The innovation war room is less like a boardroom and more like a classroom: a place where leaders must perpetually learn new things about the ever-changing landscape of their industries. All innovation initiatives ask us to grapple with what we don't know now. That's why, when it comes to growth and creativity, learning is so important--and challenging.

Teaching someone a skill is a lot easier than teaching someone how to apply that skill. Take a quick look at recent book sales and this immediately becomes clear. This past summer, booksellers reported abysmally low numbers. We spend thirteen years and billions of dollars teaching children how to read, but studies show us that, once they leave school, a quarter of people don't read a single book in a year. Knowing how to read is not the same thing as wanting to read--or knowing how to apply the information and insights gained from reading.

At a moment when Khan Academy, TED, Big Think, and tons of other open-access educational resources connect us to the best and brightest with a single click, learning is as confusing as ever. Podcasts and videocasts muddy the already-crowded waters: with so many voices out there claiming to be experts, it's hard to know who actually knows what.

The other major challenge to learning is one that transcends time and age: whether you're eight or eighty, a Ph.D. or a GED, if you want to acquire a new skill, you have to go through the failure cycle. We are all novices when it comes to entering the unknown--and we have to be ready and willing to endure early mistakes and missteps.

In his now-classic Harvard Business Review essay, "Teaching Smart People How to Learn," the late Harvard professor, Chris Argyris, noted that those at the top--the ones who have been so privileged that they've never experienced failure--are also the least malleable learners. For this reason, it's the smartest people who have the most trouble changing their habits, who often have the most difficulty innovating.

With new technologies arising faster than we can keep up with and constant changes in the culture of the workforce and customer preferences, it's not enough to be learners. We need to relearn how we take in and respond to new skills and ideas. Here are three strategies for becoming adaptive students in the life-long innovation classroom.

Learn how you learn. Cultivate a self-awareness about your learning process. In the 1960s, Berkeley professors Richard Bandler and John Grinder developed a cognitive inquiry strategy called Neuro-linguistic Programming that many still use today. The approach claims that there are three types of learning: auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. Howard Gardner, a famous developmental psychologist at Harvard, takes this one step further, insisting that we actually have multiple intelligences: visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical. Pay attention to when things make the most sense for you. What is the first thing you do whenever you're trying to understand a new concept? Do you learn by reading instructions? By watching someone else do it? Or by listening to someone explain it? Knowing your own learning strengths is not just about yourself--it will also help you communicate with others. All effective leaders teach in multiple modalities and realize that one way of telling somebody something won't be enough for an entire group.

Develop stronger learning links. Harvard professors Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap conceptualized learning as a hierarchy and taxonomy of processes called Deep Smarts. We start at the most rudimentary level--giving directions, presentations, and lectures--and then gradually move on to more complicated forms of knowledge exchange: developing rules of thumb, telling stories with a moral, performing Socratic questioning. This culminates in hands-on teaching--guided practice, observation, problem-solving, and experimentation. We need to be sensitive to where people are in their development of a skill. We can't just jump from one step to the final step. Bring learners along slowly through each stage. Have acknowledged masters apprentice novices. Masters aren't always senior leaders. They might be young people who are fluent in new technology or people who have little formal education but have extensive life experience.

Give it time. All learning is developmental. Speak a foreign language or pick up a musical instrument and you'll see that there are no shortcuts. We all need immersion and soak time. It's time to increase your tolerance for failure. Consider the two basic kinds of parents--the ones who say, "don't do that," and the ones who say, "hurt, didn't it?" The children of the hovering parents likely won't learn as much as the ones who have the freedom to do things. The only time we don't say, "hurt, didn't it?" is when the child is in peril. Ask yourself what kind of leader you are: do you let the people around you fail--or are you stopping them from experimenting in the first place? Make learning a team sport.

Pair different kinds of learners together, bring together varying levels--and areas--of expertise.

Establish an everyday culture of learning by modeling the learning behaviors you want to see in your team. Show curiosity. Ask questions. Share what you know. Remember that the innovation classroom has no start date and no end date. When it comes to creativity and growth, class is always in session.

Jeff DeGraff is the Dean of Innovation: professor, author, speaker and advisor to hundreds of the top organizations in the world. You can learn more about his groundbreaking University of Michigan Certified Professional Innovator Certificate Program and Innovatrium Institute for Innovation at www.jeffdegraff.com/cpi and keynote speeches through BigSpeak Speakers Bureau.

Published on: Sep 14, 2015
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