Magazine excerpt: Discover your innovator DNA

Diane Law says we have to innovate to stay relevant – here she shares why it’s so important.

Every single thing you do, every learning strategy you have written, every course you have designed, every bit of coaching you have done, in fact every aspect of your job, can be done differently and better. As Thomas Edison proclaimed, “There’s a way to do it better – find it.”

The first step to doing things better is to recognise and embrace the fact that there are always improvements we can make. It may be safer to stick with the status quo but the L&D department that builds a culture of innovation is on the path to growth and excellence.

The second step is to use innovative thinking to challenge yourself to actually implement those improvements. Having ideas is one thing, but focusing on business impact and then making the change happen is where you really get your return on the investment.

However, you may feel that constantly trying to improve might seem unnecessary, daunting or stressful. Can’t you just rest on your laurels for a while?  You have received excellent feedback so why try to fix something that isn’t broken? But remember, your organisation, your customers and the world are not staying still.

If you keep doing things the way you always have, you will not improve. We cannot do the same thing repeatedly and expect different results. 

Today, more than ever, we need to be more innovative to keep up with this changing world, the needs of the business, our customers’ requirements and new technology. Following best practice is not enough. You need to find what sets you apart.

Author and innovation expert Stephen Shapiro [1] states: “Simply put, innovation is about staying relevant. We are in a time of unprecedented change. As a result, what may have helped an organisation be  successful in the past could potentially be  the cause of their failure in the future. Companies need to adapt and evolve to meet the ever-changing needs of their constituents.”

Building in innovation

By nature, L&D professionals are creative – we design courses, we use new technologies, we embrace new ways of working and respond to our customers’ needs. We are in a creative profession. However, we can still get stuck in a rut.

We can accept that what got us where we are today will get us where we need to be tomorrow; it won’t. If you keep doing things the way you always have, you will not improve. We cannot do the same thing repeatedly and expect different results. 

We need to shake things up in order to raise what we deliver to a higher level – and at the same time making our jobs more fulfilling, rewarding and our customers even more satisfied.

But being innovative is not about trying out the newest L&D fad, nor is it only about applying a lot of creativity techniques such as brainstorming or mind-mapping to a new product you are creating. It is about building innovation into your business-as-usual processes and outcomes and continually looking for ways to improve and develop.

Studies by Clayton M Christensen [2] and his researchers at Harvard uncovered the innovator’s DNA: your ability to generate innovative  ideas is not merely a function of the mind, but also a function of five key behaviours that optimise your brain for discovery. Applying these to the role of the L&D professional can help to reinvigorate your thinking and embed innovation into your working life.

Associating: drawing connections between questions, problems or ideas from unrelated fields.

Looking through a different lens, taking a different perspective – this is the most impactful way we can be innovative in the learning and development sphere. Steve Jobs, considered one of the greatest innovators of our time, used this approach extensively. 

According to his biographer Walter Isaacson [3]: “One weekend Jobs went to Macy’s in Palo Alto and spent time studying appliances, especially the Cuisinart. He came bounding into the Mac office that Monday, asked the design team to go buy one, and made a raft of new suggestions based on its lines, curves and bevels.”

The Apple II was supposed to include a Plexiglas hood and a roll-top door, but after Jobs’ trip to Macy’s he revised it to be cased in moulded plastic and set the standards for the next 20 years of Apple design.

Similarly, in our roles in L&D, we can look for inspiration anywhere, and apply ideas from other fields to our work.

For instance, when watching an investigative crime programme, such as CSI, consider their approach of using physical evidence to solve murders. How can you use a comparable investigative approach to discover what your customers really need? What physical evidence can help you, for example, determine learning needs in your organisation?

What clues can you uncover, that might not seem obvious at first?

1 Stephen Shapiro, Best Practices are Stupid (London: Penguin, 2011)
2 Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen, Clayton Christensen, ‘The Innovator’s DNA’ (HBR, December 2009)
3 Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography (London: Little, Brown, 2011)


About the author

Diane Law is head of people development at Newton Europe and can be contacted at


This is an abridged version of a feature from April’s TJ magazine. To get the full insight, subscribe here.


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