My summer short course executive education “students” are terrific. They come from all over the world and radically different industries. They’re entrepreneurs as well as intrapreneurs inside established organizations. They’re motivated, dedicated and demanding—as they should be. They authentically want to be better innovators. I’m grateful for their commitment and how much I learn from them.

The single most important thing I’ve learned over a decade of summer studies is that cultivating new capability is more important than better communicating one’s expertise. These mid-career leaders and managers aren’t just seeking greater knowledge, they want to acquire greater skill. But this sensibility isn’t just confined to the classroom— the desire for getting better at getting better is a global phenomenon. I’ve discovered that
the summer short course is a great laboratory for learning how human capital revitalizes, renews and retools. Here are the seven lessons managers and executives should consider as they invest in themselves:

1)   Organizational impact matters as much as professional development. At mid-career, if you receive any kind of professional development, it has to have an immediate impact on your organization. The course content and curricula need to clearly connect with what matters to your colleagues, clients, and customers. A better view from 30 thousand feet or a firmer grasp of technology may exhilarate but will that translate to meaningful organizational influence within 100 days?

2)   Keener introspection facilitates greater external influence. I am no longer
surprised when students email or share that the session forced them to become more self-aware. Being able to do more pushes people to re-evaluate what they really want to do. In my class, people revisited what kind of innovators they wanted to be and what kind of innovation they wanted to encourage. The surer their insight into their own innovation priorities, the more clearly they could communicate and motivate. Whether you spend time in a classroom or not, the message here is to look for opportunities to
rethink not just what you can do, but what you want to do.  As you increase capability in one domain, look for adjacencies and complements.

3)  Rethink, repurpose and renew what we’re already doing. Revolution and new paradigms weren’t top priorities for my mid-career students. The primary opportunity was revisiting the fundamentals of everyday projects and processes. Instead of starting from scratch, my students sought innovative ways to leverage what their organizations were already doing. For example, their company is already prototyped. How might simple changes in the prototyping process yield disproportionately greater value? In the
same way, you should be looking for similar opportunities where small tweaks result in creating and capturing new value.  Don’t make “reinvention” your focus.

4)  See something differently. The classroom thrust was empowering students to individually and collectively “see” innovation in a different way. Students wanted novel perspectives and points of view that let them observe or appreciate something in a potentially valuable new way. Just as a microscope or MRI scanner offers new eyes, a different framework similarly invites a new vision. But seeing different is not enough; that vision has to be communicated. This is where social media can play an important
role. How will you share not just a vision but a visualization?

5)  Do something different. Effective leaders and managers can’t simply be visionaries and voyeurs. Actions speak louder than words. The cultivation of capability means that “seeing differently” has to be translated into tangible actions. In our class, that meant collaboratively designing simple models, prototypes, and experiments. Turning a novel “point of view” into a testable innovation hypothesis represented a different way of exploring value creation. But that “do something different” has to be made accessible and understandable. Simple exercise: Is there an “app” or “calc” that could have an impact?

6)  Measure the difference. Seeing and doing something different is the essence of new capability creation. But those differences need to be credibly measured. How do those differences make us more efficient or effective? How might our customers or clients experience that difference? It’s one thing to claim a new capability; it’s quite another to rigorously measure it. Serious executive education students are always looking for new ways to measure impact, influence, and improvement. Similarly, whether you’ve learned in a classroom or on the job, what is the metrics conversation you want to facilitate? What gets measured gets managed. Incentives don’t follow too far behind.

7) Build an arc. What’s next for high-impact professional development? How often are you asking yourself, or your boss, that question?

The lesson I take away from listening to, working with and learning from these students is that professional development requires a commitment to interpersonal development.  That is, the capabilities we cultivate aren’t just about getting better at getting better—they’re about getting our colleagues and collaborators better at getting better, as well.

Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital
Business is the author of the books Serious Play (HBR Press), Who Do You Want Your Customers to Become? (HBR Press) and The Innovator’s Hypothesis (MIT Press).