In some of my conversations with leaders, they have agreed with me that having the right tools is not enough. What they want is training for their people. Their argument is that having a great tool such as the Business Model Canvas, is not the same thing as knowing how to use it well. This is a hard proposition to argue against. At one level, leaders who advocate for innovation training are right, but at another level they are wrong. Let’s start with how they are right.
Most people that work in established companies have spent their career developing the skills necessary to execute on their company’s existing business model. These skills are often highly valued and rewarded within the company. Given the benefits they create for their careers, these execution skills have become a routinised habit for the individual. It is effectively their go-to-move whenever they are facing a business challenge.
The problem is that execution skills are not that useful when it comes to innovation. This is because innovation is an exploration challenge. Unlike working in an existing business, most innovation teams are dealing with some level of uncertainty. Their job is to search and find value propositions that resonate with customers and profitable business models that can scale. These entrepreneurial skills are new to most people and have to be learned. This is the value of innovation training programmes.
I have worked with several companies to develop training programmes in order to teach a chosen group of employees how to use the right tools to innovate. I have even been part of long-term programmes to train a group of innovation catalysts, whose job after the training is to coach internal innovation teams while they do their work. These programmes are good in that they not only build innovation skills, they can also generate enthusiasm and excitement around innovation within the company.
While innovation training can create some positive outcomes, the challenge lies in the leadership belief that simply training people to use the right tools is enough to get innovation going within the company. This is where leaders can be wrong. In 2015, I was part of a team that led a training programme at a global publishing company. After the programme, one enthusiastic employee decided to implement what he had learned on a project he was currently working on (i.e. testing the idea before scaling it). This poor guy faced so much resistance from his line manager that he eventually gave up and left the company.
From this experience, I learned that innovation training only does half the job. In some situations, innovation training can actually be harmful. This is because it creates a sense of hopeful aspiration among employees, only for that aspiration to be dashed when they are back at work with their managers. As such, when we say that it is the people within a company that innovate, this also refers to the relationships and power dynamics among those people. Beyond training people, we need to be thinking about two other things; leadership support and organisational design.