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Innovation to the Rescue

Training may have taken a backseat during the downturn, but some HR executives are looking to add courses in creativity and innovation to drive their companies out of the recession. Such training won't work, however, unless a spirit of innovation cascades through the entire organization.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009
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Experts say the current recession has permanently shifted consumer buying habits, ushering in a change so dramatic, that only the development of new products, services and efficiencies will reinvigorate sales and profits.

If it wants to take advantage of that change, experts say, Corporate America must act to rekindle innovation in its ranks. But training employees to be innovative can be difficult -- and training alone won't cure organizational stagnation because the organizational culture must nurture creativity.

"Large companies are often process-driven," says Sanjay Dalal, chief innovator for Creativity and Innovation Driving Business, a training and consulting firm specializing in business innovation based in Irvine, Calif. "Unfortunately most of these processes tell people what they shouldn't do, not what they can do, so they limit creativity."

Successful organizational changes always start at the top, so HR executives need to secure executive buy in before launching innovation training. Once executives and high-potential employees are trained -- and they embrace the program -- their modeling of program principles will help initiate a cultural shift.

The training can then go down the line, experts say, noting that training line managers is essential so they don't squelch the enthusiasm of subordinates who suggest new ideas.

"Creativity is like a muscle in your brain," says Linda Naiman, founder of Creativity at Work, a creativity coaching and training firm based in Vancouver, B.C. "It can be developed with exercise.

"Innovation requires companies to embrace the notion that there's no such thing as a bad idea," she says.

"As the ideas progress through the analysis and evaluation stage, it will become clear which ones have merit, but if teammates are too quick to dismiss co-workers who think outside the box, the creative process will fail before it even gets off the ground."

Creating innovation training should be a two-way street, experts say. Managers will be able to assist the cultural revolution by editing the processes and rules that inhibit innovation.

Changing the Culture

Courses in critical thinking have been instrumental in transitioning Steelcase from a domestic manufacturer of office furniture to a provider of unique global solutions, says George Wolfe, vice president of global learning and development for the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based company.

After assuming the CEO role in 1994, Jim Hackett launched a plan to reposition the company, amid increasing pressure from lower-priced competitors, Wolfe says.

Too many of the company's managers were linear thinkers and the team lacked an effective process for solving problems, he says, noting that poor discipline often resulted in a rushed implementation of new ideas that ultimately doomed the projects.

"We adopted lean manufacturing principles and went through the Six Sigma process first, so our employees could get used to the idea that change would be a constant part of our journey," Wolfe says.

Next, Hackett launched Steelcase University and authored the company's first critical-thinking course. The CEO has personally instructed 1,600 of the company's 13,000 employees over the last four years via a virtual classroom, Wolfe says. Hackett trained 900 leaders first, ultimately adding professional and technical employees from every department.

Although distance learning has its shortcomings, he says, the benefits for Steelcase have included lower training costs and a faster roll-out of the program to the company's globally dispersed workforce. Small classes of 15 to 25 employees offset some of the downside of remote training, by allowing participants to communicate directly with the CEO -- a technique that also helps them understand why innovation is critical to the company's success.

Creating Balanced Teams

To successfully transfer the learning concepts from the classroom to the business, HR leaders need to develop a curriculum that teaches the skills needed at every stage in the innovation process -- and that includes training employees to understand their own cognitive styles

Some employees are more creative, so they're better at right-brain activities such as brainstorming and generating new ideas, while others are stronger in left-brain activities such as quantitative analysis and implementation.

Training can include a diagnostic instrument that identifies each employee's dominant cognitive style.

For organizations to successfully leverage training, they must develop project teams of diverse employees, selected not only for their varying experience levels, ethnicities and functional expertise, but also for their diverse cognitive strengths, experts say.

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Unbalanced teams may fail to originate ideas, lack the rigor to thoroughly vet new concepts or be unable to create detailed implementation plans.

"Most training programs develop whole-brain thinking, but each person is innately stronger in one of the four thinking quadrants," says Naiman. "To develop new products and services, the teams must include employees with different cognitive strengths."

Companies renowned for innovation train employees from all departments and functions, so the teams can evaluate ideas from different perspectives including the various financial, manufacturing and marketing ramifications, experts say.

They also solicit ideas from customers and sometimes include them on the creative teams, since they have first-hand knowledge about the need for new products or services.

Fresh perspectives can also come from interns, outside consultants or facilitators, they add.

Innovation Requires Commitment

It's fairly easy to measure the impact of skills training on pressing business initiatives, but the results of innovation training takes time -- and it can be difficult to link training investments to tangible business outcomes, unless the company creates new patents or inventions.

Some corporate trainers track a pipeline of new ideas, so they can share the results with executives and pinpoint creative processes that can be enhanced through additional training or greater executive support, experts say. Such documentation also helps learning officers and directors justify funding for the program, during a time when every expenditure is highly scrutinized.

At Steelcase, Wolfe surveys participants 30 to 60 days after the training to learn whether new behaviors or ideas resulted.

Even though budgets have been decreased across the board at Steelcase during the recession, critical-skills training is still funded at a reduced level, because the company's long-term commitment to the program has yielded tangible results, such as the product innovations that were geared to hospital emergency rooms.

Steelcase is now preparing to launch a second wave of training, featuring a new Think 2.0 curriculum that teaches advanced critical-thinking concepts and is designed to inject innovation into the DNA of every employee.

"Our goal was never to create a bunch of robots through this training," says Wolfe. "We wanted to create a disciplined thought process that would lead to new ideas and better decision-making."

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