Knowledge transfer within a workforce isn’t just about a skilled professional teaching an apprentice worker a step-by-step process, like how to build a widget. It also includes getting at some of the most complex and “soft” skills that we value in our organization’s experts. One such skill in high demand with so many of my clients—from Qualcomm to Nike to Zynga—is the concept of worker innovation. For many companies, like these clients, innovation is in their DNA and their culture—and is certainly the lifeblood of their organization. They won’t succeed without people who know how to be innovative at work. But what does it really mean to “be innovative?”

I was recently on site with a client who said it like this, as he pointed across the room at a few coworkers who were looking the other way:

CLIENT: “She gets it, he gets it,… he gets it,… she doesn’t get it, and he definitely doesn’t get it.”

ME: “What is the ‘it’?”

CLIENT: “How to be innovative.”

ME: “How do you know?”

CLIENT: “Oh, I just know.”

Now, in a perfect world, this would not be a problem. We’d only work with and promote people who “get it” and we’d run off people who “don’t.” The trouble for this team was that they had recently changed their strategy and needed to repurpose nearly a hundred people from old jobs that were “low innovation” and move them to new roles that required “high innovation.” These people had an average tenure well beyond ten years. They were high quality, highly trained employees. Certainly some would be successful over time in the new role, and some would have to be replaced—but replacing them all at once with new hires that had proven innovation skills was not an option. Still, these hundred employees needed to move toward a new, more innovative way of approaching their work, and they needed to do it ASAP.


Key Questions: Who “Gets It” Now—and What Do They Do to Show That?

As I’ve said many times, knowledge transfer starts with knowing who you want to replicate in your workforce and what you want these experts to teach. So, the first question is: “Who are the people in this organization that seem to embody “innovation” at a very high level?” My team sat down with this client and together we made this list of Who—then we went to work deconstructing some of the actions and behaviors of these innovators. That’s the second question: “What do my most innovative people actually DO that makes others call them “innovative” and that has contributed to breakthroughs?”

Turns out that with a good knowledge transfer process we could have these innovation experts teach others what they themselves do instinctively. In effect, as we’ve seen with this client, we can expect most employees to learn how to act like innovators even if they don’t have that as a native skill. In this way we can get the most out of the team we have, bringing everyone up to their highest potential.


Breaking Down the Way to Get a Breakthrough

As a resource for you, below is some of what we discovered the expert innovators were doing that others could emulate. (I recommend that you still follow the above process with your teams to supplement and adjust this list in ways relevant to your business.)

  • Present an idea. In what form and forum? Timing? Level of detail? To whom?
  • Respond to others’ ideas. Recognize good ideas (publicly and/or privately) and help shepherd them forward.
  • Identify and mitigate roadblocks to presenting process improvement opportunities.
  • Devote time in meetings for ideas to be captured and defined enough to be moved to a different forum.
  • Schedule specific time to conduct “blue sky” sessions with a broadly defined scope (e.g., improvements to a feature set in a core product).
  • Provide research and development time in the project schedule, adding this effort to team and/or individual performance reviews.
  • On every project, make a plan (and owner) to capture lessons learned while they are fresh in everyone’s minds.
  • Summarize and present the lessons learned in every gate review (not just at the end).
  • Physically go to sites where the action is (customers, manufacturing, operations, service, etc.) so you see the needs first-hand.
  • Research other industries—their processes, ways to use materials, etc.—and figure out which ones to apply in your industry.
  • Talk to Product Support Specialists, Product Managers, Marketing/Sales team members to understand customer needs/desires and the product’s competitive challenges.
  • Lead discussions of best practices with peers—and define, adopt, and communicate the best way doing things.
  • Read trade journals and business publications; attend trade shows, seminars, workshops, and conferences with a stated goal of uncovering opportunities for innovation.
  • Read patents.
  • Teach how to feed new ideas into an existing process to team members, vendors, customers, and other teams.
  • Use a rigorous process of analyzing and filtering ideas to make sure that the output of technology development brainstorming is high quality.
  • Conduct design reviews using a defined and timely process that specifically looks at ways to innovate.
  • Offer and encourage attendance at brownbag sessions outlining technology or process developments.
  • Document topics and ideas on a Wiki or the equivalent.
  • Don’t be afraid to fail—recognize people who are trying new things and challenging the status quo.

After identifying behaviors and skills that lead to innovation in your organization, the next step is to write a clear, date driven plan for transferring this “how to” from the expert innovator to coworker apprentices. The third and final step is to show your experts how to teach to others their secret sauce for innovation; our Knowledge Transfer Workshop gives fifteen proven techniques for transferring knowledge and skills to peers during fast-paced daily work.

CONCLUSION: While we will always value the innate innovator in our workforce, most coworkers CAN be taught the practices and behaviors that lead to more innovation on the job. By breaking down what leads to a breakthrough, and teaching this through knowledge transfer, leaders will get the most out of every employee.