Monday, March 08, 2010

Learning innovation skills and best practices

There's a difference between knowing "about" innovation and having experience doing innovation.  Just as I don't compare myself to Lance Armstrong although we both ride bikes, there are skills and knowledge that are manifest in people who lead effective innovation programs that may not always be manifest in your organization.  These skills can be learned through training and through careful exercise within your organization, but it is dangerous to presume that people who have an interest in innovation possess the skills and best practices to carry out innovation efforts.  This was brought home to me in a meeting I attended recently.

I was at a meeting with a number of other people interested in innovation, and we were asked to brainstorm to help solve a particular problem.  A person who is an "innovation" leader in his company was asked to facilitate the brainstorming session.  An executive from the firm who was facing the problem gave a brief presentation on their challenge and needs, and then the facilitator asked for ideas.

The meeting quickly disintegrated because the challenge we were addressing was too large and poorly defined, and the timeframe too small.  While the challenge had been presented by the firm's CEO, it was unclear whether we were supposed to provide incremental or disruptive ideas, or merely validate a course the CEO identified in his presentation.  Additionally, no one had done a good job setting a scope - what to include in your thinking or what to leave out for the purposes of this session.  At one point one participant suggested that we couldn't generate ideas until we'd evaluated all the health care systems in all the major economic powers in the world.  Unfortunately we only had two hours.

So, we got off to a rocky start because the problem was poorly framed (not the facilitator's fault) and really had far too many interlocking and interchangeable parts (again, not his fault).  Also, we did not have a good understanding or framing of the scope - perhaps his fault, perhaps that of the sponsor. Even when the participants tried to extend the scope, the facilitator did not try to reframe the question.  Next, one participant, clearly a "Clarifier" from the Foursight model, kept asking clarifying questions rather than submitting ideas.  Being able to recognize a clarifier, and understand their needs, would have been helpful, but the facilitator also had failed to establish the rules of engagement.  Once we entered brainstorming, we should have been focused on generating ideas instead of asking questions.  Without a commonly held set of beliefs and rules, each person was participating in the session with their personal beliefs and rules.  Since we didn't set out a scope or an expected process or set of rules, there was no orderly process for generating ideas.

To give credit where it is due, the facilitator did "take off" his facilitator hat and contribute ideas, so he nimbly stepped into and out of the facilitator role, and did a good job capturing ideas.  This, though, in my mind was another signal that best practices weren't being followed.  It was clearly a struggle to write down ideas and to manage the group simultaneously.  Ideally we would have had a facilitator and a "scribe" to document the ideas.

This session led me to believe that many people conducting "idea generation" sessions in corporate America are doing more damage than good.  If this example is indicative of what happens everyday in most organizations, then idea generation and brainstorming deserves a negative rap - and many innovation leaders and teams need training on conducting and facilitating brainstorming and idea generation.

Here's what should have happened:

  1. Set the ground rules.  There are a consistent set of rules for brainstorming, including "encourage wild ideas", "Go for quantity not quality", "Don't judge while ideating" etc
  2. Clearly define the opportunity or challenge.  Make the issue smaller or simpler if necessary.
  3. Define the scope - what should be considered and what should be ignored.  We should have placed "all health care systems in the world" out of bounds from the start.
  4. Allow people to ask clarifying questions before we start brainstorming.  Once we start generating ideas, limit the questions, which often change scope.
  5. Pick a scribe to capture ideas so the facilitator doesn't have to write down ideas and manage the group
  6. Encourage the reticent and moderate the talkers.  Any group, and ours was no exception, has people who are happy to toss ideas out all day long, and those who won't speak at all.  We need to hear from everyone, and perhaps a bit less from some people (me included).
  7. Keep the team on task and on target.  When the "evaluate all health care systems in the world" statement was made, we should have been reminded that that was out of bounds, and we needed to refocus on what we could solve.
  8. Stretch the group when necessary.  The facilitator can/should occasionally ask questions that shift the group's thinking or introduces a new perspective.

These ideation rules and best practices are documented in a set of slides OVO has posted here:   There are a number of good books written on this subject as well, probably the best is Think Better by Tim Hurson.

These skills aren't innate and must be learned and reinforced.  My concern is that people who work on innovation activities may be leading events but may not be fully trained or may not have all the skills and capabilities necessary to be very effective.  And effectiveness in this context matters, since we were trying to solve big problems very quickly with a heterogeneous group. Only good methods and good facilitation was going to get it done well.

If your organization is trying to generate new ideas internally and desires to be guided by internal staff (which we think is a good thing), invest in some training to ensure the innovation leaders understand their roles and best practices.  

Innovation is too important to leave to chance.  If it is important to your organization, train your team to be effective idea facilitators!
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:11 AM


Blogger Pavan Soni said...

This is a valid concern Jeff. Having moderated several brainstorming session, what appear to me is that there are two most important success factors for one:
~ Clearly defined and understood objective(s)
~ Getting the right people on the table.

Hygiene factors such as Time, Quantity > Quality, etc are the role of moderator then.

Mind Mapping as a tool has been of highest benefit to me.
Do let me know if you see other interesting tools. We can sync up at

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Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for the focus on this topic, Jeff.

As organizations learn to embrace innovation skills, perhaps an additional question to ask,
"What would innovating innovation look like in our company? What structures need to adapt to meet this?"

Appreciate your time & energy in providing a valuable post!

Judy White, SPHR, GPHR, HCS

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