Education or Experimentation? Professional Development for Innovative Teams

For innovative teams — those in startups as well as those innovating within established organizations — traditional professional development, or PD, has become an anachronism.
While those in traditional fields may pursue study and qualifications in order to advance their careers and earning potential, and see PD as both a reward and a motivator, for those in working in technology and innovation, the pathways for — and value of — professional development aren’t so clear-cut.
And for team leaders seeking to attract and motivate truly innovative staff, the role of PD in employee motivation and satisfaction can be very fuzzy.
In a recent interview, I asked a mobile developer how he keeps his skills at the top of his field. He laughed and said, “Coming to work is a good start!” In this industry, at least, the progress is being made — and knowledge is most quickly gained — in startups and innovative businesses, not in universities.
That explains why younger players entering the industry today face such fierce competition. There are plenty of people already working in innovative technology roles on the strength of experience and talent, rather than qualifications. As the technology sector gains maturity, employers now have the luxury of valuing people with proven experience (with or without formal qualifications) over fresh graduates. And few employers will bother speaking to a candidate who hasn’t learned or created anything new since they finished formal study.
The freshly released Startup Genome Project report corroborates the value of non-school learning. The research found “Startups that have helpful mentors, track metrics effectively, and learn from startup thought leaders raise 7x more money and have 3.5x better user growth” than those that don’t. No mention is made of the value of formal qualifications as a basis for startup success.
Your potential team members don’t want to see professional development listed as an employment benefit in their contracts; they choose jobs on the basis of how much the roles themselves will let them learn. The risky thrill of experimenting to create world-first products and take them successfully to market is a core appeal for those who work in innovative technology.
For this reason, proven expertise is usually more respected than qualifications by peers and colleagues. In innovative development, team members expect their peers to be able to walk the talk — for the good of the team, the project itself, and the individual’s own on-the-job PD. That motivates team members to seek productive, challenging, high-profile projects with great teams that they can learn from, rather than formal qualifications. Similarly, successful team leaders know that the bottom line depends entirely on whether team members can deliver, so rewards and respect naturally flow from successful experimentation, not traditional education.
Not surprisingly, the terms on which these types of team members are engaged aren’t those that appeal to those opting to work in more staid, traditional fields. The innovators thrive on possibility, the thrill of pushing boundaries, and the chance to have an impact. Offer to foot the bill for an MBA, and you’ll likely get a lot of blank stares. Employers may expect staff to walk the talk, but team members, too, judge employer credibility in terms of on-the-job projects, tasks, and teams. They want:

  • roles that effectively amount to paid experimentation, perhaps through the opportunity to participate in rapid prototyping projects where team members can focus on mastering a new skill or its application in a certain environment
  • to attend industry events that combine seminars with networking events — providing access to the “thought leadership” and “mentoring” mentioned in the Startup Genome report
  • the ability to contact and engage with other specialists outside the organization, on the organization’s time and, potentially, money.

Rather than being an after-hours, formal, institutionalized proposition, successful PD in innovative teams is holistic and always-on. Instead of tracking the team member’s achievement on the basis of grades, leaders are more likely to assess the ROI on what may be a guesstimated investment in PD by looking at individuals’ influences on company revenues and profits. And team leaders who understand these motivations can consistently attract and manage good innovators.
Image courtesy stock.xchng user madame_min.