Is innovation a skill that can be learnt?

Is innovation a skill that can be learnt?

There is a well-established model of leadership development that suggests that effective learning consists of:

  • 70% from tough jobs
  • 20% from people (mostly the boss)
  • 10% from courses and reading

While the actual percentages are not to be taken too literally, this model does provide a useful guide as to how managers and leaders, and their followers, should allocate their time to learn a new skill.

With this in mind, what if we applied this approach to the development of innovation as a learnt skill? After all, even Steve Jobs had to learn how to create and innovate. Sure he had a natural talent, but this also had to be honed and developed through hard work.

So what might an innovation 70:20:10 framework look like? Here is my suggestion:

  • 70% of time spent innovating in your current role
  • 20% innovating with others
  • 10% learning new creative thinking and innovation processes, theory and tools

Let’s consider these one at a time:

Innovating in your current role

Learning how to innovate, like any skill, is best done through actual experience. This could be as simple as trying a new way of conducting a meeting, for example by rotating who is the chairperson. Or having an email-free day once per week. The important point here is that the change is a small one and within your control. In this way you can see what happens, learn from the results and perhaps share what you have learned with others.

Yet while this form of everyday innovation could have the greatest impact on overall innovation, it is the one that is the most resisted. Perhaps it is because many leaders believe that innovation only applies to big, new products or process changes. Or perhaps because so many leaders are extremely busy and time-poor the very idea of trying something new and different is put on the back-burner as being inefficient.

Another reason is that there are a lack of role models for the leaders of the future to learn from. Just like in an apprentice system where the young employee works side-by-side with the master craftsman guiding him or her on the job — I see a similar situation with teaching prospective leaders the art and science of innovation.

Imagine the cumulative impact of having every manager and leader in an organisation trying at least one new thing every month. Imagine the collective creativity and learning that could be released and the impact on company culture simply by applying innovation to every leaders’ role. The other advantage is that innovation becomes the responsibility of each and every manager rather than someone else in the organisation, such as the innovation director (important as this is).

Innovating with others

I believe the opportunity here is for managers and leaders to both learn from each other but also to learn by talking to customers, clients, partners and suppliers. The aim is to develop an informal ideas community where new concepts can be discussed and problems solved. I would, for example, conduct monthly expression sessions where any manager or leader can present a pressing issue that they would like the group to address. We did this recently with a healthcare business where I showed the managers how to Blitz (i.e. utilise an accelerated creativity process) and we ended up generating ideas that saved literally thousands of dollars.

Included in innovating with others is challenging the leadership group to make meetings and brainstorming sessions more engaging and productive. After each session a leader interested in improving their performance might ask themselves: “What did I do well in that meeting, what might I do differently and what did I learn?”

Learning new creative thinking and innovation processes, theory and tools

The smallest amount of time should be spent learning new creative thinking and innovation processes, theory and tools in formal workshops or training sessions. There are many different tools other than brainstorming, which progressive leaders should learn and use when they need to. While this amounts to the smallest amount of time it sometimes can have the greatest impact. If you can learn a new tool such as my Power of Three tool (i.e. consider a usual, different and radical idea) then this can lead to real breakthrough leaps in productivity and growth.

The 70:20:10 model is a powerful one that can help any leader to produce better innovation results and improve the skills and learning of all managers.


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments