I live in the Mountain West of the United States. The sheer beauty of the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon and countless other natural wonders is well known. It is also becoming known as a tinder box. Years of dry conditions, unrelenting heat and an explosion of people living in the mountains have been a devastating combination. While we have an abundance of natural beauty, we also have an abundance of fuel; ready to burn.

The underlying lesson is that an explosive fire requires the right ingredients: a spark, plenty of fuel and dry conditions. Now imagine if innovation was the fire. What ingredients are critical to an explosion of innovation in an organization?

I won’t try and list all of the possible sources of fuel here. Instead I will focus on one that I believe has the greatest potential to fan the flames of innovation: lifelong learning. There cannot be a culture of innovation without plenty of learners who provide the fuel for rigorous and constant innovation. As Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish education expert at the European Training Foundation and professor of education policy at the Gonski Institute for Education, says, “Innovation is the extraction of economic and social value from knowledge.”

Most of the time this “extraction” process is implicit within organizations. We do not design for it and we fail to realize when it is (or is not) happening. This means that most lifelong learning within organizations is organic and driven by the proactivity of key managers or individual staff members. All learning is to be praised, but that is no way to drive change across the organization!

To be an innovative organization, we have to move lifelong learning from either being disincentivized or simply being allowed to explicitly be affirmed. Dr. Clark Quinn, owner of Quinnovation, provides a good framework for what must be in any innovative environment, “Innovation is about creating an environment where people can be exposed to different concepts, interact productively, experiment safely and be allowed time to reflect.” Those things that Clark outlines don’t happen without intentionality.

So to add fuel to our innovation fire, we must intentionally set out to create opportunities for lifelong learning within our organizations. I believe that if organizations would seriously integrate one value, one posture and one discipline, their whole culture would begin to pivot towards lifelong learning and would then be open to innovation.

One Value

The value that makes the greatest difference in lifelong learning is humility. Bottom line, if your organization is tainted with pride, there is little chance there will be any learning going on.  Thomas Merton said, “Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.” If we are fakes, then there is nothing to learn. Our only job is to keep the con intact at any cost.

But humility means that we are open. I love this quote from Simon Sinek, “Humility, I have learned, must never be confused with meekness. Humility is being open to the ideas of others.” An organization that fosters humility encourages a group of people to be open to each other and the wider world. Those people will naturally grow into world-class learners.

One Posture

In Adam Bryant’s book Corner Office, he shares about his research with over 700 leaders. What was the top characteristic of successful leaders? “Passionate curiosity” took the top spot. A posture of curiosity within your organization must be built on top of holding to the value of humility. Questions act like the kindling that is needed to get a fire going. A question lights a spark and quickly goes beyond the talking points to find out the real story and its implications. Curious people fan the flames of learning. They always have a follow-up question and continually integrate one area with another; just as the kindling is what helps get the larger branches burning.

A great example of this is 2011 recipient of the Drucker Price, Direct Relief. This nonprofit provides medicine and supplies to those suffering around the world. While they are a nonprofit, they struggle with many areas that a business would be very familiar. They have inventory, distribution, client services, etc. However, in the nonprofit world, organizations tend to ask companies for money and then go about executing their plan with their own expertise. But what if they were a learning organization? Thomas Tighe, president of Direct Relief, describes the different approach that their organization took in the area of logistics, “Given our logistics challenges, it would make no sense to seek from FedEx only financial support so we could then try to use that money to buy logistics services. The thought was, ‘How would FedEx do this?’ and then, ‘Maybe we should ask them.’”

One Discipline

Organizations that stoke the fire of learning have mastered the discipline of creating connections. The reason I call it a discipline is that the connection process is institutionalized into the organization’s processes. When they put teams together, they connect distinct skills that will help with learning and eventual innovation. When they design events, they connect different speakers so that staff will get unique and helpful perspectives.

Steve Jobs said it best,

“If you’re gonna make connections which are innovative… you have to not have the same bag of experiences as everyone else does.”

Learning organizations recognize it and design everything with that in mind.

When organizations regularly make connections inside and outside their walls, they bring together divergent thinking, expose people to new approaches and create space for innovative insights. But it isn’t easy; that’s why it takes discipline. It is easy to bring like things together. It is hard to bring together distinct things. Take a moment to play the “Parable of the Polygons” (a playable blog post) to recognize how the small biases we each have can lead to significant breakdowns in diversity and connections.

It takes high levels of emotional intelligence, adequate preparation and significant debriefing. Because of these time-intensive requirements, it is rarely done well. It is even more rare for it to be institutionalized into an organization successfully. But this one discipline will do more to create a lifelong learning culture than anything other practice or procedure.

Imagine for a moment of your organization regularly facilitated transdisciplinary connections as part of work teams, events, initiatives and product/service rollouts. The learning that would ensue (if built upon the value of humility and the posture of curiosity) would be incredible. Deep understanding leads to deep learning. As Stephen Covey says,

“When you show deep empathy towards others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.”

These three items aren’t extremely complicated to conceptualize. However, they are very difficult to operationalize. Why? They go against how we are wired. We are naturally prideful, too busy to be curious and intimidated by those who are different than we are. That means that to build up the fuel necessary to ignite innovation, we have to do some hard work underneath the surface of our organizations. But the fire will only burn as hot as the fuel it has to work with.

While I constantly hope for less fuel up in the mountains near my home, I’m always seeking to accumulate more fuel for burning within organizations. The power of a lifelong learning organization to generate innovative solutions is something to watch. Are you witnessing a glorious blaze of learning where you work, or do you see only a few whiffs of smoke? Start with humility, curiosity and connections and I guarantee you will have a healthy fire burning before you know it.

NOTE: To see a video of my latest webinar on the role of lifelong learning in innovation visit www.innovationinmission.com.