Innovation & learning: 6 barriers to success

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Innovate or die.

That’s what we read or hear in some shape or form everyday. The creative have found fancier ways of saying the same thing tied to ROI or other acronyms that we generally associate with gloom over possibilities of good. Like death and taxes, innovation is inevitable, even if it happens kicking and screaming. Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way! This guide will show you how you can positively influence innovation in your team, department or organization through something you do everyday: learning.

When I say learning, I’m not just talking about the minimal required training and development activities that are more of an onboarding or annual performance management tick box. I’m referring to the sum of work experience paired with the people, environment and knowledge that you socialize, internalize and synthesize within your everyday life. Innovation can be a walk in the park if that’s where you connect the dots between “I wonder” and “I will” to spark the unexpected in your organization. That walk in the park may be online learning from your industry peers in the comfort of your own home or office.

Now may be where you say, “But we’re already really creative as an organization and come up with great ideas all the time.” Two things:

1. Creativity and innovation are not the same thing

2. Leaders (yes, I'm calling you out) are pretty great at designing barriers to innovation.

Hopefully you’re an exception to what I call “The Big But Dilemma,” the insecurities associated with doing something different and deviating from the status quo. A fear-based mindset is not abnormal when you need to make a significant shift, and this guide has been designed to help liberate you from the six types of selftalk that will keep you stuck on the hamster wheel of dilemmas.

Innovation, defined 

First things first, what is innovation? Simply stated, innovation is value generation in the form of processes, products and services that enhance quality of life. Innovation is meaningful—it makes things easier, happier and less complex so that we can spend more time doing what we want to do, and less time trying to make more time.

Make sense? Creativity, while empowering innovation through the ability to approach what we have always known in new and novel ways, doesn’t necessarily produce value-yielding outcomes. Thus, innovation is the application of creativity resulting in greater value.

Okay, so innovation creates new value, but why now? Why not now? In her most recent book “The New Social Learning” author, business strategist and TED Mentor Marcia Conner captures it perfectly: “In a world of rapid change, we each need to garner as much useful information as possible, sort through it in a way that meets our unique circumstances, calibrate it with what we already know, and re-circulate it with others who share our goals.”

Innovation is in and of itself the outcome of learning at its finest. Furthermore, we are living in an era where social proof is king. Facebook depicts activities your “friends” are engaged in and asks you to click and explore it. It can help you decide if an activity is right for you or create the awkward feeling that you’re missing out on something incredible.

This is no different in the corporate world. We take social cues from golf course banter and make business decisions using instincts consciously and unconsciously influenced by our cumulative engagement on social platforms. Research more quickly validates, and impacts are on a much greater scale than ever before. The fun and compelling fact that there are more people with mobile phones in the world than toothbrushes shows just how inextricably technology and learning are linked. This and that bad breath has nothing to do with good business, in our digitally connected world!

Innovate or die!

If you’re still not convinced, think of Blockbuster and Kodak, companies that failed to innovate and did indeed die. The emergence of Netflix, iPhonography and Instagram changed the game so fundamentally that reactive measures had no chance. When it comes to innovation, being proactive and experimenting is key— everything else is an exercise in futility. Always be on the hunt for the next tweak that will take your organization to the next level. Yes, tweak. Innovation is not necessarily a light-bulb moment for something revolutionary. Great innovations can be incremental in scope but revolutionary in impact.

Take self-serve technology, for example. It hasn’t entirely changed the way we function, but has enabled us to spend more time doing the things we want instead of waiting in long lines to check-in at the airport, check-out at the grocery store or check-up on our benefits and vacation time at work. Uber and Airbnb (whose most recent innovation is a fantastic tweak on branding) are other examples of how mobile technology trends have simplified life.

Think about innovation as an exercise in becoming an expert learner. Leveraging every opportunity for knowledge, informally and formally, through a network of experts and personal experience will set you on the right course. Let’s get those hurdles removed so you can resolve the “Big But Dilemma” and get into action.

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Removing the "But..." that's keeping you from innovating and learning

1. I don't have time/budget

As a leader, you are likely already doing things that support innovation in your organization. You probably read TechCrunch, WSJ or Mashable and other relevant publications. What are you seeing that you can’t not act on? More importantly, are you encouraging your people to do the same? Bite-sized knowledge in real-time through e-learning is one of the most efficient and effective ways to help build a mindset around innovation in the workplace – with very little cost. Fresh content, delivered in a lean way through video or short courses infuses technical learning with fresh insights. Innovation is about looking at the everyday with a different perspective and recognizing what’s relevant to your business. You don’t need a big budget to create culture curiosity. Free trials for e-learning programs are an amazing source of ideas and inspiration. There are companies who design mobile and digital learning for this very reason so experts in the field can bring content to life with stories and examples of what’s happening in the world right now, when it matters.

