Who Needs Innovation Training?

Here is a Thursday Thought Experiment built around the question, “Who Needs Innovation Training?”

This is about little ideas. Simple little ideas that can add up to big improvements in productivity. Little creative thoughts that flair-up only to be extinguished.

When learning a new job, folks typically spend quite a bit of time in the HOW stage. (How do I get this done, Who do I talk to, What needs to happen…) They then move quickly through the WHY stage. (That short amount of time when what you have to do and what makes sense simply doesn’t match up.) And, if they last long enough, end up in the State-of-DO. (Easier to do than to question Why.)

The more efficient your training the quicker employees end up in the State-of-DO. Organizationally this encourages a top-down pull innovation process instead of a bottom-up push innovation process.

Some employees, however, stay in the Why stage. Wally Bock got me to thinking about this when he identified “Insider Outsiders” who just don’t seem to fit in. They see and do things differently but “may hold the key to dramatic improvement.” Usually they are put up with, not encouraged.

It can seem natural in a complex system to see ‘getting things done’ as the secret for productivity, not the question, “Why?”

Innovation training often focuses on managers, calling for them to capture new ideas, accept set-backs as a part of progress, and identify pathways to approval. All good things, but what if more time was spent not on mangers but on line employees?

Who first sees the small incremental process improvements that can move an organization? Folks in executive offices or on the assembly line? Those dealing with corporate-wide budgets or the pencil vendor? Staff reviewing sales reports or service reps talking to customers?

One big killer is when an idea turns up at the wrong moment or in the wrong form. Employees who keep pushing alternatives appear irritating or distracting to the task at hand. Managers will tend to roll over such ideas to avoid delays in the current project.

How can you save ideas born in the heat of getting things done?  Change the reaction or alter initial delivery?

So, who needs innovation training?

Should managers be trained to encouraging employees to come forward or should employees be trained on better strategies for presenting their ideas? What would this do to training budgets?

Would a system that empowers employees with the secrets to effective idea presentation change your organization?  Can the State-of-DO effectively mix with the Why stage?

What happens if employees never stop asking, “Why?”

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15 Responses to Who Needs Innovation Training?

  1. Bill Welter says:

    It’s been my experience that employees are always asking “Why?” Unfortunately, not all managers listen. Sometimes they (the managers) are too busy. Sometimes they are threatened because they may not know the answers. However, the good ones pay attention to the “Whys” because it’s a great way to learn from the people who are closest to the action. A lot of innovation can bubble up from the bottom if we let it.

  2. J.D. Meier says:

    I think framing something as a “pilot project” goes a long way, or calling it an “experiment.” It helps isolate and factor risk, while setting the frame that it’s about learning and change.

    I think personal skills go a long way. Whether you’re the manager or the front-line turning ideas into action.

    I think the leadership has to set the culture though. Learning and improvement need to be valued in actions, not just words.

  3. Brad Shorr says:

    Fred, You are really on to something here. I worked for many years in a midsized company and it was my experience that people on the front lines perpetually came up with things to DO that made the operation more efficient. Many of these DO items never would have come up in manager meetings. And, ones that did tended to get debated to death.

    I think companies flourish when front line personnel feel empowered to implement. For that to work, communication has to be strong between managers and the staff – sometimes a brilliant tactic can have a strategic downside that staffers are not going to see.
    .-= Brad Shorr´s last blog ..Match Your Motif to Your Message =-.

  4. kay plantes says:

    I love Gore’s (the material and now multi billion dollar company) approach. If you can find a team that supports your idea and you create a plan, we’ll fund it. That is how they have grown organically so successfully. When ideas are vented with others they are improved. And decisions at lower levels are oftentimes more informed.That said, it’s up to leadership to define the business model and measures so that efforts are aligned on those elements where alignment is critical.

    I have never been a fan of rewarding people for ideas. I think being creative and seeing your idea take shape is reward enough. Foster the environment where that is happening everywhere.

    .-= kay plantes´s last blog ..Capitalize on Customer Frustration with Your Industry =-.

  5. Andrew says:


    Whilst I have never really operated in a management level prosecution, I must say that as an employee, I can certainly relate to what you are saying, and once you get used to a certain system or method of operation, it can be all too easy to simply work within the system in which you feel comfortable rather than challenging the system to see if there are better ways in which things could be done.

