Learning and development, like most industries, has a lot of buzzwords. However, reducing an important concept or process into a buzzword isn’t helpful and can, in fact, be harmful. Sometimes, it’s important to clarify what a word means practically and explore its applications. One such buzzword is innovation.

Costa Michailidis, co-founder of Innovation Bound, defines innovation as “the process that a group of people go through to create something that is new and valuable,” or the product of that process. Andrew Perkins, global vice president of Kaplan Leadership & Professional Development, defines it as “the result of the right combination of skills, practices and culture.” Innovation and creativity are a process, not a personal attribute, which means that tools and techniques can improve them.

One such tool is Corporate Innovation Diagnostic, which Kaplan Leadership & Professional Development launched last month. It’s an assessment tool to help companies measure and increase innovative thinking. “We believed it was time to adapt our unique platform to measure commercial innovation,” says Perkins, who describes commercial innovation as “a nut that all companies want to crack.”

The new product will “provide a solid structure around innovation training,” first by defining what innovation means to the company, then measuring what helps and limits innovation at that company, and then by identifying who needs training and what types of training they need to provide a “targeted approach to developing the innovating capabilities of the organization.”

Michailidis agrees that innovation must be defined for each organization, and he encourages organizations to build a language around that definition. Then, they can measure it, which Perkins says is important because “measurement is a way of setting the compass.” Without that compass, you won’t know what type of training you need and, once implemented, whether it successfully improved innovation.

Perkins and Michailidis both identify two types of challenges organizations face that limit innovation: risk aversion and internal processes that inhibit (at worst) or simply don’t encourage (at best) innovation. “You can have organizations where there’s plenty of entrepreneurial spirit and risk-taking,” says Michailidis, but there’s “a little bit of chaos.” A lot of people are trying new things, but there’s no coordinated innovation effort.

To overcome both challenges, Michailidis recommends “discovering where innovation is happening in the organization.” Innovation, he says, is likely happening, even at a small level, in every company. It’s just a matter of finding it and nurturing it there, building small but quick wins. Training, coaching and consulting on practices and processes can help, too, says Perkins, and L&D “plays a big role in laying the path so that commercial innovation can happen within the organization without leaving it to chance.” Perkins recommends starting by asking the following questions:

  • What does innovation mean at your company?
  • How important is innovation to your commercial model, and how important should it be?
  • What do you want your leaders to do differently to improve innovation, and how will you know if they are succeeding?
  • Do you have processes and practices in place to support leaders in their innovative thinking?
  • Where should you target your training investment for maximum impact?

Experiential learning is key to developing innovative thinkers (and doers), Michailidis says. Instead of asking employees to read a book on creativity or giving them a lecture on innovation, “Let’s actually do something innovative. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty.” Give people opportunities to experiment and discover cheaply and quickly.

He adds that it’s important to include learners’ managers in the training so that the direct reports receive immediate feedback “from people who have a bigger picture view than them” and so that managers can see the types of creativity and innovative thinking they have on their teams.

There’s probably a great deal of that creativity and innovation across teams at your organization. By defining what innovation means to your business, identifying tools to measure and develop it, and nurturing it where it already exists, you can ensure that your company stays competitive in an ever-more competitive marketplace.