by Nicholas D. Evans

3 steps to a lean innovation workshop

Feb 12, 2016
Digital TransformationEmerging TechnologyInnovation

As I’ve discussed previously in “Multi-modal innovation: 5 best practices for setting the rhythm of innovation,” innovation workshops are a valuable technique for event-based ideation which can complement ongoing enterprise ideation processes.

As with any enterprise initiative or capability with the word “innovation” in its title, innovation workshops are also subject to the usual — and appropriate — scrutiny, evaluation and questions from various parts of the organization, from senior leadership to managers and employees. Commonly asked questions may revolve around the efficiency and effectiveness of the workshop in terms of its methodology, duration, cost, resource commitments, objectives and outcomes — and are often inspired by the latest management approach such as “lean,” as well as (for obvious business purposes) to ensure and confirm a healthy return on investment.

Executives and employees may need reassurance that the workshop is not too “heavyweight” in terms of being too process-heavy, too lengthy in duration, too costly in terms of employee time commitments and travel costs, or too inefficient in getting to its overall objectives and target outcomes.

If you’re managing any aspect of innovation for your organization, particularly innovation workshops or other initiatives in support of targeted ideation, here are three steps to ensure your activities pass — and even exceed — the litmus test in terms of “lean” principles.

Lean processes

The first area to review is that of the process behind your innovation workshop. The process needs to be lightweight, flexible and tailorable to get to the required results quickly, but with the appropriate level of rigor, consistency and quality throughout.

The workshop process should go beyond just getting to a laundry list of ideas, and ideally should take these ideas from identification, to categorization, to prioritization (i.e., voting) and finally, for the most promising ideas, to high-level business cases and an actionable road map. What happens “after the workshop” should be equally agile and well-defined.

It’s important to look at the efficiency of every step of the workshop process from ideation to voting and optimize accordingly. For example, within the ideation process itself, we’ve found that we can collect electronically submitted ideas from a group in as little as 30 minutes, provided they have the right background context and guidance upfront to focus their efforts.

As another example, voting on ideas requires the right number of voting criteria that will provide sufficient data for interpretation and analysis, but without tying up too much time on the part of participants. We’ve found that four voting criteria, with two as a measure of “business impact” and two as a measure of “ease of implementation,” is a manageable number for voting purposes that can still provide sufficient insight for a project prioritization matrix.

It’s also useful to design and offer several versions of the workshop, ranging from a half-day to a one-day and two-day format, based on the number of process steps conducted and the size of your audience. We typically take ideation all the way through to voting via half-day and one-day sessions, based on audience size, and then progress to the development of high-level business cases and implementation road maps on the second day of our two-day sessions.

The process should also support physical, virtual or hybrid sessions (i.e., both physical and virtual attendee), based on the intended audience and the objectives of the workshop. As an example, you may wish to perform in-person workshops with clients where face time is paramount, but rely more on virtual or hybrid sessions for internal purposes.

Lean resources

In terms of resources, you want to ensure you’re bringing the right people to your session and have a robust program in place in terms of how you train and deploy your innovation workshop facilitators.

For choosing the right attendees, a best practice is to use the key focus areas of the workshop as a way to drive the subject-matter expert (SME) selection. This will ensure you have the right people at the table — either physically or virtually — to cover the key topics for the session.

As an example, in running workshops for clients, I typically work with the client sponsor ahead of time to agree on the goals and objectives for the workshop, and to precisely define the key focus areas for the brainstorming. The key focus areas are typically six to eight major topic areas where the client wishes to explore innovative ideas, and are used to determine the SME selection on both the client side and from my own organization.

For facilitation, we draw from a global pool of trained facilitators. The goal is to have sufficient geographic and language coverage worldwide, but a small enough team so that the facilitators are running many sessions per year and can build their expertise. This helps to ensure quality and consistency in the workshops. You might think of it as a “minimum viable footprint” approach in terms of enough facilitators for the global footprint, yet a small-enough, focused-enough team for quality and consistency.

Finally, if you have key physical locations where you know you’ll be running multiple innovation workshops per year, having facilitators trained up locally can be another valuable approach to conserve travel costs.

Lean technology

In terms of lean technology, a cloud-based group decision support software (GDSS) can be a powerful tool for capturing ideas, discussing and reviewing the ideas with the group (i.e., hearing the elevator pitches), and then voting on the ideas based on business benefit and ease of implementation.

In comparing Web-based workshops with traditional, manual workshop techniques, I’ve seen a twofold to fourfold increase in the number of ideas that can be generated and a far more efficient voting process.

In a typical innovation workshop, using a GDSS, we can capture 50 to 100 ideas from a group of 10 to 25 attendees and arrive at a prioritized set of the most promising ideas within two to six hours based on audience size. In contrast, a “traditional” innovation workshop using Post-it notes, or similar, may generate half the number of ideas within the same time frame, and without any prioritization of the ideas.

Perhaps more importantly, the GDSS enables the entire set of participants to contribute ideas on an equal footing (i.e., all have access to enter ideas electronically) as opposed to the manual, paper-based or whiteboard approach which tends to favor the most vocal few in the room. This can be one of the unsung, yet important, value-added benefits of an innovation workshop, since it enables you to convene a cross-functional or cross-business unit team who may not collaborate on a regular basis. It enables cross-pollination of ideas and can help drive consensus.

In closing, while these are some specific recommendations related to innovation workshops, it’s also important to apply the same thinking across your entire innovation management capability — of which there are typically five critical pillars.

Today’s innovation programs need to be highly adapted and fine-tuned to support digital transformation initiatives and should therefore embrace the same operating principles — i.e., lean, agile, flexible, efficient and more — so they can be executed at speed and at scale.