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Director’s blog: Can you really train people to be innovators?

May 25th, 2016

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More innovation please

Raising the level of innovation is becoming a critical need for businesses as they face increasing competitive pressures. A fundamental requirement for making businesses more innovative – in what they provide to their customers and how they do so – is to get their managers and employees engaged and able to effectively participate in innovation activities. This requires an internal system for innovation that establishes key elements of enabling innovation infrastructure such as strategy, processes, tools and supporting resources. And part of this work involves training managers and employees in innovation.

But can you really train people to be innovators?

I ask this question, as there is a view – and not an uncommon one – that innovators are born not made: “Just look at Steve Jobs, James Dyson or Jeff Bezos – they weren’t trained to make them the innovators they are!” Implicit in this view is the belief that when it comes to innovation ‘you’ve either got it or you haven’t’. If that’s the case then what hope is there for businesses trying to innovate if they don’t happen to have a Jobs, Dyson, Bezos or the like in their midst….?

Innovation is not just creativity

Let’s step back and review a few innovation basics: Firstly, people often mix up innovation and creativity. Creativity is about generating ideas. Innovation is about creating value from ideas. Ideas on their own have no value – only potential value which has to be realised. Certainly some people are naturally more creative than others and thus more likely to generate potentially valuable ideas. But being creative alone is not enough – we also need the skills to realise the ideas and transform them into value. That requires skills in idea exploration and analysis, development of new offerings and methods, project management, marketing and selling (internally and externally) for example. And ideas can be effectively generated by (less creative) people working systematically anyway (through effective brainstorming and other ideation methods). So innovation requires a mix of capabilities, not just creativity.

Not only a lone genius required

When talking about improving innovation in an organisation it’s important to remember that the goal should be to ‘institutionalise’ innovation – to enable regular and sustained innovation through widespread and integrated efforts – rather than the occasional spark of innovation enabled by a few individuals (who can have off days or can leave). People forget that Apple’s innovation success with its iPod, iPhone and iPad was the result of multiple innovations by many individuals with Steve Jobs being the orchestrator and very much the public face, but by no means the sole innovator – and indeed his orchestration was ineffective and inefficient at times (read the excellent biography ‘Steve Jobs’ by Walter Isaacson for details).

One of the earliest examples of effective institutional innovation was the Menlo Park laboratories established by Thomas Edison in 1876. This was one of the first large-scale research establishments and formed the template for R&D organisations for the next fifty years. Edison brought together more than 200 talented scientists, engineers and craftsman and overlaid a system of innovation that harnessed their skills in a structured and productive way with defined teams, extensive experimentation and record keeping. It was a highly productive operation and created more than 400 patents. Whilst Edison was very much the public face of innovation, it was very much an institutional rather than individual approach to innovation, with defined targets such as ‘a minor innovation every 10 days and a big thing every six months or so’.

Most innovation is doing existing things better

A more modern example in a services firm is that of AXA Insurance in Ireland which started up an innovation programme in 2000. Theirs was very much an experimental approach, learning as they went along. They found that they could generate lots of new ideas from their employees but they needed to apply a process to effectively screen and select the best ideas. One key insight was when they analysed the ideas implemented in their first few years of the programme they found that 80% of them were concerned with removing waste or improving existing services or ways of working. Only 10% were ideas for new innovative services. This finding helped demystify innovation in the business – employees realised that most innovation was in doing existing things better – incremental innovation – which they could certainly do in their daily work. That is a powerful message for all businesses: Don’t just look for the ‘silver bullets’ of radical innovation, spend most of your time removing the ‘rust and grime’ from your existing methods and processes and then ‘polish them’ to make them more effective. Industrial experience of Continuous Improvement, making use of basic techniques for measurement, analysis and waste elimination – often within a Lean programme – has shown the power of such ‘do better’ innovation. Training employees in these core techniques can make them more structured and effective in their work on process innovation.

So you can train people to become innovators?

