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Reflection – Eichbaum, William M

by on November 29, 2007

Innovation Training
Can you train people to be more innovative? This question is posed by Jeffery Phillips in his blog entry Can you train someone to be innovative? His background is in management consulting with a focus on advising organizations on how to become learning organizations. Lately, he has been getting a lot of interest from clients on how to train for innovation. Most of these organizations are very up to speed on the most current management methodologies and have well established training components. Even with their existing training infrastructure and welcoming cultures, Jeffery points out that it is impossible to just sit someone down and train them to be more innovative. He goes on to point out that there are many elements that lead to innovation and that it is a function of the organization as a whole much more than of the individual.
So, the question is, how do we develop organizations as a whole to facilitate innovation? I believe that this question can be dissected into two discrete components. First, how can organizations work to allow innovation? Second, how can organizations work to encourage innovation?
To allow innovation seems simple but it is not. A simplistic view of innovation would assert that to allow innovation, one must simply hire innovative people and allow them to work freely. This is true. After all, you need innovative people to have innovation and you need to allow them the freedom to innovate. The only problem with this view is that it is not the whole truth. It ignores the most important aspect of innovation as it relates to the organization as a whole: how to accept and leverage the innovations when they arise? A great example of an organization that seems to leverage innovation poorly is Microsoft. Microsoft Research is stocked full of the smartest, most innovative people in their fields and is managed very loosely, with focus on the freedom to pursue anything, but their products rarely seem to reap these benefits. Why is this? I believe that this is because Microsoft is ineffective at bringing these innovations from conception to production. By isolating MSR and creating a bureaucratic insulator to protect the freedom of its researchers, Microsoft is sacrificing the benefit of these innovations to their product lines.
A counter example, though not a perfect one, is Google. Google’s unique style of management for their engineers is effective at both providing freedom and capitalizing on its awards. The structure of their organization reflects this function; at the core of their organization are the engineers and they are both the innovators and the producers. There is much less separation of the research and the production.
To encourage innovation, I believe that organizations could take a multitude of approaches and diversity in this regard is beneficial. I have one such recommendation for how to encourage innovation to share that a friend recently identified. My friend was discussing the ugly sides of intellectual property and, in particular, when it can be detrimental to innovation. His example was that an employee of a giant organization that leaves and pursues an innovation of his or her own. The way that intellectual property laws and contracts can be set up could make this process very complicated. In many cases, the organization will pursue legal action and use its greater resources to bully the innovator into submission. Depending on the situation, this could actually be very detrimental. Instead, my friend recommended that an organization could allow innovators to leave and develop and test their innovations independently. Then, if the innovations proved to be worthy, the organization could simply attempt to acquire them back. This may seem counter intuitive, but by allowing the innovators to develop their ideas independently, they are afforded complete freedom and placed in the most typical environment for innovation: the start-up. The only problem is that there is possibility for those innovations to be acquired by other organizations than the original. But, compared to the alternative where all attempts to leave and innovate are squashed, at least in this way the organization is somehow tied to the inevitable innovation.

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