An essential ingredient to successful innovation projects is good facilitation.
Who could argue with that? Innovation combines individual and group activities. Good group collaboration is not a given. Even individual activities need coordination with the group effort. You really need an inspiring, confident, well-trained facilitator to enable innovation.
I’m talking about running and managing strategy meetings, ideation sessions, virtual sessions (using IMS), concept writing sessions, and other group work. A good facilitator makes a world of difference in the results of these group meetings and activities.
And yet, in the long list of things that can go wrong in innovation initiatives, it’s often the one that is overlooked or taken for granted.
The problem is many in-house innovation facilitators are poorly trained, or not trained at all. It’s interesting that sometimes it’s the low person on the totem pole that gets handed the marker. It’s as if they think this is the easiest part. It’s not. It’s just the opposite. It takes more to be truly magical as a facilitator than just standing at a flip chart with a Sharpie. I’ve listed below the three things it takes to be a top-notch facilitator (and a link to a great training session coming up in October).
Companies looking to ramp up their internal innovation capacity would be well served to invest in facilitation training.
A good group with a sense of urgency can easily be led astray (or bored to death) by a poor facilitator. In our ADD world keeping the attention of a high level group is so challenging. Distractions rain on the average meeting. How hard it is to keep a group of a dozen people engaged for a half day, a full day, or a couple days? Very hard. It’s nearly impossible in the age of smart phones.
One of the reasons companies hire expensive agencies and consultants is because those agencies have dynamic, well-trained, inventive, and experienced facilitators. Those facilitators have great session plans and a lot of splashy and fun exercises to get people thinking.They’re worth the money, AND, why not have this capacity in-house?
The bigger companies often have in-house facilitators, even teams of in-house facilitators and I think that’s a very good idea. You’re more likely to be responsive to changing market conditions if you can arrange a think-fest quickly and have it expertly facilitated. Big companies invest in facilitator training, sometimes. Or they hire experience.
The problem is many in-house innovation facilitators are poorly trained, or not trained at all. Here’s what it takes to be a top-notch facilitator:
- It takes a big picture idea of what innovation is and how innovation process should work. This means you have to be a strategic thinker. It means you need to know some basic innovation processes like CPS and/or design thinking. How can a person lead a strategy session unless they know how to think that way? How else does a facilitator reframe the challenge? Breakthrough perspectives are how you find breakthrough ideas. If your facilitator doesn’t know how to shift thinking on the challenge he/she has been handed — it’s likely you’ll be brainstorming the wrong question. The big picture would include the mission and goals of the organization, the real ones, that are often masked behind PR/MBA speak. If you don’t know what you’re shooting for, how can you hit the target? A facilitator does not have to be a content expert, but they have to be in the ballpark in order to direct the process.
- You have to know the classic tools and techniques for facilitation. There are a ton of them. This includes energizers, modern techniques for data collection (including use of Idea Management Systems), and use of stimulus. There is a time and place for writing at a flip chart or a white board, but if that’s all you know how to do you’re stuck in 1953. Post-It Note brainstorming can work, but it can’t be the only thing you do in a workshop. It’s amazing how many organizations don’t know how to do Post-It note brainstorming, it’s a basic technique. It’s also amazing that the most basic rules of brainstorming are not adhered to (like no-critique, etc.) and then people have the nerve to say that brainstorming doesn’t work. Advanced techniques like “scaffolding,” concept blends, and kinesthetic exercises are not used by 98% of in-house facilitators and that’s a shame because those tools do work; they leverage modern knowledge of how people think and learn. Does your facilitator know anything about multiple intelligence theory? The role of introverts? Graphic facilitation? Can you enable the thinking of a group to enable them to connect very distant dots? If you can’t, you’re not likely to get to breakthrough ideas. You’ve got to know the tools people. You also have to practice the tools enough to be confident using them.
- You have to know how to create a dynamic and flexible session plan. Planning an innovation workshop or ideation session is an art form. If the day isn’t planned down to 15 minute increments, it’s probably not a great plan. Plans should include pre-work and backgrounding for participants. Backgrounding on the day of the session is a super crazy bad idea. It’s a classic mistake that is made again and again. It’s as if you really want people to be brain dead just before a brainstorm starts. On the other hand, providing data and active thinking exercises well before a session can improves results dramatically. Can your facilitator create custom exercises? Change the plan mid-stream? Planning what to do after the session is just as important. Want to kill an innovation culture? Don’t do anything with the ideas you worked so hard to get. A great plan is essential to innovation workshop success, and this takes training.