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Innovation CAN be taught

 

By Moises Norena, essay written in preparation for the MIX Mashup

 

I joined Whirlpool in 2000 for a summer internship, not because I was desperately hoping to work in the appliance industry but because I was not that successful in selling my eclectic background to the hot employers of the time. Fortunately for me, the manager in charge of bringing the interns to Whirlpool saw something in me (or may have been desperate to fill his quota).   After 10 weeks of what didn’t promise much, I went back to the second year of my MBA looking forward to coming back full time to work for a company that promised to bring excitement for the years to come, a company that would teach me how to innovate. So what happened during those 10 weeks to change my mind?

That summer of 2000 was the beginning of one of the biggest transformations in corporate America’s history: an almost 100-year-old company would teach thousands of employees to be innovative. As the program was being deployed I kept raising my hand until somebody picked me – after 4 weeks of intensive training I would become an i-mentor, and if I demonstrated results through the use of these new skills they would even certify me.   Looking back, being part of that process has been more valuable in my career than the MBA itself. Through the practice of a number of tools and principles I learned how to force mine and other people’s brains to see a problem differently through the use of “lenses”.  I learned how to uncover perspectives and insights invisible at first, and generate ideas from them that would then evolve into business concepts and experiments. While some people have the ability to do these naturally, this is not the case for the rest of us.

What I learned at Whirlpool was a systematic process to innovate and I became innovative.  Once certified, my responsibility was to train others. During my almost 15 years in the company of which 6 were fully dedicated to innovation, I had the pleasure to ignite the curiosity and undiscovered innovative ability of hundreds of my colleagues around the world. It was always refreshing and gratifying to leave a training session seeing people go back to their jobs with so much energy and enthusiasm of the possibilities ahead and I would often be able to observe one or two people from the group that, like I once did, realized the potential of this and would come to me after the sessions asking “how can I get more involved in this?” I would see some of these people make career turns springing into something they would not have imagined before. 

There are companies whose founders have established innovative cultures from their foundation and have had the luxury of attracting and hiring only people for whom innovation comes naturally.   But, what about the rest of the world? What about companies in less “sexy” industries? Or companies that carry different generations of leadership cultures? These companies hire the rest of us, and as Whirlpool did, can teach people they can be innovative. When the right environment and management systems surround these people, the companies can become real innovation engines.