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Jeffrey Phillips


Innovation Requires Learning, Relearning, and Unlearning

We rush to converge when we should take time to diverge

Published: Wednesday, March 14, 2018 - 12:02

There’s probably few activities that corporate folks enjoy less than corporate training. For most it’s guaranteed to be a slog, or a review of policies and procedures rarely used and important only to a specific team or set of circumstances. Most people assume they have enough knowledge to do the jobs they have, and they are often comfortable simply winging the rest. That’s why innovation often presents such an interesting challenge.

For the most part, people suspect that innovation is unusual and requires new insights and skills they don’t possess. And since they don’t possess those skills, they will avoid doing innovation work (from fear of failure), or will make innovation work align to existing programs and policies (which they know well). In response, many organizations turn to innovation training and innovation workshops.

I’m just back from leading a couple days of innovation training with a client, and the more we do this, the more convinced I am that:
1. Corporations can do a very good job innovating with the people they have.
2. Innovation training—learning the skills that make up a good innovation activity—isn’t difficult.
3. People will need to learn, relearn, and unlearn some things in order to achieve innovation success.


Most of us have spent the last 20 to 30 years learning to be efficient, to succeed at our first attempt. Our efforts are made with great care, incrementally, which doesn’t embrace innovation or disruption. We aren’t good at discovering new needs or experimenting with new ideas, and we need to learn some tools and methods to help us do a better job of finding unmet needs and creating interesting ideas. You can learn the tools to innovate, and the more you practice these tools and methods, the more creative and capable you’ll become. In this regard, innovation training is important but must be quickly followed up by putting the learning into practice.


When we teach innovation skills, a lot of them require getting back to basics. First is doing a good job defining an opportunity or problem to tackle, rather than simply solving the most obvious problems or symptoms. Next is taking the time to understand what customers actually want and need, rather than presenting your latest technologies. Third is having an open mind, creating and combining ideas. Like Robert Fulghum’s book, All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (Random House, 25th anniversary edition, 2014), some innovation thinking is simply taking the time to contemplate and analyze a lot of ideas, using interaction methods and perspectives that you learned earlier in life and later abandoned. It’s also important to allow ideas to evolve and not judge them immediately—to build on and expand ideas and to provide the room for really crazy ideas to develop.

“I use Cheer. I like the idea of a happy wash.”
Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten


There is some unlearning that’s required when people learn about innovation. For too long we’ve settled for success, lack of variation, and efficiency. This means we’ve curtailed exploration, discovery, and wonder. We approach problems as experts rather than as naive beginners, which shuts down a lot of good ideas and exploration. We rush to converge when we should take time to diverge. A lot of innovation seems almost counterintuitive, not because the tools and methods are difficult, but because they seem to conflict with how we operate our businesses today. To innovate successfully, we must sometimes take the opposite view, take on new perspectives, ask what would happen if industry norms were eliminated. We have to unlearn some of our assumptions and ask unusual questions.

The benefits of innovation training

Like us old guys who laughed off yoga, stretching, and warming up who are, later in life, coming to realize how important core strength and flexibility are in day-to-day life, you can get a lot out of innovation training and can become far more creative and innovative if you are willing to adopt some new tools and a new perspective or mindset. This is true for individuals, small teams, and ideally, for an entire corporate culture. You simply need to learn the tools and methods that work, relearn how to work together, and unlearn some of the things that seem so certain. Once you, your teams, or organization do that, you have the chance to be far more innovative.

First published July 2017, on the Innovate on Purpose blog.


About The Author

Jeffrey Phillips’s picture

Jeffrey Phillips

Jeffrey Phillips is the lead innovation consultant for OVO, which offers assessments, consulting, training and team definition, change management, innovation workshops, and idea generation space and services. Phillips has led innovation projects in the United States, Western Europe, South Africa, Latin American, Malaysia, Dubai, and Turkey. He has expertise in the entire “front end of innovation” with specific focus on trend spotting and scenario planning, obtaining customer insights, defining an innovation process, and open innovation. He’s the author of Relentless Innovation (McGraw-Hill, 2011), and 20 Mistakes Innovators Make (Amazon Digital Services, 2013), and co-author of OutManeuver: OutThink—Don’t OutSpend (Xlibris, 2016).