The first allows you to exploit an entirely new opportunity, the second, to revalue the unappreciated, and the third to leverage your strengths. You do this by questioning deeply held dogmas inside your organisation about what drives success, and spotting unnoticed patterns or trends that could point the way to new opportunities.  It means thinking of your organisation as ‘a portfolio of skills and assets’, and if you learn to get inside the mind of those you serve you can articulate unmet and unvoiced need. Skarzinski and Gibson call this: ‘challenging orthodoxies, harnessing discontinuities, leveraging competencies and strategic assets and understanding unarticulated need’.

So what has this got to do with learning?  The answer is everything!  Innovation will not happen because the Chief Executive thinks it is a good idea.

Building innovative organisations requires long-term commitment and long-term investment of effort.  Innovation requires an environment that values ideas, as well as skills, systems and processes to manage and exploit those ideas.  Innovation requires a cadre of experts and implementers from across the whole organisation.  All of this implies a whole swathe of training and development initiatives both to drive cultural change and deeply to embed the requisite skills and attitude.  It simply can’t happen with out the engagement of the learning teams and the driving commitment from the top.

The authors list three pre-conditions for generating these breakthroughs.  The first is space for reflection and experimentation.  The second is building a diverse community to create divergent thinking, and the third: fostering what they call:  ‘connection and conversation’ which is the breeding ground for ideas.

Organisations that innovate ask themselves some pretty fundamental questions on regular basis about whom they serve? What they provide? How they provide it? And how they differentiate their services?  You need to do this in order to question the fundamentals, and gain new insights.  None of that is worth anything, unless action and change occurs.  And this is where you need to build what they call ‘an innovation architecture’ in your organisation. 

To get at the truly great ideas, you need to generate, manage and evaluate lots and lots of ideas that may not go very far, in order to create the few that will endure.

This is all about learning: learning to learn and learning to adapt, in order to cope with the increasing pace of the world outside. This requires skill development, organisational development, a coaching and mentoring culture, reward for ideas; a celebration of team work and boundary spanning as well as clear evaluation of impact and contribution.  If you are supporting learning in your organisation this is not a bad place to start. 

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