• Sarah Holcomb

Can you really teach an old dog new tricks?: Helping staff a new innovation lab in an existing org

There’s an adage that says “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” We’ve experienced this many times while working with organizations that are building their capacity to innovate.


Oftentimes leaders manage innovation much like the core business, utilizing the same processes and guidelines. For example, when a leader identifies a new business challenge, typically the next step is to form a cross-functional team, led by subject-matter experts. This seems like a reasonable way forward because it’s familiar and how the core business has functioned for years. However, this setup assumes you know the answer to the problem (hence the subject-matter experts). With disruptive, innovative work, you definitely DON’T know the answer. So, what do you do?


Recently, we had the privilege of working with a client that had deeply considered how to approach innovation. Not leaning on the status quo, they secured a dedicated space for their innovation lab in the entrepreneurial hub of a town that was not too far, but not too close to HQ. They also knew that working in the innovation space would require not only a different toolset but, more importantly, different mindsets.

We were hired to bring a fresh perspective on the hiring process for their innovation group. What seemed like a straightforward assignment—provide ideas to engage candidates to better understand if they exhibited innovator mindsets and behaviors—resulted in not only a new hiring process and a new team but also the core principles for their ways of working.

While designing the session, we asked ourselves:

  • Which mindsets and behaviors align best with the work?

  • How do we want people to collaborate?

  • What tools will be used to support their work?

  • Is the candidate’s area of expertise important to the work? If so, how and when?

The answers to these questions provided the underlying principles of the innovation group which allowed us to create a unique interactive session that would illuminate who would be the best fit.

During the session, participants engaged in a hands-on innovation challenge. Working one-on-one with the facilitator, the candidate put their problem-solving skills to work, while our client could see first-hand how they thought and acted. The insights derived from this new approach provided a richer understanding of the candidates and laid the groundwork for what they could expect working in the innovation space.

When you’re bringing innovation into your workplace, it’s important to take a different approach that doesn’t rely heavily on existing practices—whether that be how and/or who you hire, the methods and tools utilized, workspace, etc. Although this can be tricky to do in existing organizations, the results are well worth the extra effort. And, if you encounter resistance, it’s best to start with a narrow scope and validate your efforts with small wins.


Image Credit: Goochie Poochie Grooming on Pexels


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