Can You Teach People to Innovate?

by Jeffrey Phillips

Can you teach people to innovate? - Innovation ExcellenceOne of my recent pet peeves is the proliferation of education options for innovation. One of my alma maters offers a “certificate” for innovation management.  While I cannot comment on the course, it is taught by two professors with little private sector experience who haven’t created a product. One of them is a psychology major, which I guess makes sense because innovation is often the product of new or unusual insights or perspectives.

You’ll forgive me for a startling lack of enthusiasm about many of these “educational” offerings.  There are several reasons for my skepticism:

  1. Innovation is strange, unusual work, very different from what most people do day to day
  2. It doesn’t require great insight or difficult tools, but does require working against considerable resistance in existing cultures and customer expectations
  3. You don’t educate someone in “innovation”, you educate them in a set of tools, expectations, perceptions and beliefs.  The combination of these factors enables innovation to occur.
  4. No matter how much you train people, they can only implement the tools and techniques if they are allowed to
  5. There is no commonly agreed innovation standard.  Perhaps the closest anyone has come is in Creative Problem Solving, which I would think is probably the best answer to innovation training.

We are what we do repeatedly

It is in our nature as corporate employees and those that serve them to follow well-trodden pathways.  One of these well-trodden and expected pathways is to “train” people on new tools and methods when introducing a new project or capability.  Most people in organizations are paid handsomely for their deep experience, and that’s what they deliver every day.  When forced to confront new thinking and new tools, most will demand training to assist them to provide more expertise.  However, since most innovation is “one and done”, the vast majority of people don’t regularly exercise their innovation skills and experiences.  Thus, training is often ineffective because the tools that are learned aren’t regularly engaged in consistent, repeated innovation activities.

The complete lack of standards

Imagine a world where every automobile had a different type of engine.  Your one goal in life is to become the best auto mechanic, yet every car that drives into your shop has a different engine. Some are four cylinder gasoline engines.  Some are eight cylinder diesel engines.  Some are hybrids, some are electric, some are powered by natural gas.  In this world you’d respond by becoming a virtuoso in one type of engine, say compressed natural gas engines, or you’d hire a plethora of people who could reasonably address a wide array of engine options.  Such is the nature of innovation activity today.

Without an agreed standard, and considering the wide array of potential outcomes for innovation (incremental to disruptive, products, services, business models, experiences and channels to name only a few), there is no one way to do innovation, and so many variations as to make training impossible, except in very narrow capabilities or tools.  I suspect it’s probably possible to become an expert in Voice of the Customer techniques, but this is simply one of several ways to get customer insight, which is just one of several phases of a complete innovation activity.

A completely new way of thinking

Innovators argue about the metaphor of “inside the box” thinking.  Some believe that using the concept of “inside the box” is helpful because innovation is always bounded by constraints.  Others believe that the concept of a “box” is difficult, getting outside the box helps expand possibilities and introduce adjacencies.  Innovation is enabled by specific tools (trend identification and analysis, scenario planning, customer insight generation, open innovation, idea generation, prototyping, etc) but give me a person with an open, curious and inquisitive mind and I can move the innovation world, even without any of the other tools.  A careful, cautious plodder who is deeply immersed in all of the innovation tools, who has every “certificate” known to man but cannot release the thinking bonds that constrain them is worthless on a true innovation exercise.  They are people who know everything and can apply nothing because their horizons are too small.  Good innovation requires the courage to conduct new thinking, explore new opportunities, question the status quo.  In fact that’s what innovation really is, questioning why we do things the way we do, and seeking opportunities to radically reshape how and what we do, to the benefit of customers and ourselves.  If you can’t think differently, all the training in the world is useless.

Born, or Made?

Now, if you are still with me, you might be thinking that I am going to make the argument that innovators are born, not made.  You’d be wrong on that point.  There is no innate innovation gene, although clearly some people have more interest in exploration and discovery.  Some people are more creative than others.  Some people are really good at dreaming up new stuff.  That’s all true as far as it goes, but neglects the fact that creativity and exploration must be linked to rationalization and implementation of the good ideas in order to solve a problem for a customer and to make money.  Innovators aren’t born but they are shaped, more by experience than by training.  Of course we can provide some training in any tool or technique, and try to enlarge the way people think when they encounter an innovation exercise.  But the best way to make an innovator is to give them an intractable problem and remove the constraining barriers.  Encourage them to think differently and come up with novel ideas.  And, once they’ve done that, do it again.  We can make innovators, but not just by training, but also through engagement.  Innovators are workers who get their hands dirty.  Does your certificate come with some washing up powder and examples of the innovations you created?  If not, you are an observer of other people’s innovation, and need to do some work of your own.

Can you teach people to innovate?

The answer to this question is:  no.  You cannot teach people to innovate.  You can teach them tools and techniques like TRIZ or trend spotting.  You can teach them process methodologies that lead them from customer needs to ideas to prototypes to customer validation tests.  You can teach them to think about innovation outcomes that are more disruptive or radical than incremental change.  You can show them Doblin’s Ten Types model to help them think through the potential outcomes of an innovation activity.  But until they understand that innovation is a holistic implementation of all of these factors, and requires them to release their fear, uncertainty and doubt, you are hammering jello to a wall.  It will not stick.  The wall must be removed as the knowledge is applied.

People can innovate.  What we can do is accelerate, simplify and make their innovation activities more productive and efficient through tools and techniques.  But what we cannot do is remove fear, uncertainty, corporate constraints and a lack of executive commitment.  We cannot force organizations to sustain innovation activities so the work is repeated until it becomes familiar and eventually second nature.  So the real question is: can we teach organizations and corporate cultures to innovate?  We know the answer to this is yes, but few companies have the time and patience to make the change that’s necessary.

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Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes, and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose. Follow him @ovoinnovation


  1. Paul, I’m a long time admirer of your work and your insights, but on this topic I could not disagree more. As you say, “If you can’t think differently, all the training in the world is useless.” The same is true of all the innovation tools and techniques and processes you mention. They too are useless when people are unable or unwilling to change their thinking. The solution isn’t to throw up your hands and say it can’t be cone. The solutions is to teach people how to think differently. That absolutely can be done–and progress can be measured, based on rigorous new scientific research. That shift may occur in stages, as sometimes occurs with CPS and TRIZ and design thinking, or it may occur more holistically but saying it’s impossible to accomplish is absurd.

    You remind me of the old innovation saw: Would those who are sure it can’t be done please stop interfering with those who are doing it.

  2. Dennis Stauffer

    That salutation should be “Jeffrey” not “Paul”

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