Experts’ Table — Leading Innovation in Learning: Will You Be Ready?

🕑 7 minutes read | Aug 20 2019 | By Becky Gendron

Breaking Through While Making Do –

If you’ve achieved a sort of equilibrium, then you’re doing better than most. Maybe you’ve cobbled together a plucky team of professionals. You may have even had some relative success—possibly with the day-to-day needs of compliance, safety, or onboarding. It’s unlikely, however, that you have quite enough headcount, and it’s also unlikely that that team is fully up-to-date on the latest solutions.

You’re making do, and admirable as that may be when you first achieve minimal, operational competence, the thrill fades quickly over the longer term. You go to conferences and look with envy at the virtual reality solutions that it seems everyone is doing. You long for cohorts and learner experience platforms, but you’re stuck with presentation slides and participant guides. You have started avoiding podcasts and blogs because they make you feel left behind. And, although you long to break through and introduce something new into the mix, the same pressures that created the status quo persist with enough momentum that the new ideas keep getting postponed.

Unfortunately, making do just isn’t enough. A McKinsey study showed that 70% of leaders view innovation as a top driver of growth in their organizations.[i] If we’re not innovating within learning and development, we’re out of alignment with the top priorities of our organizations, and we’re not able to flex, change, or grow. The same McKinsey study also showed that 65% of leaders indicated a lack of confidence in their ability to execute on innovation priorities.  So, although we know it should be a priority, we don’t know how to always make it happen.

Game Changers

Ironically, the very challenges that you think may overwhelm you and your team can also provide your biggest opportunities for innovation. These types of game-changing needs come with such high stakes that they are recognized by the entire organization as disruptive. I’m talking about these types of enterprise transformations:

  • Large systems rollouts
  • Mergers and acquisitions
  • Changes in enterprise strategy
  • Regulatory changes
  • Surge periods of accelerated growth
  • Global expansion

What these all have in common is that the disruption is significant enough that it will impact large portions of the business, carry new levels of risk, and catch the attention of those with the power to authorize spending.

What Not to Do

So, what do you do when one of these huge opportunities comes your way? The temptation to stay with the tried and true, though understandable, will likely undercut your credibility and leadership efficacy for the rest of your tenure. The need to do something different will probably be obvious to everyone—in fact, if you opt for the same old thing, you’ll find yourself building a case for why you think the everyday strategy suffices in the context of large-scale change. Being open for new opportunities is a prerequisite for building innovation on your team. Let’s work through some of the most common objections.

  • “Now isn’t the time to introduce new risk.” There are a couple of points of resistance in this statement that will get in the way of innovation. First off, it masquerades as a reasonable, common-sense response—no one wants additional risk. The other problem is assuming that new or different implies more risk than the legacy solution (which was designed to solve other, smaller-scale problems). In such cases, the imperative for big change necessitates other changes. Changing is less risky in this situation and not more so.
  • “We don’t have the available resources.” This shortage may have been the case prior to the disruptive change, but it’s likely that situation is or can be different in light of new requests. Typically, the big changes bring access not only to more people but to more budget. And, while you may not have the available resources in place on your team, they do exist. Others will have been through this before and will have experience with the right solutions for transformational change.
  • “We aren’t sufficiently involved in the change management strategy.” There is no better time to ask for a seat at the table than when you are so obviously needed. Yes, it’s likely that this change was initiated without you. Target dates were set, etc. But it isn’t too late to ask to be a part of the higher-level strategy as a partner to those responsible for making these changes a reality.
  • “There isn’t time to do anything new. We’re already playing catch up.” Sometimes, it is true that there is absolutely no time, but it certainly isn’t true every time that we use this rationale. Also, there are a number of ways to accelerate innovation (see below).
  • “What if we fail?” There are many ways to define failure in these types of situations. However, if we approach the change as thoughtful and open leaders, it establishes a model for how the rest of the organization will respond. The failure of the change initiative would and should be much bigger. If it all hinges on training, then we should probably question the overall approach. It isn’t that training can’t shoulder the burden, it’s that training alone is almost never the right answer. If we have integrated our learning strategy, especially a bold, innovative strategy, with the larger transformation, the failure of blame-throwing becomes unlikely.


Rather than just waiting for the moment of truth to arrive, wisdom tells us to prepare. So, how do you get ready for that which is hard to foresee? First off, try to put yourself in a position where you can see the big changes coming. This means continually building those stakeholder relationships. Secondly, you probably have a good grasp of your team’s weaknesses, and you can anticipate the types of needs that will challenge your team. Having a contingency plan can give you more flexibility in the moment, even if you can’t anticipate all the specifics. The nature of this type of big change often requires agility and innovation in the midst of delivery pressure. This is a lot easier if you have given the hypotheticals enough thought that you have a backup strategy.

To better equip yourself, familiarize yourself with these typical vulnerabilities below and think through any advance considerations that would increase your readiness.


  • Do you have access to a learning strategist?
  • If you don’t have one on your team, is there one in the organization that you could co-opt in an emergency?
  • Do you have a relationship with a vendor that can provide a learning strategist on demand?
  • What types of strategists will be most helpful in your context?


  • Where do you have gaps currently?
  • Who are your most creative team members in terms of learning design?
  • What is the range of what they know compared to what they might be capable of learning quickly?
  • How might you pair up your team members with agile talent from outside the organization?


  • What is the capacity of your current team?
  • What if you need to double or triple the work? Are there other teams in the organization with a similar skill set?
  • What outside resources do you have already available and ready to go?
  • What are the limitations of your on-demand providers in terms of scale?
  • How will you scale the leadership of a larger (or much larger) team?


  • What is your global reach currently and where are there issues (both in L&D and in the organization overall)?
  • Which of your providers have the global reach to provide on-demand talent? Do you know in what countries they are strongest?


  • How will your learning tech stack scale?
  • How nimble can your team (or IT) be in getting up new tools (such as an LXP, for example)?
  • Do you know the technical landscape well enough to match technologies to organizational needs? Do your providers have this range and depth?
  • What cloud-based contingency strategies could be employed?


  • Do you know how much it costs you to design, develop, and deliver using your current team members?
  • Are you prepared with information on rates and costs for resources outside of your organization?
  • Do you know how costs-per-learner scale with the size of your delivery?
  • Do you have back-pocket strategies for controlling the budget? How can you maximize impact and minimize effort?

Being prepared allows you to react with an innovative approach and not a survival approach. Under the right circumstances, those big and complex changes in your organization can invigorate your team members and give them opportunities to learn. Some of the most innovative solutions in our industry were created because of the big challenges that inspired them (and probably scared them a little). Recently, Josh Bersin called for HR professionals to become “the new disruptors.”[ii] To make this happen, we need to embrace the big, moonshot opportunities facing our organizations—leveraging them to demonstrate the strategic value of learning. When this happens, the enterprise breakthroughs become personal breakthroughs for your team and for you as a leader.

[i] Leadership and innovation


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