Top executives are increasingly calling on learning and development (L&D) leaders to develop programs that enable employees to be creative and innovative. However, even with thoughtful efforts to develop accessible learning programs with clear and measurable outcomes, innovation-focused programs too often fall short. For example, you can teach people the benefits of effective collaboration but never see them actually collaborate.

Sound familiar?

Making sure innovation capabilities stick requires that learning leaders specify desired behaviors, help learners root out “behavioral blockers,” and arm learners with tools to enable their colleagues and team to follow the behavior. Here are three steps that will help.

1. Specify Desired Behaviors

A good learning objective is foundational to any training program. It clearly states what the learner will be able to do upon completion of a training intervention. Our research and field work has surfaced five core behaviors that drive innovation success: curiosity, customer obsession, collaboration, adeptness with ambiguity and empowerment.

But, it is important to go deeper and be as specific as possible about what the desired behavior looks like in your context. For example, the learning objectives for a program on collaboration may include the following behaviors:

    • Listen to diverse expertise and viewpoints.
    • Emphasize collective, rather than individual, goals.
    • Be transparent and frank while remaining respectful.
    • Borrow and adapt external stimuli.

2. Identify Behavioral Blockers

These behaviors all sound simple enough, but it isn’t enough to teach people to do them. If you ask leaders what stops them from being innovative, they often point to a lack of time, insufficient resources and a fear of making mistakes, which are all fair points. But often, there is something deeper going on, which we call “behavioral blockers,” or current behaviors that stand in the way of desired behaviors.

To surface behavior blockers, a team can use the simple prompting statement, “But instead we ….” For example, instead of the desired behavior of listening to diverse viewpoints, team members might complain about organizational silos and only talk to people in their department. Equip learners to function as detectives to surface blockers (e.g., by conducting observations or interviews or keeping a journal) to identify what stands in the way of desired behaviors.

3. Equip Employees With BEANs

The final step is to teach employees how to put in place interventions that will overcome the blockers and turn the new behaviors into habits. This approach isn’t expensive, though it does take time and energy. It involves setting up BEANs: behavior enablers, artifacts and nudges. Behavior enablers are tools or processes that make it easier for people to do something different. Artifacts — things you can see and touch — support the new behavior. And nudges, a tactic drawn from behavioral science, promote change through indirect suggestion and reinforcement.

The table below details examples of BEANs created by teams following this approach:

Desired Behavior: It would be great if we … Behavioral Blocker: But instead, we … BEAN: So we should …
… drive alignment that leads to action through candid discussion and debate … bite our tongues, defer to subject matter experts and delegate up … appoint a “devil’s advocate” in every meeting, noted by a pitchfork icon on his or her virtual background.
… bring the voice of the customer into every discussion … immediately jump into “what” rather than discussing “why” or “for whom” … have a ritual where we ask, “Where is the customer here?” with a visual reminder of a witch hat.
… create open space in meetings for unstructured exploration … have long-winded stories about the past that suck time … give a “22nd floor elevator pitch,” where people have to give timed, one-minute updates on key topics.
… make decisions, act courageously and be action-oriented … are socially lazy, ask for more data and delegate up … create a simple app that enables meeting attendees to assess the quality of the decision made in the meeting.


Detail the desired behaviors, help learners understand the real blockers and show them the power of BEANs, and you will improve the impact of your innovation training efforts.