How did you learn to do that?

A few weeks ago, I met someone at a networking event and we were chatting about our work.  During the course of the conversation she asked me "How do you learn to do what you do?"  I realized that this was probably the most useful, insightful question a person could have asked.

What this woman picked up on was the fact that there was no formal educational or professional path that could lead to proficiency in my work.  The word innovation has fully achieved the ultimate buzzword status.  It has come to mean everything and nothing to the point that it is almost meaningless.  I have begun to define my own work in very different ways depending on who I am talking to.  The reality is that I am responsible for ensuring future revenue and growth for a company.  I do that by defining ideal experiences that satisfy the motivations of customers and consumers, and translate these experiences into the products and services that deliver them, and the business models that capture their value. 

Yes, that's a mouthful - but it's true, and it makes the distinction between me and someone who innovates through the development of new technology.  It also makes people like this woman realize that she has never attempted to do most of the things I described.  In her role, she is worried about maximizing near term profits - she needs to make sure she keeps the lights on.  I told her that I make sure we will still be needing the lights in five years.  In her role, she is optimizing the development of current and updated offerings.  I don't even pretend to know what those offerings will be in the next five years.  She has clear benchmarks for success, and I need to create the benchmarks for success in the future.  Most of us have learned - or know how to learn - what she does.  I have had to create the path for learning what to do along the way.

The reason I found her question so insightful is that it is one of a few questions that will help you to differentiate between the people who know what they are doing, and those who are "all fur coat and no knickers" from my previous post.  There are some progressive academics who are trying to develop standardized methods for teaching "innovation", or "experience design", but at this point in time, there are no set standards.  For now, the best way to figure out if this person is the real deal is to ask them to share the results of their work.  If these results are of the type you are looking for, then ask them "how did you learn to do that?"  I'd love to know what type of answers you get.