You can indeed train people to be effective in ‘do better’ or incremental innovation – which accounts for the vast majority of innovation. But what about ‘do different’ radical innovation? This type of innovation is needed if a firm wants to leap ahead of rivals. And firms would certainly want a few silver bullets as part of their innovation armoury…

To help answer this question I’m going to use the example of the UK legal sector. Most observers would not consider law to be a natural environment for innovation and rather unkindly might jest that ‘lawyer’ and ‘innovative’ are two words never found in the same sentence… That might well have been true(ish) twenty years ago, but it’s a viewpoint that is increasingly out of date today. For the UK legal sector has been in a state of major change for the last decade, driven by a combination of deregulation, tougher market conditions driven by the economic fallout from the 2008 financial crash, and the increasing impact of the internet. The result is clients ‘wanting more for less’, new rivals, internet-enabled entrants and law firms recognising the need for major changes in both their offerings and their working methods. Many have embraced innovation in their services – often with a primary goal of efficiency and cost improvement.

Through Codexx I have worked with a good number of major UK law firms helping them to respond to these major challenges by applying innovation. This has taken the form of two different types of interventions:

  • Specific service innovation (aka ‘re-engineering’)
  • Improving a firm’s innovation capabilities

Service innovation – a focused environment for innovation

In my work with law firms since 2006 I have helped law firms re-engineer a total of 20 legal services using a Codexx approach called ‘Smarter Working’. This approach uses a small core team of fee earners and support staff to perform the re-engineering with the support of the Codexx consultant. We effectively establish a ‘micro innovation environment’ using collaborative workshops and with training in team-working, some basic Lean principles and creative idea generation methods. This has resulted in major redesign of services such as Commercial Due Diligence, Inquest and Clinical Negligence, to reduce costs by as much as 75% whilst improving service quality. It has also resulted in the development of new internet-enabled services. Looking back at this work over the last decade I can unequivocally say that you can train lawyers – or indeed any other employees – to be very effective innovators within a supportive environment for innovation.

Improving innovation capabilities

Other law firms have wanted to take a broader approach, not just focused on selected services, but to make their firms ‘more innovative’. Their goal was a firm that used sustained innovation to improve its services, its efficiency and thus its competitive differentiation and its attraction as a place to work for progressive lawyers. To help them do this I have applied Codexx methods and tools to help them establish a systematic approach to innovation and use this to drive innovation of new and improved services and working methods. This work included strategy development, an innovation process & support structure, change management and of course training for selected personnel.

From my experience a key strategic approach to establishing innovation on a firm-wide basis is to run two parallel missions: the first to build the required innovation system and the second to deliver innovation outcomes (e.g. improvements, enhanced services etc.). The first mission is key to long term innovation success; the second is key to delivering benefits early and to help gain buy-in through demonstrable early success. I have delivered training on innovation to selected personnel in a number of firms (often innovation ‘champions’ whose role is to spearhead innovation activities) and typically found lawyers receptive and able to effectively apply the new methods – generating both incremental and more radical ideas. Based on this, there is no doubt in my mind that these lawyers and support personnel can be very effective in catalysing and supporting innovation within their firm.

That is of course if they are given the ‘space’ for innovation.

The one proviso – space for innovation

So you can indeed train people to be capable of innovation. But they can only subsequently realise that capability and successfully innovate if the organisation allows them space to do so. ‘Space for innovation’ covers a number of key attributes:

  • Leadership supportive of innovation – not just focusing on today’s business
  • Time available for work on innovation – always a challenge for people busy running the daily business
  • A wide, but defined, frame to seek innovation in – innovation in a vacuum is rarely effective…
  • A supportive culture for innovation – valuing effort and recognising some failures as inevitable
  • Resources to support innovation (such as other personnel, methods, tools and budget)

Unfortunately these are not always put in place or sustained to accompany training for innovation – and then all the teaching in the world on innovation will have as much effect as trying to light a fire on boggy ground….

Alastair Ross

Director
Codexx Associates Ltd

Further reading

To read further about Thomas Edison’s approach to innovation and the Menlo Park research organisation, see a delightful and informative book on innovation: ‘Innovation – a very short introduction’ by Mark Dodgson and David Gann, published by Oxford University Press.

For more information on the AXA Ireland case study and effective approaches to innovation in knowledge intensive service firms  see ‘Innovating professional services – transforming value and efficiency’ published by Gower. https://www.routledge.com/products/9781472427915

For a case study on law firm re-engineering see: http://www.codexx.com/2015/a-story-of-law-firm-re-engineering-people-processes-profit/

 

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