More and more, stakeholders throughout the business are bypassing the learning function to create learning outside the learning & development organization. To win back the hearts of these stakeholders (and win a bigger share of the organizational budget), learning leaders must deliver solutions that are exciting, cutting-edge, efficient—in a word, innovative.
But what exactly is innovation? We tend to think of innovation as being something technologically oriented, but it's really much broader than that. At its core, innovation is about looking at existing processes, through a different lens—coming up with a new idea or method to drive positive change. There’s often a technological component, but some of the most impactful innovations are entirely analog. It’s about seeing patterns where others see noise, and stubbornly pushing ahead for the betterment of the organization.
To be innovative, you have to embrace a certain level of discomfort, because change isn’t comfortable. And you have to realize that others won’t see the future state the way you see it, so you have to be ready to explain what the new reality looks like, why it’s better than the present, and how to get there.
Business mogul Richard Branson has a mantra, “Always Be Connecting the Dots,” which refers to the willingness to stick your neck out and ask obvious questions: Why are we doing this? What are accepted norms that shouldn’t be? Is there a better way? When organizations fail to innovate, it’s because they don’t ask those obvious questions and merely accept the status quo.
When we talk about connecting the dots, we’re really talking about four main things:
- Intuition, when something just doesn’t look or feel right
- Abstract connections, which means applying “outside-the-box” thinking to an existing process
- Potential, or dreaming of what could be possible
- Creativity, which in this sense refers to approaching a problem from an entirely different perspective
Consider the innovation model within the learning organization of Ford Motor Co., which uses a process dubbed the “Test Track.” Test Track basically boils down to inviting the L&D team to “break all the rules,” as Ford Chief Learning Officer Gale Halsey explains. Learning professionals have some standard assumptions when it comes to developing learning—about budget, about resource needs, about the involvement of subject matter experts. Under the Test Track process, Ford’s L&D team started questioning those assumptions, and they came back with so many paradigm-changing ideas that it wasn’t viable to implement them all. Instead, the team collectively voted on the top three ideas to pursue, to be picked apart within communities of practice and on dedicated online forums.
Rob Lauber, chief learning officer at McDonald's, suggests studying other business units within the enterprise for ideas and inspiration around innovation. It comes back to the notion of creativity and looking at problems from an entirely different perspective. “I think about other areas of the business, like IT or product development, and look at how they operate, and what can I learn, or what kind of metaphors or analogies can I identify, that we can bring to life in learning and development.”
To create a culture of innovation in your learning organization, you must remove disincentives to innovation. Your team needs to be able to experiment and fail, because failure is the best teacher. Speed is also a critical component to innovation—fail fast. You need to quickly determine if something works or not—and if not, why not—so you can learn from those failures and move on to the next idea.
Key Elements of a Culture of Innovation
In a recent webinar, we asked learning leaders what they think are the key elements of innovation. Some of their responses:
- Having time to think
- Freedom to explore
- Being a student of the business
- An open mind
- Courage to try
- Leadership support
- Resources to try new things
- Frequent calls to innovate
Rich Burton, L&D project manager for Microsoft, cites experimentation as being one of his key elements of a culture of innovation. While it may seem obvious, the way the experimentation is conducted is crucial. Pilot projects are often cited as a form of experimentation, but a pilot isn’t necessarily the same thing—at least, not in the context of innovation. Burton offers three questions to test if your pilot is truly innovative…
1. How long does it take? If your pilot lasts more than a couple months, it’s not really experimentation; experiments are quick and cheap. Experiments should be measured in days or weeks, rather than months or years. Longer pilots, however, don’t follow the fail-fast rule, and they require significant budget and resources. “When you think about experiments, think of them as very quick ways to get great insights without having to make a big investment,” Burton says.
2. How many people does it affect? There’s often an assumption that the more people involved, the better your results. That’s not necessarily wrong, but it can actually work against you in an experiment, given that the intent of an experiment is to be quick and inexpensive. Oftentimes, 10 carefully selected participants offer results that are just as valuable as 100 randomly selected participants.
3. What is your desired outcome? Most pilots are focused on success—especially if the pilot takes six months and involves hundreds of people. We want to prove that what we're piloting can scale beyond the pilot group. Failure is often seen as a negative, but we need to change that thought process. A true experiment that is quick and inexpensive can focus on gaining insights that can be used going forward, whether that means going back to the drawing board or making adjustments for release on a broader scale.
Based on this definition, only 53% of webinar participants say their learning organization conducts true experimentation.
Remain Laser-Focused on the Learner
It can be easy to lose sight of the needs and interests of the end users, particularly as we go through multiple iterations and experiments.
We asked the learning professionals attending our webinar for tips on how they maintain learner-centricity during the innovation process. Some of their responses:
- Ask the learners what they want
- Consult a skills matrix
- Include action-learning components
- State desired learner experience as part of project scope
- Involve learning advisory boards, with reps from the business areas
- Clearly understand business goals
Innovation has to be something that is ongoing; you can’t just pull everybody together once a year and say, We're going to innovate today.
How do you get your teams to focus on innovation as part of their daily routine? It starts with making sure that there is alignment to the business needs, and then forging a performance improvement mindset, rather than the order-taker mindset that learning professionals so often fall into.
At Ford, instructional designers and training managers consider a series of questions whenever embarking on a development project, such as: What is that user experience? Who would be the primary user? Who would be the end user? What's the real problem? Can we curate the content? Do we really have to build, or can we buy or borrow? What is the timing? Can we improve the timing to deliver? "Those are all questions that we're posing," Halsey says. "Some of the skill teams are establishing some metrics in terms of their time to delivery, and that is challenging people to think differently about how they design training.”
Ultimately, remember that innovation isn't always some big, bold, awesome idea. Innovation can come in small increments, and it's important to take those insights and put them to use in your day-to-day learning initiatives. Innovation is a change in culture that takes time to develop, and you have to be intentional about the change process. Start by creating a space for people to brainstorm and to design small-scale experiments.
One final note: If you’re truly innovating as a learning organization, you’re going to be disrupting the status quo, which means you’re going to get negative feedback. Listen to it, take it to heart, and whether you incorporate the feedback or not, keep forging ahead.