Learning from an Innovation Academy

One of my most exciting ‘behaviour change’ briefs has been the development and delivery of an Innovation Academy for managers in a leading global FMCG business.

Following the success of 8 academies, involving more than 200 participants I have captured 5 learning points I will retain for future projects:

The project background

The brief was to rapidly raise innovation capability – building a stronger culture and one shared language for managers and those contributing to their projects.  The commercial imperative was a need for bigger, global innovations to increase revenue and operating margins.

The chosen ‘media’ for the Innovation Academy was an intensive 5 day residential course. This built on two foundation initiatives.  One day ‘on-boarding’ workshops introduced more than 500 managers to the new approach and in particular the commercial mind-set required to progress projects. These combined with introductory e-learning modules that landed key stages, tools and requirements for the new ‘way of working.’

There was much to learn from the design and delivery of the Innovation Academy, but 5 learning points I will especially retain are:

1. Engage and connect experts to understand what really works and to focus change content on what doesn’t. 

The business had a new innovation process to explain to managers who were occupying new positions in a business with increased ambition.  The behaviour change required of these new managers was potentially very significant, daunting and challenging.

Recognising this we wanted a learning structure and content that focused participants on critical changes (addressing the biggest capability gaps) and avoided significant (potentially confusing) re-packaging of tools, materials and approaches.

The contribution of experts was absolutely vital in achieving this focus. Interviews were helpful, but it was a series of 2-3 hour workshops that combined experts from different functions that made the difference. Getting people together enabled us to discuss approaches, constraints, best practice and, crucially, how their contributions fitted together (or sometimes didn’t).

These expert workshops enabled us to connect content together realistically, simplify material, and build on what was familiar and effective whenever possible. It also ensured an alignment of language, tools and approaches between the managers leading projects and the functional experts they needed to worked with.

2. The compelling case for cross category case-studies.

Building confidence and embedding best practice requires more than an awareness and illustration. By finding real examples – sometimes live projects – we were able to give participants ‘bite-size’ opportunities to try approaches (e.g. concept development, defining consumer/customer requirements, launch planning and assessing project risks).

By using examples across all categories we ensured relevance for diverse participants. In showcasing examples we are also highlighting role models and demonstrating best practice was already happening.  Reflecting growing confidence and experience these case-studies increasingly prompted participants to share their learning and examples.

3. Let the participants make it memorable.

It is vital to make content simple, visual and engaging – this will make it easier for participants to remember and apply tools when back at their desks. Easier to recall is important (e.g. memorable acronyms, phrases and illustration), but this does not mean content will feature in the handful of things they remember from the Academy.

The reality is people recall the elements that are not expected – the most ‘disruptive moments’  and not neatly packaged content.  The Wednesday of each academy concluded with attendees creating their own ‘educational games’ and so reviewing and summarising key steps/learning points themselves.

The unpredictable games, often presented hilariously and requiring audience participation delivered a memorable experience that a presenter with slides would struggle to match. The succession of 5 competing presentations and different games ensured learning points were reinforced without repetition.

4. The expertise in the room is more valuable than yours!

When designing the pilot we filled the time between presentations concerned that Q&A sessions may conclude quickly. It, however, became quickly apparent that we had a lot to discuss and with each successive academies we saw more and more participants sharing their recommendations and experiences.

As the contributions and confidence of participants increased, so did our confidence as facilitators.  Conversations were allowed to flow and the summarising of learning themes from participants for each topic increased. A favourite question at the end of each section, in fact, was “what do you think we wanted to teach you?!”

Participant sharing and summarising increases the value of the learning points. As Dan Ariely highlights in “the upside to irrationality” self creation and effort builds ownership of an output which is then valued more.  Put another way we have a tendency to under value someone else’s solution – especially if there is no effort involved in creation or translation

5. Capitalise on competitive instincts for energy and enthusiasm.

One of the unique aspects of the Innovation Academy was the ‘Global Roll-out’ team challenge that linked all practical activities.

The winning team however were not simply the team with the most marks accumulated over the week, because scores in the academy quiz on the final day could greatly affect the outcome. Up until this point any team could win and therefore their exercise performance always mattered.

The energy levels during the week were phenomenal reflecting great content, fun exercises, wonderful participants and also the opportunity to outshine other teams in the ‘Global Roll-out’ challenge.

So 5 learning points I will embrace (with some others) in the design and delivery of future programmes and events…

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