A light-bulb moment in Innovation Learning

Over the past few weeks, or is it months or is it even years, I have been constantly thinking through how we are learning in our innovation understanding. I have been struggling over this for a long time, looking to create a more compelling narrative and have only realized part of my ongoing difficulties was that I was coming at this the wrong way.

Firstly a narrative should be open-ended, there is no finite resolution yet to innovation understanding and secondly, it is for the intended audience to determine and relate, not the person presenting the narrative. For me, one light bulb went on.

The second light bulb moment came earlier this week. I was reading an article by Josh Bersin, called “the disruption of digital learning: ten things we have learned”. Josh is the founder of Bersin by Deloitte and this article was on one of his LinkedIn Pulse views. It actually stopped me in my tracks, it made me really think and recognize some of my recent shifts in my innovation focus was making real sense. The article alarmed me but it also ‘re-armed’ me. Continue reading

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Critical intervention points of innovation peer-to-peer engagement

I’ve been reading a fair amount recently about the “lack” of innovation leadership within organizations. Where there is smoke there has to be fire I suspect, but does it need to be so?

Internal leadership of innovation suffers from exactly the same critical problem that the people working on innovation suffer from, of a lack of time and opportunity to study alternatives, as all are caught up in ‘driving’ their innovation through their internal system.

This “alternative voice” is often missing and this can so easily come through external advocacy. This is unlikely to come from the innovation consultant brought in to undertake ongoing work as that is very different, this is more critical, more specialized, even strategical supporting role, involving peer-to-peer engagement. This peer-to-peer helps  explore those critical issues relevant to you and where your organization is. Its aim is to offer a different perspective, so as to alter opinions or build new insights, that often cannot be evaluated without considerable deflection from the daily managing innovation that is taking place in often complex and challenging situations.Yet alternatives need to be considered so knowledge can evolve.

Finding a depth of knowledge offered by others can save serious time in considering appropriate alternatives or simply further strengthen your existing innovation understanding.  It is an option that needs real consideration. This can come from a more ‘traditional’ coaching approach that is seeking behaviorial difference but I think this needs to be extended and deepened further into managing intevention points selectively.

Let me offer a suggested framework that supports this use of engaging with external innovation expertise in peer-to-peer interventions for advancing innovation alternatives.

Exploring the eight critical engagement points within peer-to-peer innovation

The First Loop

1. Reflection: often within your own organization you might lack a sounding board to your innovation thinking. Sometimes, actually far too often, advice that is ‘freely’ given may have its own personal agenda, so it is useful to find someone who can demonstrate that they do understand your perspective and are capable and able, to discuss this thinking out loud in a more open, unconstrained way. This resource can really offer a valuable contribution to enhancing your views, challenging ‘set’ positions and strengthen a broader perspective.

2. Observation: this seeking out opinion can often throw into a much sharp focus what you are capable of doing well and what you are missing. Often this is sometimes better to come from an external view point, which can provide feedback from a set of critical questioning. The aim is to aid you in revealing some crucial gaps and can provide a timely, relevant perspective to avoid potential pitfalls and add value through this independent observation assessment.

3. Identification: it can also be highly valuable in engaging someone in exploring the intermediate steps of all the available options. This provides a valuable objectivity at a critical stage within developing innovation capability. That advice then can help you work through these evaluations and stimulate potential alternatives, often hidden from immediate view or not considered fully enough.

4. Clarification: The values of having some form of external benchmarking and growing awareness of best practice across different industries really can help significantly change your thinking. Within these parts of any discussion this can provide you with a broader understanding of the critical gaps, competitive forces and the alternatives that are valuable to be aware of, across industry and where there is possible adoption within your own circumstances. The value of knowing also ‘emergent best practice’ is also highly useful, often not gained by internal perspective alone. These can come from across industry, or further afield in different geographic application, to stimulate your thinking to fascinating alternatives, fresh insights and new practices and paths to follow, that can contribute to a stronger and often unique competitive position.

Each of these four activities in peer-to-peer discussions can significantly advance your knowledge and belief in managing innovation far more robustly than normally otherwise. They trigger and stimulate and can be enormously useful to the leadership of innovation within organizations and on a personal understanding level.

The Second Loop

We can move beyond the four approaches of reflection, observation, identification and clarification into the next learning loop of applying a more action orientated framework to extend out those peer-to-peer discussions. These are:

5. Problem‐solving application: often within your teams there is a rich knowledge but sometimes it has become too internally focused and lacks that ability to see the broader external perspective and alternatives that we feel an independent voice can bring into the equation. Also external help can offer expertise, resetting the momentum within project or the management of innovation that provides a deeper expertise and contribution that is not immediately available within the organization.