2. I don't have enough/right people

Perhaps you have some roles to fill—vacant or occupied. This is often the reality but don’t let this get in the way of doing what you can with the people you already have. Here are some hacks to maximize your people resources:

Use low-cost, high value assessments like Clifton’s StrengthsFinder 2.0, Myers-Briggs, DiSC and Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory to get a deeper understanding of the talent you have. Your Learning & Development or HR Team may already have a treasure-trove of this data waiting to be discovered in a whole new way

• Empower your people to shine by assembling teams that leverage their best skills at the right time in the innovation process—be it generating and vetting ideas or piloting viable ones. Start by thinking about the projects and tasks in which each individual has had high achievement (and enjoyment).

• Use your existing internal communication structure for gamification opportunities to highlight individuals, ideas and strengths. People love contributing ideas, and competition leader boards with the promise of getting recognition of an “idea worth spreading” is a great non-cash incentive. Hackathons are great examples of socially facilitated learning.

Ultimately, it’s about discovering the unique value that each of your current employees brings to work everyday. By connecting the dots in a novel way, you may see an entirely different picture that reveals new possibilities.

3. There are more urgent needs

There will always be more urgent needs. Innovation, though, is important. A push-aside-and-pray mentality delays the inevitable. While you’re busy putting out fires, your competitors are finding a way to do both. Make the time and space to think and act collaboratively on tangents that may create brilliant paths to profitable opportunities and encourage your staff to do the same. Hold brief web/ video meetings. Record them and provide shared access. It’s great for those who missed the conversation as well as to spark new thinking for those who were there. This type of digital archive can be a form of social and collaborative learning if a space is created to start and continue discussions. Chevron uses a social conversation technology as a way to deliver live/recorded Health & Safety training and to discuss development opportunities. And, if you don’t get together with your team regularly for updates or training, why not? Get on with it.

4. I'm not an innovative person

I won’t go meta on you with an anecdote on the power of intention or start explaining quantum physics. Instead, I will say, trust what’s in your gut. We are the most creative and innovative when we do and be more of whom we already are when we are at our best. Learn this about yourself and help your employees see it as well. What is it that you do naturally, almost unconsciously, that you are known for? Is it your ability to hire excellent talent, develop resilient business strategy or lead your organization through massive change? This is the space to incubate your innovation magic. When you know it, capture it and share it through podcasts and other media that automagically becomes e-learning in its collective form.

5. Everything is working fine

How different are you from your competitors? Do you know? Are you clear on why your customers choose you and feel confident they will keep doing so if everything remains the same? I’m not saying look for things to break. I’m saying don’t be afraid to break what could be reassembled in a more value-creating way that will make the decision easy for your customers and talent to choose you, every time. If you’ve tried and failed in the past, study and learn from it. Dig deeper beyond the inbred ideas that arise during your internal meetings and relentlessly elevate your focus on innovating to own the market.

6. I don't have full leadership support

This is a tough one when a culture of innovation doesn’t yet exist. Here are some ways you can start influencing one as a leader:

• Set an expectation to do things differently/better. This can be through performance conversations oneon- one as well as by sharing examples of how others on the team or across the organization have done this.

• Get innovation on the agenda at all meetings. The ones you lead as well as the ones you’re invited to. This helps create a habit, which helps curate a positive culture and mindset. If your organization’s values are rooted in thinking and being.

• Clear the way for new ideas to take root. This may be in the form of approvals, budget or clearly stating your sponsorship of a project or idea. Sometimes it’s pushing for access to technology that will connect your team or organization in a more meaningful way. Every organization should have an internal communication ecosystem that enables multi-way communication. There many solutions with low barriers to implementation and adoption. Be generous with the full power of your leadership.

• Recognize and reward risk and effort. Failure is a necessary part of innovation. New program pilots may not always go smoothly or experiments may be outright flops. When this happens, talk about it and document it as a learning opportunity. Encourage project managers to share this knowledge across the organization. Doing this creates a safe place for people to fail moving forward.

Don’t forget to tie innovation to company and department measures. By doing this, you will speak the language of organizational leadership and help create a more common language across titles, levels, departments and countries.

In my personal manifesto, I share my philosophy about the modern world at work. I speak about innovation specifically, “Innovation Beyond Invention – you don’t need a patent to ignite potential, just a fresh perspective.” Fresh perspectives are hidden in plain sight. Take one from this guide and cocreate a better everyday life for the people you serve.


About the author

Salima Nathoo
Named one of the “Top 100 Most Social HR Experts on Twitter” by Huffington Post, Salima Nathoo is a talent development leader, executive facilitator and social learning strategist. Her big thinking approach, expertise in learning-design and LeanLearningTM methodology, help companies elevate human potential and profit. Salima has over 12 years of experience in the field of HR & Workplace Engagement and contributes to top workplace and leadership blogs and She has a B.A. in Economics from NYU and a M.Ed. in Adult Learning & Global Change from the University of British Columbia. Salima’s latest project is Founder/Editor of, a destination for beauty, fashion and lifestyle wisdom so anyone, anywhere can “Play Smart. Feel Fabulous.”

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