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Creating a Culture of Innovation Through L&D

Innovation starts with a solid team, but how do we get there? Amanda Hurlbutt details the importance of L&D programs to extend your team's abilities and to keep improving.

Editor’s Note: Over the course of my career I’ve seen varying approaches to the development of staff. Some companies had very informal programs (to be generous), and some had well-thought-out, structured programs. With the great changes taking place in the market research industry right now, which require new skill sets and new ways of working in teams, development is more important than ever. In this very interesting post, Amanda Hurlbutt takes us through some recent developments and best practices in L&D, with a mind towards fostering a culture of innovation.  


In today’s dynamic business climate, the phrase ‘innovate or perish’ rings especially true. To keep pace with changes in the market and continuously improve the customer experience, many organizations are striving to create a culture of innovation that celebrates collaboration, idea-sharing, risk-taking.

Yet the million-dollar question still remains – how can organizations support and drive an innovative culture through their Learning & Development programs (L&D)? From designing agile L&D structures to carving out safe spaces for ideation, the 2019 US L&D Report sheds light on some of the latest trends that companies have put into practice.

Build Agile Structures

When it comes to supporting innovation, adopting an agile L&D structure is paramount. Rigid and meticulously planned L&D structures are less likely to adapt with shifts in business strategy, so it’s critical to develop learning programs that will remain nimble and adjust themselves to organizational changes. For Anthony Sandonato, Vice President of L&D at Wyndham Destinations, an agile L&D structure has been the ticket to propelling innovative endeavors across the company, which employs 25,000 people in 110 countries. Of Destination U, one of Wyndham’s key L&D programs, Sandonato says:

“The framework for Destination U has been designed to be open and flexible to allow for changes in internal reporting structures, as well as mergers and acquisitions.”

Building your L&D programs on flexible frameworks will ensure they’ll evolve in sync with the organization, without sacrificing the speed or quality of talent development. In the same vein, L&D programs should be forward-looking, and tailor themselves to the individualized current (and future) needs of your employees, a notion that Ernst & Young (EY) have taken to heart within their Audit Academy. In addition to the core EY Audit Academy curriculum, employees are given the opportunity to customize their learning experience with content that’s relevant to their specific role and clientele. Designing agile L&D programs with options for personalization can facilitate innovation by providing a more effective, efficient, and future-proof learning experience for employees.

Experiment! And Then Recalibrate

Innovations arise from taking risks and daring to try something completely new. Considering there are plenty of effective media and methods to deliver learning today, it’s worth thinking outside the box and beyond traditional learning to develop innovation-centric L&D programs; this is something that Karen Bicking, Head of US Learning & Talent Development at Bayer, knows firsthand. In 2018, Bicking pioneered an action-learning plan for the pharmaceutical wing of the company, in which pharmaceutical leaders were nudged to vacate their comfort zones and sign on to projects that were outside the scope of their day-to-day work. Bicking explains:

“They gained experience beyond their regular roles and gained exposure to senior leaders. We’ve seen a great outcome from that, with a number of them being promoted already, even though the program has just concluded.”

While Bayer’s action-learning plan has yielded impressive results, not every L&D experiment is guaranteed to be a roaring success To stack the deck on upcoming and future initiatives, L&D teams should monitor feedback and evaluate past programs through surveys or focus groups. Evaluation and recalibration are central to any innovative endeavor, so don’t shy away from shifting gears when your programs fail to deliver the expected results.

Carve Out Safe Spaces

The term ‘safe space’ may carry warm and fuzzy connotations for some, but don’t be fooled — safe spaces are fertile ground for innovation. When employees have the freedom to take risks without looming threats of criticism or repercussions, innovative thinking tends to flourish. Essentially, safe spaces should be regarded as the office Vegas — a zone absent of judgment, where employees can openly express themselves, their ideas, and even their challenges in confidence.

Creating a culture of innovation often starts with a strengths-based approach, which encourages managers to focus on the individual strengths of their employees. Concentrating on what’s right with people and highlighting positive contributions will not only ensure your employees’ unique skills, talents, and knowledge are leveraged to their fullest, but will also generate the most critical ingredient for safe spaces: trust. For Bonobos, a digitally native men’s clothing line, innovation has been a byproduct of a culture that emphasizes trust and relationship-building over learning hard skills. Tiffany Poppa. Director of Employee Experience, explains:

“Focusing on strengths creates trust; it creates a safe space to try something and possibly fail, have a conversation about it, and move forward.”

Along with carving out safe spaces for brainstorming and risk-taking, encouraging open communication, collaboration, and idea-sharing between employees across all levels of the organization is also a surefire way for organizations to spark innovation. The takeaway? Create L&D programs that allow employees to sharpen their individual strengths while building strong relationships with their colleagues. According to the UK L&D Report, the most in-demand programs today are leadership and management development, which are critical for strengthening interpersonal ties within the organizations. Innovation thrives on support — and there must be trust between team members for innovation to fully blossom.

Tie Innovation to L&D

While you can always launch new L&D initiatives and cross your fingers that they’ll ignite innovation, being proactive is better. Whether it involves brainstorming workshops, or guest lectures with innovative movers and shakers in your industry, placing innovation at the core of your L&D initiatives will motivate employees to view their day-to-day work through a more innovative lens.

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Amanda Hurlbutt

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