7 Essential Skills Employees Need to Become Effective Innovators

Research shows that more than 70 percent of society’s most impactful innovations have come from employees—and not employees sitting in incubation labs or innovation hubs, but everyday people.

Where will the next innovation come from that will disrupt your industry? Many believe it will come either from outside your company, from the entrepreneurial attackers toiling away right now in garages, or, if it should come from within, from a visionary leader.

But my research shows neither is true. Actually, more than 70 percent of society’s most impactful innovations have come from employees—and not employees sitting in incubation labs or innovation hubs, but everyday people.

The implications of this insight are profound. This means the idea that eventually could become the billion-dollar business, that someday could dwarf your current business, is more likely to come from employees who, without being asked, see, select, and rally the resources to pursue emerging opportunities.

Your company’s future depends on you training your people to act as effective internal entrepreneurs.

How Internal Entrepreneurs Differ

But what are the skills required to be an effective internal entrepreneur? Unfortunately, a lot of misunderstandings swirl around this question.

The commonly held misconception is that you need to train employees to think and act like entrepreneurs. But, in reality, while some entrepreneurial skills are relevant, the journey of the internal entrepreneur differs markedly from that of lone entrepreneurs.

This is evidenced by the fact that when entrepreneurs find themselves inside established organizations because, for example, they are acquired or they expand their business to professional scale, they so often grow frustrated and leave.

7 Skills for Overcoming Barriers

I have interviewed more than 150 successful internal entrepreneurs to understand what specific skills were most important to master. I asked them to identify the major barriers they have faced in seeking to drive innovations from within, and what skills they deployed to overcome them.

The results were remarkably consistent, pointing to seven skills Learning and Development leaders should be focusing on in employees to build the internal capacity to innovate. Think of this as a curriculum for developing internal entrepreneurs.

Skill #1: Resilience and self-awareness

Many would-be internal entrepreneurs have stopped trying to innovate because they have been told, “No,” too many times. Without motivation, your people will never start their innovation journey.

But by building the self-awareness to diagnose what internal dialogues and beliefs may be holding back their intention and giving them mental skills to replace these “limiting beliefs,” you can re-activate their passion to change.

Skill #2: Need identification and strategic acumen

The next skill is to be able to identify what customers and the company need. Numerous repeatable approaches exist to teach people how to break down unmet customer needs (see, for example, Tony Ulwick’s “Jobs to be Done”).

These approaches are helpful for entrepreneurs, but your employees must marry them with the strategic acumen and enterprise mindset. So find the overlap between customer needs and company needs.

Skill #3: Innovative thinking

After you have activated employees with resilience training (Skill #1) and helped them direct their activity to the right needs (Skill #2), they must be able to generate innovative solutions to those needs.

My program, The Outthinker Process, can help with this, but you also might look at the plethora of other innovative thinking models, making sure to focus on business innovation rather than creativity generally.

Skill #4: Business model design

After they’ve landed on an innovative solution, what holds many employees back is the fact that the business model around that idea (how it should be priced, delivered, produced, etc.) is in conflict with the way the company currently operates.

These points of conflict can be creatively overcome by training your people in business model design by using, for example, the Business Model Canvas offered by Strategyzer.

Skill #5: Business experimentation

After designing a business model that will work, internal entrepreneurs typically need to conduct a small, inexpensive experiment. This is a challenge for many employees because business experimentation is something fairly new to established corporations.

Training them on the basics of running business experiments can help them quickly act on early innovation ideas with little risk. Consider Michael Schrage’s The Innovator’s Hypothesis or Harvard Business School’s various modules and frameworks on the topic.

Skill #6: Teaming

The ability to rally excitement by a cross-functional team is critical to successful innovation. While many managers are trained to build teamwork around a formal team, the innovator often must convince people outside of their functions, divisions, or even company to collaborate on an idea using indirect influence. Look at academic research on “champions of collaboration” or Amy Edmondson’s excellent work on “Teaming.”

Skill #7: Political acumen

One of the most significant distinguishing skills between successful internal entrepreneurs and frustrated ones is political acumen.

Successful innovators view the political challenge as part of the problem-solving process. Frustrated ones feel that managing the political game is an unnecessary burden. This can be overcome by training people to understand, and eventually enjoy, the political aspect of innovation.

A Pivotal Role for L&D

Your organization’s future may depend on whether your employees can find and skillfully pursue the next innovation. You, as a training leader, play a pivotal role in determining whether your people have the skills necessary to do this.

Do not assume these skills are the same as those you observe in entrepreneurs. Your internal entrepreneurs need a different skill set.

Put together a program that elevates their abilities in:

  • Resilience and self-awareness
  • Need identification and strategic acumen
  • Innovative thinking
  • Business model design
  • Business experimentation
  • Teaming
  • Political acumen

Dr. Kaihan Krippendorff is a top business strategy, growth, and transformation keynote speaker who has helped inspire, motivate, and arm hundreds of thousands of people with the tools and mindset needed to win the future. He is the founder of the growth strategy firm Outthinker and The Outthinker Strategy Network, a global community of heads of strategy of large corporations. He is also the author ofDriving Innovation From Within: A Guide for Internal Entrepreneurs.”