10 steps to a successful innovation workshop

In recent years, IT has learned how to programmatically tap into creative ideas, not just for its own internal purposes, but for the overall benefit to the business. More and more, innovative ideas are a key way for companies to seek competitive advantage in a market where a steady pipeline of ideas, the ability to execute, and a “fail fast and move on” approach is the business necessity.

When it comes to enterprise software to help manage innovation processes, there’s certainly no shortage of options on the market from idea management and crowd-sourcing platforms, to innovation process management software, to open innovation software, to innovation marketplaces.

These platforms are mostly focused on enterprise-wide initiatives and are intended to be operated as part of an ongoing, programmatic effort within the organization. Of course many of them can be, and often are, applied for event-based or time-based sessions such as workshops and innovation challenges of one form or another, or even for sourcing highly-targeted innovation needs, but their typical purpose is to support the ongoing execution of an enterprise innovation program.

One area I find that complements this ongoing, enterprise-wide approach very nicely is the conduct of one- or two-day targeted innovation workshops using web-based group decision support software. The meetings are typically conducted primarily in person with a group of ten to twenty-five individuals. We use the group decision support software to rapidly collect a set of ideas and innovation opportunities from the group that are discussed and prioritized during the meeting. Topics typically range from exploring innovative ideas in macro-level areas such as applications and data centers all the way to specific disruptive trends such as cloud, mobile, social and big data.

The focus of the workshops can be business-, process- and technology-oriented, as opposed to just one particular slant, and we take the approach that all ideas don’t necessarily have to be strategic or transformational in nature. Even tactical or incremental ideas, as long as they can lend measureable business value, are considered in scope and of benefit.

In conducting these sessions, here are ten best practices that I’ve found help ensure quality outcomes when using this type of group decision support software specifically for an Innovation Workshop:

1) Agree on goals and objectives upfront with stakeholders

Well ahead of the workshop, discuss the overall goals and objectives with your stakeholders and also prepare a list of key focus areas or topic areas for your workshop. These key focus areas help define specifically what topics you wish to brainstorm around with your audience.

2) Drive the selection of attendees based upon key focus areas

The key focus areas should be used to determine the appropriate subject matter experts to invite to the session. Since the focus is a collaborative brainstorming session, as opposed to one-way presentations, it’s useful to keep the total number of attendees to between ten and twenty-five.

3) Present innovation challenges and opportunities to set the context

Have your stakeholder present a short overview of the business needs related to innovation and the kinds of ideas he or she is looking for out of the session. This will help set the background context for the subject matter experts at the session.

4) Prepare a well-defined agenda and participant guide

The agenda should clearly mark out sections for opportunity identification (brainstorming), opportunity categorization (hearing the elevator pitches for each idea and combining related ideas), and opportunity prioritization (voting). For example, if you’re using online software to capture ideas from the group, I’ve found that thirty minutes is an ideal amount of time for individuals to submit ideas into the system using their laptops and tablets.

5) Allow participants to build upon each other’s ideas

Once attendees have entered their ideas into the software, it’s useful to have them review the ideas from others and add comments as appropriate. This helps them build upon each other’s ideas and can help to strengthen the overall value proposition around the ideas or help raise additional questions for consideration.

6) Hear the elevator pitches for each idea

Since ideas are submitted by everyone simultaneously, it’s important to go down the electronic whiteboard of ideas row by row and hear the elevator pitches from the people you submitted them. This gives the full audience an overview of the ideas before moving to the voting stage.

7) Use a well-defined set of voting criteria

A well-defined set of criteria can help ensure that voting results can be used to properly evaluate ideas based upon business benefit and ease of implementation. A best practice is to have an equal number of criteria for each of these two vectors so that innovation ideas and opportunities can be plotted on a cost/benefit matrix or similar analysis tool such as a project prioritization matrix.

8) Define how you will measure success

To measure the success of the workshops, you’ll typically want to track three key areas: the quality of the workshop session, the quality of the facilitators themselves, and the business outcomes achieved as a result of the session. This can be achieved by attendee satisfaction surveys at the conclusion of the workshop and also by rigorous follow-up to monitor the success of ideas designated for further analysis and eventual implementation.

9) Make the facilitation role strategic

The facilitation role for Innovation Workshops is much more than just facilitating an audience, it entails managing the pre-workshop planning, the actual conduct of the workshop, and then the necessary follow-up actions to ensure the desired business outcomes are realized as a result of the session.

10) Maintain consistency and quality through frequent training

If you put in place a programmatic approach to these kinds of innovation workshops, it’s important to provide regular training for your facilitators and to select the right number of facilitators to cover your anticipated needs across business units and geographies. There’s a delicate balance that needs to be maintained between having enough facilitators for coverage and a small enough group for quality purposes so that they can build their experience.

Of course, some of these guidelines will vary based on exactly how you define and implement your innovation workshops. What I’ve found over the years, it that there’s a number of ways to “skin the cat” and no “right” or “wrong” approaches. Each approach has its own strengths and weaknesses and it’s important to learn from each variation to the workshop approach and go with what fits best in your particular case. There’s a tremendous number of variables you can adjust in an innovation workshop from number of focus areas, to number of attendees, to the structure and timing of each step in the process, to the types of voting criteria and whether or not to vote individually or as a group. The key thing to bear in mind is sometimes simplicity and consistency is the most effective approach. 

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