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    Training staff to innovate


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 2/2000

    Active listening is critical to ensuring collective innovation.

    The lack of staff skills is the single biggest impediment to innovation success. Services and service delivery processes do not lend themselves to development by a separate unit. All staff need to be actively involved and to have an innovation mindset.

    One of the most common management errors is to underestimate the skills training needed so that staff can participate constructively in innovation. Investment in training will benefit the firm in the long run by eventually reducing the time needed to identify new opportunities and increasing the degree of certainty in the solution selected. There are five areas in which training is critical: stimulating creativity, assessing innovation options, focusing on the customer, designing new services and implementing change.

    Simulate creativity

    Creativity is the ability to make unexpected connections and realign ideas into new relationships. Creative thinking is a core skill in any innovative process (along with the ability to implement change) and assumes the ability to think divergently. Three aspects of creativity are directly related to innovation:

    • Breaking set, or the ability to think outside conventional or traditional assumptions. This skill is premised on there not being only one right answer. The most common technique for breaking set is brainstorming.

    • Lateral thinking, or the ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated areas. This skill is premised on the synergetic process, which assumes that insights in one area can be used in another. The most common technique for increasing lateral thinking involves scanning a number of diverse concepts and then forcing the identification of linkages (e.g. "What do x and y have in common?"). For example, the shortage of top executives and the practice of hiring them on two- to three-year contracts have given rise to the career agent who scouts for and negotiates the executives' next contracts. The idea for this new service evolved from the use of agents to represent professionals in fields like sports and entertainment.

    • Multiple options, or the ability to move beyond the more obvious initial ideas. This skill is based on the idea that there is not one right answer but rather a range of possibilities. Again, brainstorming is useful as is requiring staff to submit at least three options in any proposal.

    Assess innovation options

    New ideas need to be evaluated for appropriateness and feasibility. Assessment requires a skills set opposite to that needed for creativity - the ability to converge, or come to common agreement on a single option. Techniques that can help include:

    • Identify pros and cons for each idea; then select an option in which the positives outweigh the negatives.

    • Perform a root-cause analysis to determine why there is an issue and which option would resolve it.

    • Pair options, so that a group rates each option in relation to every other option and the item with the highest score is selected.

    Focus on the customer

    Innovations are effective only if they are acceptable to your customers. For example, tele-shifting allows telephones to be answered by staff in different time zones 24 hours a day. But customers may feel uncomfortable if they think that they are calling a local number and, from the unfamiliar accent, it is clear that they are not talking to a local person. Some corporations are finding that customers would rather deal with voice mail than talk to someone who sounds foreign.

    Assess customers' needs

    Being able to identify a customer's need is a critical skill for service staff. A customer wanting personalized attention and a customer requiring the fastest possible service need to be approached differently. In learning to determine customers' needs, continually ask yourself, "What is my evidence? Why do I think that x is the customer's real need?"

    Design new services

    Three skills sets in particular need attention: analysing one's own experience, practising extrapolation and analysing the service flow. These are discussed below.

    Analyse one's own service experience

    Try asking yourself these questions:

    • How did I feel about the service experience (special, appreciated, annoyed, frustrated, ignored, etc.)?

    • Why did I feel that way? What happened that contributed to my feeling?

    • What did I learn from that service experience about what affects how a customer feels?

    • Of what I learned, what part could I apply to our service?

    Practise extrapolation

    Good ideas often come from trends in other industries. Help staff develop the habit of lateral thinking by a technique such as the following:

    Look at a new trend in another industry (e.g. one-stop service) and ask staff to brainstorm possible implications for your own firm's services. The brainstorm could occur during a staff training session, or more routinely by internal communication (such as e-mail).

    Analyse the actual service flow

    The process of blueprinting can help you to identify all the steps in the service delivery process, whether executed by the customer or by staff. You can then look for opportunities to streamline, add value or establish service standards. Similarly, you can analyse the physical cues in the service environment to make sure that they reinforce the message you want customers to receive.

    Implement change

    At its core, innovation is a change pro-cess. Being able to manage the change process will make the difference between success and failure. All too often, managers assume that, once a new concept has been pilot tested, the launch will be virtually automatic. In fact, it seldom works that way. To help ensure success, take the following steps:

    • Establish a time-line for roll-out (launch) and solicit comments from staff to make sure that it is realistic.

    • Establish a time for reviewing the roll-out no later than three months after it starts so that there is a natural time to make corrections and adjustments.

    • You can improve your competitiveness and give your staff practice in successful implementation by selecting at least one international best practice and going through the implementation process with the staff.

    Address customer expectations

    Services are ultimately delivered in interaction with customers, whether face to face or at a distance. Staff need to be able to articulate the benefits that customers can expect to receive from the service, as well as understand what your firm cannot control (i.e. the attribution of responsibilities). Staff need to be trained and empowered to customize appropriately and to find solutions when customers are unhappy, with an awareness that problems solved can actually make a customer more loyal than he or she was before the difficulty arose.