    I don’t know how, as an employee, that one avoids this kind of phenomenon, but if any form of innovation training could help in any way, then I would have thought that the provision of such training would certainly be well worth the investment for many organizations.
    .-= Andrew´s last blog ..America and climate change – messy action beats no action =-.

  6. Hi Bill, I agree managers ‘deaf to innovation’ can be a serious part of the problem. But I’m thinking the way line employees ask ‘why’ changes over time when the current is against them and that can actually reinforce the manager’s behavior. Maybe it’s the path from confusion to frustration I’m thinking about where the question stops looking like an idea and ends up looking like a complaint. Have you seen anything like that?

  7. Hi J.D., I like your ideas about framing. Your post about how that concept is used at Microsoft was very interesting and I think could be useful. I wonder if it could be applied in the context of an ongoing project in a way where you have the ‘now’ frame and the ‘next’ frame. Ideas that are simply too disruptive for the current discussion get captured and resources are put aside to seriously look through them at an appropriate date. The direction for doing that comes from above, but the drive from below.

  8. LaVonn says:

    I think for most businesses the death of innovation (because of those “deaf to innovation”) is one of the unintended consequence of the pace we have set for ourselves in the business world. We are available 24/7, with every answered email more languish, everyone wants instantaneous results. Management (in general) has lost much of its ability to slow down, listen, talk, think, research (beyond the top 10 hits on google!), ruminate, talk some more and then respond. As you have said before, many great ideas take time and care to develop — if your world doesn’t allow for that — well, unintended consequences.

  9. Hi Brad, That ‘death by committee’ syndrome can be so demoralizing for the folks in the committee as well as for those who’s ideas get stuck there. That makes creating that pathway from the line employees to implementation is delicate – I’m not sure anyone takes ‘suggestion box’ approaches to communication very seriously anymore, if only because its hard to make anyone think the ideas are taken seriously. Empowering implementation at the lowest levels sure helps teach your employees with street smarts the ins and outs of getting an idea implemented.

  10. Bill Welter says:

    I’ve seen the “question as a complaint” phenomena almost every place that there is an advesarial relationship between management and the workforce. Unless the two parties trust each other, the questions are used and seen as barbs to attack one another. Want to see it BIG time? Consider the “questioning” that goes on in the halls of Congress.

  11. Hi Kay, I think 3M takes that approach as well. Kind of a self-organizing method that can be very effective. You might be interested in June 18’s Journal article “Google Searches For Ways To Keep Big Ideas At Home”had a great article about the difficulty Google was having in keeping good ideas in-house. While they are giving plenty of time to line-engineers to work on their own ideas (One day a week evidently, it’s good to be Google 🙂 ) many of the ideas end up languishing or walking out the door when management doesn’t bite.

  12. Hi Andrew, This is a challenging issue for everybody. It is important that any system perform well enough that work gets done in a somewhat enjoyable and comfortable way. If not we would all loose our hair much too quickly. Change and fighting for change can be very uncomfortable and the rewards might be difficult to see. Do you think that this is more a question of training to make employees more comfortable to push change or that it rests more on the manager’s shoulders?

  13. Hi LaVonn, It is so hard to see the ramp when you’re going 200 miles per hour. It would be interesting to know if time was the real limiting factor to innovation rather than money. How does one take time to slow down and smell the rosy ideas when so many things pull at the modern employees attention?

  14. Andrew says:


    Probably a bit of both, but what I think is more important is for management to be approachable and to adopt an attitude whereby they are receptive to the thoughts and ideas of lower level staff.

    As an example, at a technology company for which I used to work, there was one occasion whereby a call centre employee approached the chief executive officer about an idea which he had, and the result of that conversation was a new line of business.

    Apart from the new avenue of revenue generation, the episode concerned represented a concrete example to all staff about how change really could happen in the event that low level staff spoke up about innovative ideas, and from that day on, senior management did not need to tell us about how they were receptive to the ideas of less senior staff – our MD had shown this clearly through a very practical example.
    .-= Andrew´s last blog ..America and climate change – messy action beats no action =-.

  15. Pingback: The inner sanctum | Managing Leadership

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