Can Innovation Be Taught?

Dan Edwards · June 15, 2007 · Short URL:

For the last five years or so, it has been very common to hear CEOs name “innovation” as a top-of-mind priority for their companies. Numerous statistics generated by industry and technology management and innovation consultants establish the positive link between a company’s ability to innovate and share holder return. Within the last few years, however, it has become clear that while many senior managers have acknowledged the innovation imperative, many organizations are struggling to actually raise their game.

Many are asking, “Can innovation be taught?” Let’s define innovation within the business sphere. Nurturing and utilizing innovation is about understanding opportunity, being creative and ultimately delivering new products and services that grow a company’s top line. There are many strong reasons why becoming more innovative is difficult.

Risk-aversion and the behaviors it fosters are particularly big killers. If employees are measured and focused on success, they run the risk of quickly dismissing breakthrough propositions -- as an instinctive reaction to what may look like unsound, immature and sure-fire-ways of not delivering on this year’s numbers. Breakthroughs require tools and techniques which explore and focus on the opportunity being considered; they require the expert input of managers and professionals probably not from the operational or departmental area tasked to deliver; and they require a conviction that the new approach and innovation will lead to moving the business forward.

The requirement to possess conviction presents a real challenge – if you haven’t done it before how can you ‘believe’? Answer – work with someone who has done it before; work with serial innovators. Tools and techniques can be shared which stimulate and direct creativity and prepare a tiger team for the challenge of execution. And the mindset for navigating the unknown can be passed on - Innovation can be taught.

Here are four guidelines for training a tiger team to become innovators:

1. Form the right team
Innovation teams (hopefully comprised of a group of professionals from across an organization) need to possess several critical attributes to navigate the potential pitfalls of an innovation challenge. First of these is domain expertise. Real skill – not merely passion - is the raw material with which to develop meaningful new insights into needs of customers, exploit the right technology and realize business opportunity. A good rule of thumb – if members of a new team haven’t worked together before it’s a good start. (because their skills sets are not regularly paired in the organization).

The second area to consider is thinking style. Create a team with both left-brain and right-brain thinkers. Some people relish facts, detail and planning (left) while others prefer to speculate on the future and feel their way through a task (right). Breakthrough work absolutely requires both these modes of thinking, and unbalanced teams run the risk of faltering on either the creative or analytical demands of the innovation challenge.

Third, innovation team members need to be resilient. They are going to create something that is wonderful, but which their organization is in all likelihood going to initially have grave doubts about and probably reject, exactly because it looks so different from “business-as-usual.”

2. Commandeer an innovation work space
Placing a new team in its own space when it first meets greatly boosts the ability to learn, think and work quickly. Getting ‘off site’ might mean hiring a hotel conference facility. A much better solution is to commandeer some less-sterile space – whether an old warehouse, garage or simply some dedicated area in your own facility. What matters is that team can shut the door on daily distraction, get away from hourly checking of e-mail and design the space to meet their needs.

3. Use the right innovation tools
The tools you will need fall into these categories:
Tools to develop understanding: Before starting to generate concepts, a team must become wise to the nature of the situation. If the consumer is at the heart of an issue, a team must gather data about their needs and understand how they think. For market share challenges, data on the activities of the competition is a must-have and for developing a new device, an exploration of technology will be needed.

Tools to release creativity: It has become something of a cliché to ask employees to cover a wall with sticky notes with their ideas. Much more can be achieved, if idea and concept generation is properly framed and purposefully stimulated. Devices such as flash cards depicting analogies to your challenge from other industries can create links to the challenge and promote new thinking and ideas.


Tools to focus on, and deliver results: Assessing and evolving the best concepts is a frequent stumbling point in the innovation process. To develop ideas into investment-worthy propositions requires tools which morph the initial elements of an idea or solution into a rounded concept – even going so far as a first pass business model and plan. Tools that sharpen the propositions include having teams pitch their investment proposition to the CEO and board.

4. Make innovation that is ready to execute
A good way of thinking about a newly formed innovation team and effort is as a black box into which you pour difficult, often messy challenges and out of which inspiring propositions appear. If, however, the black box is not fully integrated into the business and supported by senior management, it is likely that resources will not be marshalled appropriately to execute on the project. In parallel to generating the new breakthrough product, management must make ready to execute on any new proposition. Resource must now be newly allocated to the development of the new product and if the organization does not plan for this demand, execution will stall badly whilst the CEO and business group managers stare one another down.

Different companies tackle this in different ways, but common amongst those who overcome this hurdle is recognition by senior management that resources will need to come from somewhere and it is their responsibility to clear this hurdle. As a first step, a board-level steering team ought to be established, separate to the tiger team, which has a duty to direct the energy of the tiger team and remove obstacles from its progress in delivery.

Despite these challenges, innovation remains a key to profitable growth and a hallmark of leading companies. For those that are willing to develop a new way of attacking product development, innovation tiger teams may be part of the solution. Certainly, these new types of group have a precedent of success when implemented well – and are testament to the fact that innovation can be taught.

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