6. Educating through mentoring: often general training fails to transfer that essential and appropriate knowledge back into the organization as it lacks expertise in a given area. This lack of embedding through the application of immediate practice can lead to a absence of personal identification and lose of time. There is a real value in looking for external mentoring for correlation to we look what training should provide by working to achieve specific outcomes on the job, therefore firmly fixing the theory with the practical.

7. Solution Advocacy: the key to successfully external advice is not just in the recommendations and guidelines but the critical part is the issue of transferability into the real world and working through the implications this brings. Encouraging external involvement at this stage, not to do your own teams jobs but to champion and advocate, does greatly aid and increase the value and satisfaction from the engagement, from all perspectives. It provides the increasing ‘knowledge return’ on any investment in your innovation activity by deploying external resources to ‘critical moments’ or activities that need supporting at those vital times, to give it additional momentum.

8. Implementation & Application: supporting the innovation solutions is often the toughest part that needs that extra energy and understanding. Execution is often extremely hard to undertake and often lightly regarded as a normal part of everyday occurrence. This is far from the case. It needs dedicated resources and increased specialisation.  It is often forgotten that it is only at this stage you begin to have a return on your investment, entering the market place and nothing is realised from all those internal efforts until this part is executed. Execution is critical to strategy so as to make it successful and realizable. Applying additional resource and expertise can offer real value. Executing the go-to-market strategy well can add considerable gravitas to your value and to your organizations perceived value.  Previous ‘invested time’ in peer-to-peer engagements cannot be more actively demonstrated at this point. Applying knowledge gained in having the external provider assisting and making interventions at those most opportune execution moments can be highly supportive by raising critical issues, that it is sometimes hard for internal parties to make, without some personal concerns on the implications for often themselves.

A cautionary warning: you are paying to listen and learn- do!

In all of these interventions I’d only ask that you resist ‘shooting the external messenger’ until you have heard the important message he or she is delivering, it might really make the difference between innovation success and failure. It would be a real pity if you lose a wonderful ongoing external resource that’s value is seeking out and extending their innovation knowledge so you can benefit.  They can be positioned as an  advocating source to the many ‘alternatives’ that are certainly available, that you,due to your role just have limited time to explore. I’d recommend you leverage this resource, nudge, nudge.

This specialised innovation knowledge provider can suppliment and nourish your innovation appetite to build on what you already know. It augments what you often don’t have time to evaluate yourself.

The value of having an innovation coach.

Behavioural coaching is big business. Having your personal coach alongside you when you are making a significant change in your role has been invaluable to many executives. Equally in having external support when someone is  either stepping up in the organization or making a significant change in their responsibilities has recognised value to that person and to the organization to manage the transition. There is significant value in employing an innovation coach in my opinion, let me explain why here.

The growth of the innovation coach

I predict innovation coaching will grow in its recognition, value and importance in 2012. Why? There is a growing sense of urgency around the need for innovation to solve our growth problems. This quest for seeking out growth and new opportunities continues to raise innovation consciousness. We all are aware part of the barriers to better innovation adoption come from our existing and constrained mental models, so when you introduce the need for greater innovation you introduce multiplicity- you get challenged more, your current framework of ‘business as usual’ gets disturbed significantly.

What is called for increasingly is a far more open mind that allows for opening up and gaining greater connectivity on a host of different levels. The more we connect, the more we see innovation potential.

Having available an experienced innovation coach can be supportive, informative and provide a greater understanding of how innovation ‘all fits together’ and where it can fit (or not) within what you currently do. The end result is shifting the thinking, merging what you have with what you have been introduced too so as to deepen the essential understanding of all that makes up innovation.

Any innovation approach I suggest does follow ‘classic’ coaching steps or phases.

Coaching for behavioural change needs to be brought down to the personal level- the recipient needs to relate, to let new information pass through his knowledge lens and see the new fits for himself. What simply does not work is if this was seen to be imposed- they will eventually discarded and then a person simply reverts back. The person needs to go through four stages of personal awareness.

