Executive Education, From the Magazine

How Do You Teach Innovation?

Give executives the tools and space they need to solve real-world problems with new and different solutions.

In a marketplace where consumers expect every brand experience to be as easy as hailing a Lyft, and as delightful as a Unicorn Frappuccino, companies must be constantly ready to adapt to the ever-changing whims of their audience. To do that they need a workforce that has the skills to solve customer problems by creating new and more innovative products and services.

This need is changing the way business leaders think about talent development and the core skills they need in the workforce. Where companies once achieved success by being efficient and effective, in the future success will be defined by companies that prioritize innovative thinking to meet customer needs.

It’s not just about teaching people to create great products, said David Robertson, senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management on innovation and product design.  “It’s about teaching them to identify real problems in the customer value chain, then to build solutions that solve them,” said Robertson, also host of the SiriusXM weekly radio show “Innovation Navigation.” Companies that can do it have the potential to become leaders in their industries — while those that can’t risk joining the likes of Kodak, Blockbuster and other formerly successful companies that ultimately failed because they did not evolve in response to changing times.

Customer Comes First

In Deloitte’s 2017 “Human Capital Trends” report, 94 percent of executives reported that “agility and collaboration” — two key skills at the core of innovation — are critical to their organization’s success. Yet only 6 percent say they are “highly agile today.”

This is likely because creating an agile workforce and corporate culture with a continuous eye on innovation isn’t easy. It requires employees who are motivated, empowered and trained to brainstorm solutions to problems their customers may not even know they face, or that they aren’t facing yet. “Making that connection to customer need is the key to real innovation,” said Robertson. As an example, he pointed to the difference between Sony’s Action Cam video cameras and GoPro action cameras. While Sony may deliver better quality video, he said GoPro has been far more successful because it was designed to address customers’ desire to film themselves in action.

By giving users ways to mount the camera on helmets, bikes — even on their dogs — and to rapidly edit and share footage, GoPro solved a real problem, fulfilled a marked customer desire and subsequently won massive customer market share (48 percent to Sony’s 8 percent in 2015, according to investment research and analytics company Market Realist. “Sony had every advantage in the marketplace,” Robertson said. “But GoPro started with what the customer wanted, and that’s how they came out ahead.”

The Right Combination of Skills

If companies want to deliver these kinds of game-changing products and services they need to provide executives with the skills and the opportunities to innovate. It is harder than it sounds, Robertson said. You can’t just send executives to a self-paced online innovation class and expect them to start churning out new product ideas. Innovation on its own is not a skill. Rather it’s the outcome of a blend of skills that includes lateral thinking, problem solving, collaboration, communication, risk taking and resilience to obstacles.

Building this skillset requires training, mentoring and real world experiences that together teach employees how to figure out what customers want, and then think strategically about how to give it to them.

To do that, Robertson said learning leaders should bring customers and executives together as part of the learning process. Then executives can talk to real end-users about the challenges they face, and use that feedback as a starting point to effective and fruitful brainstorming. “They need to learn to ask questions in context, and to build solutions that address how the product will be used.”

He said part of the problem — why there is a lack of innovative thinking and practice in the workplace — is related to the academic system, which rarely requires students to collaborate to solve real-world problems. “It’s hard to get students who have never worked to listen to and reflect on user challenges,” he said, noting that even MBAs spend more time memorizing complex formulaic equations than they do learning the empathy skills needed to come up with a better approach.

To close this gap, companies should consider integrating more real world projects into their learning curriculum, said Liz Glaser, director of integrated talent management for Pitney Bowes, the e-commerce solutions company headquartered in Stamford, Connecticut. This is especially important for millennials, who like to understand the context of the work they do, and don’t want to spend hours listening to lectures and looking at slides, she said.

To accommodate these young learners, Glaser’s team worked with The Growth Engine Co., an innovation agency in Norwalk, Connecticut, to develop an Early in Career leadership development program for high performers. All of the activities in the 18-month course are hands-on, including workshops on design thinking and problem solving skills, mentoring sessions and a final six-month project where teams of learners solve a real-world challenge submitted by a client, and eventually present their solution to the CEO and leaders from across the company. “It’s a way for them to apply their new skills in a real-world context, and to take pride in the result,” said Bryan Mattimore, co-founder of The Growth Engine Co.

Merge Culture and Innovation

Building links between learning and the business also can help create a culture where employees feel empowered to be innovative, which can be challenging, particularly in large companies where innovation often gets strangled by red tape, said Stewart Thornhill, executive director of the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Michigan. “You can teach employees all the skills they need to be innovative, but if they don’t feel encouraged to share their ideas, or fear others will take credit, it won’t work.”

This is where executives play a critical role. To avoid crushing innovative thinking, Thornhill believes companies need to train leaders in how to nurture innovative behaviors, and provide them with resources and reward structures — including acknowledgment and ownership of great ideas — that will incite more creative thinking. “Great companies are the ones where people can’t wait to share ideas,” he said.

One such company is 3M, the Minnesota manufacturing company where an engineer famously turned a failed airplane adhesive into the basis for Post-it notes. This innovative transformation wasn’t an anomaly, Thornhill said. It was a reflection of a culture that was consciously designed to give employees the space and incentive they need to be creative.

Along with fostering innovative thinking through customer field trips, R&D labs and online forums where employees are encouraged to share ideas, 3M adheres to a 30 Percent Rule, which mandates that 30 percent of each division’s revenues must come from products introduced in the past four years. “Generating innovative solutions is part of their cultural DNA,” Thornhill said. “Employees are expected to generate new ideas and to turn them into new products.”

Sergio Flores understands the pressure of being expected to innovate all the time. As an electronics engineer in the Next Generation Product R&D Lab at Samsung Electronics in Seoul, South Korea, his team is constantly developing innovations that haven’t yet been invented, including virtual reality cameras and the next iteration of wearable devices. This means his team is constantly being pushed to test the limits of their knowledge and ability to problem-solve.

To ensure they succeed, all of the engineers in the lab are trained on the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, which provides them with a set of tools and principles to solve traditional problems in innovative ways. The theory relies on three skills:

How to systematically identify problems and ideal solutions.

How to concentrate all the resources available to get the most out of less and optimize solutions.

How to overcome obstacles in imperfect solutions by applying approaches that have worked in other disciplines.

The training includes development of core problem-solving skills and a review of 40 inventive principles, which are essentially different ways to think about problems. For example, “segmentation” solves a problem by dividing a product into individual parts; this has led to innovations such as Venetian blinds and modular furniture. “Nested doll” involves stacking elements inside each other, which is how we got zoom lenses and seat belt retractors. “These fundamental skills and principles help our people apply creative thinking to their work,” he said.

His team also has dedicated members who focus on researching innovation in other industries. Then they share that knowledge with the team during weekly meetings. This helped Flores’ team look beyond the lab for answers, and recently helped them solve a problem with a set of circuits in a motor that kept overheating. Rather than using traditional cooling techniques, they copied a design from the cell phone industry, which uses holes in phone cases to naturally draw air toward the battery to keep it cool. “By looking at the problem through the lens of another industry, we were able to solve it,” he explained.

When teams systematize the way members tackle problems, and make knowledge-sharing a formal part of the project culture, it naturally leads to more innovation, Flores said. “You can’t solve problems purely through inspiration. You have to have a system in place that helps you apply that knowledge in new ways.”

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