By Axiom Consulting Partners 

Some argue that human intelligence and creativity are strongly tied to a person’s ability to connect ideas and experiences. The concept that intellectual capacity is not fixed at birth provides the argument that individuals can increase their cognitive abilities and personal performance by improving their aptitude to learn, thus enabling more creativity through a greater number of connections between ideas and experiences.

Our perspective is that innovation and learning are two sides of the same coin. In our experience, a company’s capacity for innovation is not fixed based on its legacy, industry, or size. Here, we relate some of the best practices for improving personal learning success to how organizations can create the right disciplines and organizational habits for innovation. As more companies have come to recognize the limits of acquisitions, leaders are now focusing more on value creation through innovation for sustained organic growth.

Promote a Mindset for Learning
In research on students conducted by Carol Dweck from Stanford University, she saw that some students aim at performance goals while others strive toward learning goals. Students with performance goals are working to validate your own abilities, while students with learning goals work to acquire new knowledge or skills.People with performance goals can unconsciously limit their potential. If the focus is on validating or showing off ability, people tend to pick challenges that they are confident they can meet.

People want to look smart, so they do the same stunt over and over again. But if the goal is to increase ability, it is better to pick ever-increasing challenges and interpret setbacks as useful information that helps one to sharpen their focus, get more creative and work harder.

In an Harvard Business Review paper by Clayton Christensen, Stephen Kaufman, and Wily Shih, titled “Innovation Killers”, the authors argue that the paradigm of maximizing earnings per share (EPS) to drive shareholder value is an important reason why companies under-invest in innovation. Companies that tend to focus more on performance goalswant to look competent and pick challenges they are confident they can meet.

The value of early stage innovation business initiatives is often difficult to measure; they seldom provide positive impact to EPS. For innovation projects, managers need to avoid focusing on short term or quarterly performance goals such as sales improvements, cost savings, and immediate impact to earnings, but rather, focus on learning goals that can motivate talent and increase organizational capabilities needed to drive future successes.

Engage in Deliberate Practice and Experimentation
Expert performance in medicine, science, music, chess, or sports is the product not just of innate talents, but of skills laid down layer by layer, through thousands of hours of dedicated practice, feedback, and learning.

Swedish psychologist Dr. Anders Ericsson’s research on expertise, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, argues that a person of natural ability can achieve extraordinary performance through extensive and deliberate practice, defined as a regime of purposeful activities. These activities include practicing the skill, monitoring performance, evaluating success, and working to improve the aspects that are lagging.

Opportunities for deliberate practice and postmortem analysis of innovation failures help organizations diagnose areas where breakdowns occur, so leaders can learn to engage with the right audience to solve problems and develop the organizational skills for navigating through the internal and market constraints that prevent success. One approach for how some organizations create and engage in opportunities for deliberate innovation practice is to crowdsource the exploration of ideas and solutions from employees, vendors, and customers.  Then leadership can engage employees in the practice of refining, advancing, and building support for these ideas.

Take IBM for example. In 2006, IBM engaged 150,000 employees, family members, business partners and universities from 104 countries over a three-day online networked idea generation event called “Innovation Jam” to screen, combine, and find novel ways to get IBM products to market more quickly. The Innovation Jam provided opportunities for IBM leaders to engage in a type of deliberate practice for managing innovation. It enabled them to prioritize ideas, combine them, and then focus on the best ways for bringing high potential solutions to market quickly.

After years of running and learning from the Innovation Jam, IBM launched it as a service for other organizations, allowing companies to create their own opportunities to practice, learn, and grow through innovation.

Incorporate Outside Perspectives and Collaborate. Collaborative learning is an educational approach to teaching and learning that involves a group working together to solve a problem, complete a task, or create a conceptual framework.  The concept is based on the idea that learning is naturally an active and social act, where students engaged in collaborative learning are able to capitalize on each other’s resources, perspectives, and skills.  Over the years, some companies have transitioned away from traditional training programs and towards more collaborative training, leveraging employees’ past experiences, skills, interests, and concerns.

What about collaborative innovation? Innovation models within larger organizations typically take the closed and vertical integration approach, where internal R&D activities lead to internally developed intellectual property and new products.

However, the downside of innovating with a closed model is that companies are prone to miss opportunities because many can fall outside the scope of current businesses or will need to be combined with external knowledge, resources, or technologies to be successful. This is especially painful for organizations that have made substantial investments in R&D, only to discover that some of the abandoned projects had tremendous commercial value. Sometimes, to unlock the full potential of underutilized ideas, resources, or technologies, leaders need to seek and screen for opportunities by taking external perspectives:

  • “outside in” perspective, where external ideas and technologies are brought into the organization’s own innovation process
  • “inside out” perspective, where ideas and technologies are shared outside the organization so that they can be incorporated into others’ innovation processes.

Henry Chesbrough, professor at the Haas Business School, UC Berkeley, coined this concept as Open Innovation.  He defines it as “the use of purposive inflows and outflows of knowledge to accelerate internal innovation, and expand the markets for external use of innovation, respectively.”

Booz Allen Hamilton’s support of the Data Science Bowl is a powerful example of open innovation. The 2015 challenge called on the international data science community to create an algorithm to help transform the diagnosis of heart disease. Through a partnership with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), participants in the 90-day competition are given MRI images from more than 1,000 patients, a data set that is an order of magnitude larger than any cardiac MRI data set released previously.

In conclusion, as more organizations look to their employees to drive sustainable organic growth, a well-executed innovation strategy for creating a learning mindset, providing opportunities for deliberate practice, and incorporating external perspectives will help inspire creativity, focus and success.

What best practices have worked well for you in driving innovation in your organization?


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