You go through four stages

  1. Unconscious Incompetence– this is often a self reflection stage where the coach and the person receiving the coaching simply reflect and draw out areas of incomplete knowledge. You raise them from being unconsciously there.
  2. Conscious Incompetence– From these reflections you gain insights, you begin to explore tested tools and techniques, you begin to frame new references that are relevant, you begin to explore and experiment. You are looking for growing confirmation that it has value.
  3. Conscious Competence– As you begin to ‘grasp’ differences this enables the exchanges between coach and person being coached to look at the alternatives with a growing confidence and some ‘matching’ begins to occur. These new conscious understandings begin to become relevant and within the discussions you can see an emerging path for action beginning to emerge.
  4. Unconscious competence– the final part where the impact of what has been learnt, understood, investigated and explored has a real personal impact. It seeps into the make-up of the person and changes there ‘going forward’ behaviour. These see different patterns, they comprehend innovation meaning differently than their original perspective and these ‘new’ competences enter and become more automatic, unconsciously simply occurring, as the way to manage innovation going forward as the value ‘gels’.

The whole process can take time

This is partly the time available not just for the one-on-one sessions but the work that does need to occur in the in-between meetings. It could also take a few sessions, focused on specific areas before you pass from one state to another. It needs significant investigation and work from both the coach and the recipient but increasingly more from the recipient as the understanding expands.

Current roadblocks can be deep

Innovation is sometimes just ‘skin deep’ but as you peel away that top layer you get revealed many aspects of personal bias or general ‘accepted’ perceptions. These could include an often surprising (to the individual) lack of their openness, how he or his organization is so risk adverse. As you explore the way innovation is currently conducted it never surprises me of talk of ‘just’ a top down culture imposing innovation on the company and its employees and why this has never been effectively challenged.

Often you draw out that level of conservatism within innovation activity that is so often tucked under the coat of incremental only and the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ can change has never been fully considered. Sometimes certain individuals can feel suddenly being ‘empowered’ as the innovation champion can be seen by others that they are simply showing off and resist any advances, believing that persons knowledge is no different from their own, so they quietly resist- that needs addressing. Then you can come across that ‘superior’ person who has become the ‘stage gate’ decider irrespective of knowledge.

Each of these all can come through to others as lacking reputation and not as respected for their innovation knowledge as they need to be. Coaching can change all in awareness.

A structured approach is valuable

Going through a structured coaching programme for innovation can offset often these hidden barriers as well as bridge countless other unknowns. Working in a safe environment with a knowledgeable innovation coach can clearly help.

Sometimes the individual involved that ‘rush’ of offloads, all their concerns may come out in a rush. Or often and more than likely, each layer of enquiry needs to be peeled away in gentle probing or sometimes by exploring different challenges of ‘what if?’. That is determined by the skill of the coach as well as the willingness of the recipient to exploring sometimes aspects that are at a real personal level of thinking. Each needs to trust the other.

Getting into a comfortable relationship between coach and the person ‘looking for change’ takes time and chemistry. The higher up an organization, the more the managing of often sensitive discussions can become tricky.

Innovation Coaching has real value

Although this seems to be expensive to undertake, one-on-one coaching offers a lasting value to connect innovation far more deeply in the way a person and their organization ‘sees it’.

The importance, like all behavioral change coaching, is to create a safe but challenging environment so the recipient can take risks and learn. You as the coach find the balance between challenging through enquiry and supporting different thinking to draw out possibilities to gain new understanding from.

All the work is usually based on the recipient’s agenda, through a set of opening discussions you need to balance both personal learning with organizational needs. These need consistent clarification and recalibrating as you go.

The coach’s role is to facilitate and collaborate.

You need to take care not to act like ‘the expert’ imposing a given view but you can explore options that the recipient draws their own conclusions and value from. Avoid imposing and provide different thinking and perspectives so it becomes a facilitated debate that the recipient draws into.

Coaching is made up of a series of interactions

The ability to create meaningful interactions that connect people with ideas allows them to clarify and connect on the more important principles and critical issues surrounding innovation. Having a real passion and depth of innovation knowledge becomes critical to navigate this often tricky road to discovery.

The value of a coach is he/she is both a catalyst and facilitator of individual development. The value is in looking to improve innovation performance within that persons understanding so there is a distinct ROII (return on innovation investment).

Pause, learn and then move on with new innovation purpose and knowledge

By helping executives to firstly  pause, then take stock of the significance of various innovation transitions, and help them determine the best way to proceed is invaluable. Of course this support is determined by the commitment, engagement, the given skills and scope as well as the person’s real interests in wanting to have a greater understanding of innovation. It all requires available time.

Innovation coaching has a valuable contribution to make, in the right hands and with the  right person. It has a significant personal investment on all sides involved to achieve clarity, insight and returns for innovation to flourish so others can equally benefit from this more intensive approach and emerging internal expertise that will eventually come from within.