Transforming Innovators in the Workspace

Innovation is as much about personal development as it is about employee development. And it’s a combination of learning and application.

By Arupa Tesolin, Owner, Intuita

There’s a big difference between the kind of innovation that works best for growing companies and what works for start-ups and inventors. The trick is to know what parameters you are working with. Trainers who grasp this and know how to speak the language of innovation will win big.

Blue Sky Innovation

Let’s look at what I call “Blue Sky” innovation first. This is raw innovation capital, what we think about when we hear the word, “innovation.” Think Apple, Facebook, Tesla Motors. First- out-of-the-gate technologies, engineering, inventions, designs.

“Blue Sky” innovation results in the invention of new products, new companies, new growth potentials, and new markets. When we look at venture capital and start-ups, this is the most risk-inclined group. Everything is new. Founders usually have to sell their ideas to investors or invest their own capital before they can really grow. This means they have to be passionate and believe in what they’re doing, even when others don’t. Usually the inventors or innovators are specialists, creative personalities, and leaders in their own right. They don’t make it unless they have the personal conviction and act to make things happen. These innovators often invest a lot of their time and talent without compensation and often a lot of their own capital. This is the Stephen Jobs’ kind of innovation.

Green Grass Innovation

Most organizational innovation does not fall into that category. They practice what I call “Green Grass Innovation,” innovation aimed at developing and supporting sustainable growth. By the time an organization requires training resources, it usually has an established customer base, some market stability, a brand, and a track record for the products and services it offers. Most “Green Grass Innovation” is aimed at enhancing or growing the customer base and developing related product and service innovation. “Green Grass” innovation also consumes less risk and often little capital, but brings an almost immediate guarantee of real tangible returns. Innovation can bloom quickly because a framework for implementation already exists. In effect, this is the “sweet spot” of organizational innovation. Most trainers don’t get this. Instead, they become tentative and think they’re asking for something potentially frivolous, when the cogent reality is that there is SO much value and potential return for both employees and the organization. So this is what trainers need to realize before starting to communicate with executives and management about innovation.

But wait…here is what usually happens instead. Trainers and staff get the green light on innovation and then begin to equate having innovation with being more creative. So, out come the funny hats, the risk-taking courses, the out-of-the-box thinking courses, and so on. Then everyone starts to feel uncomfortable because they are uncertain about the cultural support and foggy about the end point. So everyone tippy-toes back to “normal.”

Get Executives Involved

It’s important to remember that, for all the enthusiasm of trainers pursuing innovation, the tail can’t wag the dog. I’ve seen good companies cave in to their employees’ idiosyncrasies, get it wrong, and go out of business. So, no matter whether you’re a trainer who wants to lead innovation or one who’s being told to develop innovation training for staff, the first thing you need to do is get executives involved in these discussions and get answers that establish the following parameters:

  • How does the company or organization want to be more innovative?
  • Does it have an innovation strategy? If so, how is this defined?
  • What specific outcomes are expected?
  • How will this change the organizational culture?
  • How are executives prepared to anticipate and support these cultural changes?

And lastly, is it really innovation or is it operations improvement and efficiency? Product and service innovation begin at the far end of the operational effectiveness and performance improvement continuum. If you haven’t made your operations more efficient, it may be premature. Fix this first, then innovate.

Developing Innovators

Once the parameters are known, you can start on developing innovators. Innovation is about the end result. Innovating is all about transforming people into innovators or providing the fertile ground and direction for real innovators to thrive.

Who are your best innovators? You probably don’t know who they are. The brightest solutions may come from the quietest voice in the room or the most unlikely source. It could be anyone. There are many kinds of flowers in the innovation garden. Or it could come from the collaboration of a team whose talents are cut loose on a project. Supporting the cultural diversity of innovators is important.

Innovators are individuals. This requires a shift away from the current social convention where employers expect employees to adapt a work personality that adheres to their organization’s cultural codes, norms, actions, and behaviors. In this contra-creative milieu, most have left their best gifts and their real personality at home.

Innovation raises the stakes on participation. If organizations want creative results, they are going to need more of what individuals can bring them, and this brings with it the need for cultural inclusion of different mindsets and temperaments, risks, rewards, recognition, and collaboration.

As much as the passing of Steve Jobs has reinforced the importance of qualities such as imagination and intuition, how many organizations would be able to tolerate a Jobs, or even a Bill Gates, in their midst? People who are obstinate, persistent, and forward thinking—which are personality traits of successful entrepreneurs—often have character traits that make them less desirable as a colleague or team member.

Would a person like Jobs have been happy in your organization? Not likely. Bringing innovation into the mix is going to change the social and cultural code of your organization. Innovator attributes are more than skills. They include imagination, beliefs, intuition, creative thinking, and passion as the creative process happens from the inside out. They involve intangibles such as essence and desire. These are things you can’t fake. So it means innovation is as much about personal development as it is about employee development. It also has to be ongoing, depending on the end goals, so the learning process is a continuum, and will require ongoing assessment. It’s a combination of learning and application. Individuals learn. The organization learns. Whenever innovation happens, great learning is bound to happen, too. And that’s precisely what makes innovation so exciting for everybody.

Arupa Tesolin is a speaker, trainer, and the author of two innovation books: “Ting! A Surprising Way to Listen to Intuition and Do Business Better,” the new course (& upcoming book) the upcoming “Speed Intuition and Spark—Raise Your Mind to the Power of Infinity & Create Anything,” which is also a new course. She’s the owner of Intuita ( and leads the Canadian office of Learning Paths International,

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.