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Developing Innovation Skills

There is a widespread belief that innovation just happens—somehow some bright person gets an idea out of nowhere. This notion could not be further from the reality of innovation. Innovation is a process; innovation is hard work; innovation is a transferable skill. In my recent post, “Can Innovation Be Learned,” we explored the rationale for why innovation can be viewed as a learned set of behaviors and something which can be mastered.

There is a widespread belief that innovation just happens—somehow some bright person gets an idea out of nowhere. This notion could not be further from the reality of innovation. Innovation is a process; innovation is hard work; innovation is a transferable skill. In my recent post, “Can Innovation Be Learned,” we explored the rationale for why innovation can be viewed as a learned set of behaviors and something which can be mastered. Organizations need to understand this and develop the training and resource development programs to build innovation process skills as a core competency in the product research and development teams.

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In approaching the issue of skills development, the organization must consider the variability in roles and needs of different innovation workers. There are several ways to look at this. First let’s consider the hierarchy of problem solving complexity. Consider the pyramid of problem complexity shown in this post. Here, complexity is a measure of solving difficulty that may involve may attributes. However for purposes of discussion, I will focus on one attribute—the accessibility of the solution.

At the top of the pyramid, we have the most complex problems. Denoted as star-complexity problems, these problems are beyond the capabilities of conventional solution because the knowledge required to solve the issue is beyond the scope of known science. These problems will wait for many years before the requisite information is defined at which time they can be solved with thanks to the discovery of new phenomenon.

At the other extreme, we see non-complex problems. These are issues that are easily addressed within the local knowledge of the solver. These are issues that we have seen before and when presented with the same situation can readily say, “Oh yeah, we addressed that issue before, and here’s what to do.”

For those familiar with the concept of levels of inventiveness, this classification will make a lot of sense. The key take away from this model is this. The higher you move in the complexity pyramid, the less frequently the class of problem is encountered. Conversely, the higher the problem occurs in the pyramid, the greater the potential value of the solution. Lastly, no one really needs to be trained to solve non-complex problems.

So, what does this tell us about planning a strategy for building innovation skills within an organization? Simply, not every one needs in depth innovation skills. That’s right. Problems at each level of the pyramid yield to different strategies of solving. Simple strategies should be used for more simple problems; more robust methods for more complex problems. The importance of this is to work with human nature. If you feel you must bring out a highly complex method for what feels like a relatively simple problem, you are less likely to go through the process.

Beyond complexity, there is another dimension to the innovation skill landscape. This is inherent in the diversity of the innovation tasks that different innovation workers perform. This point should require no explanation. It should be fairly obvious that the task of identifying a new application for a core technology is quite different from the task of improving production efficiency. Both tasks may lead to innovative solutions, but each will follow a very different path of discovery.

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With this in mind, I recommend a tiered innovation skills program. At the first level of skills development, knowledge workers should be trained in the basics of innovation methodology. They should be given the tools they need to address medium-complexity problems that are common to their job function and low-complexity problems with facility. This will allow them to experience early success and practice their innovation thinking on a daily basis. Additionally, the newly trained innovation worker should be shown how to identify problems beyond their current grasp and how to seek help elsewhere in the organization to tackle these issues.

As innovation workers gain skill, advanced training should teach the methods of solving problems into the high-complexity range and specific methods related to common cross-functional problem sets. Finally, innovation workers that show the desire to master the full gamut of innovation methods can be trained in the low-frequency innovation methods as well as facilitation skills.

Following such a template helps the organization build pervasive basic innovation skills and also a core team of high-skill, leveragable innovation resources. The cultivation of innovation skill in the enterprise is important for developing a sustainable innovation culture.

 

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