How to run a workshop that generates new perspectives and innovation
Does a typical brainstorming session lead to no new ideas or only incremental improvements?
Has your team been searching for new ways to looks at old problems?
This playbook maps out the key elements when designing a workshop that gets people out of their comfort zones and pushes them to deliver breakthrough ideas.
Whether you’re planning a workshop or are looking to spice up regular meetings, this guide will help you get the most out of your team and find new ways of looking at tough problems.
Key Components of a Workshop That Drives Innovation
The biggest challenge facing anyone planning a meeting or workshop that’s intended to result in new, creative ideas is granting participants permission to take risks and propose something novel. Granting permission is more than a leader saying, “anything goes.” Instead, permission is granted through the conditions created by a deliberate selection of participants, carefully designed environment, and purposefully built agenda.
The Right Participants:
Getting to new ideas begins with selecting the right participants. Who participates will, in many ways, drive the workshop’s outcomes.
Depending on the type of innovation you’re seeking, the appropriate participant mix will change.1 However, there are three guiding principles to consider:
- Involve as diverse a group as possible. Diversity drives innovation by creating an environment where new and creative ideas are delivered and heard.2 In this context, diversity means different backgrounds, life experiences, expertise, age, and points of view. The more diverse your participants, the more likely a truly “out of the box” idea will emerge.
- Involve participants who can set aside existing power dynamics. A novel idea may come from the CEO or an intern. The CEO should participate if they can hear the intern, and the intern should participate if they are willing to provide their suggestions to the CEO.
- Expertise is important. Principles 1 & 2 notwithstanding, it is important to have subject matter expertise in the room. Outside of the box ideas are important and great, but a deep understanding of the problem and the current solution’s limitation are critical. Consider including a customer or a participant who has the “voice of the customer” to provide clarification and client experience insight.
The Right Environment:
With the right participants involved, the next step is creating an environment that will spur creativity and encourage debate. The right environment is a critical component of innovation.3
The goals when designing the environment should be to break down existing power relationships, allow for equal participation, and provide a clear break from business as usual. This means designing a workspace, either physically or virtually, that is different from the day to day.
To create this innovation environment, the physical/virtual setting, atmosphere, and ground rules must be carefully planned to encourage a separation from ongoing activities:
- Physical/Virtual Setting: Changing the setting is one of the simplest yet most effective ways of creating a mental separation from the regular day to day. Ideally, host the workshop away from the office or use different virtual collaboration spaces. Choosing meeting spaces like museums, galleries, aquariums, and nature retreats help to stimulate creative thinking. If physically moving isn’t possible, reconfigure a room, use unique virtual backgrounds, use an existing space differently, or work at an unusual time.
For example, when designing innovation workshops with one client we were limited by budget and timing to using existing meeting rooms only. Our solution was as simple as wallpapering blank walls with poster paper and removing unnecessary desks and chairs. Anything to be different!
- Atmosphere: How an environment feels is a product of the things inside it but also the behavior of others. Changing the atmosphere is as simple as encouraging participants to sit on desks, wear casual clothing, eat some snacks, or reconfigure the space in the way of their choosing. The goal of altering the atmosphere is to provide the perception that the workshop is different than a typical meeting and participants have permission to share thoughts and ideas that might otherwise be risky.
- Appropriate Ground Rules: In a novel environment, clear grounds rules are necessary to ensure constructive behavior. Unorthodox and counterintuitive input is welcomed, but inappropriate and offensive comments are not. Participants are encouraged to challenge ideas, but personal attacks are not to be tolerated.
Beyond code of conduct ground rules, workshop-specific requirements need to be generated. For example, devices should be banned, as these become excuses not to participate. For your workshop, it might be useful to encourage a single speaker at any time; for another you may encourage interruptions. As a facilitator, best practice is to provide participants with a few basic ground rules and have them generate the rest. In this way, participants collectively commit to the rules and take ownership for their behaviours during the workshop.
The Perfect Agenda:
The right people in the right environment is a great start to encouraging innovative ideas. With just these two conditions in place, creative ideas and solutions are likely to occur even if no workshop occurs.
However, to maximize the creative potential of people and encourage new ideas in a short time frame, a great agenda that leverages the right tools is necessary.
The perfect agenda for disruptive innovation does three things: it encourages participants to iterate on each other’s ideas, it forces constraints on participants, and it uses a funnel approach to agenda building.
- Iterating on ideas: An underpinning principle of designing a disruptive workshop is that most people’s first ideas are mediocre or incomplete. While we romanticize the concept of the lone genius toiling away in their workshop on their idea that will change the world, this rarely happens.4 Instead, truly great ideas build on the insights of others, combining and reconfiguring thoughts in new combinations. For this reason, agendas designed to lead to great ideas should focus on the iteration rather than the initial ideation.
- Forcing constraints: When any idea is possible and participants have unlimited time to contemplate, very few unique innovations will occur. In fact, an important driver of innovation is the existence of constraints.5 As a result, it is critical that you place constraints on participants. Place boundaries around the topics to be covered, the scope of ideas that are acceptable, or the cost of potential solutions.
When designing your agenda, place firm timeboxes around agenda items to force participants to keep moving. The ideal workshop will feel breathless and a little rushed. This forces participants to focus, more quickly, avoid debates about details and semantics, and throw themselves into the process.
- Using a funnel approach: Many meetings and workshops place the most important agenda items up front. These agenda items have the longest blocks of time associated with them to allow for discussion and debate. Think of this as a pyramid agenda, with the first items being allocated the longest time segments and each subsequent topic built on top of the longer item preceding it.
However, we’ve established that the best novel ideas come through iteration. For this reason, the ideal agenda for a workshop soliciting new ideas is inverted. The least important agenda item – initial ideation – should come first and have the shortest time allotted to it. As the agenda moves through iteration stages, more time should be allocated to ensure there is sufficient space to build on initial ideas.
Note that by creating time constraints and using a funnel approach, there will be pressure on the facilitator to provide “just five more minutes.” A disciplined facilitator is key, because constraints were provided intentionally – although they should recognize if a truly incredible idea has been stumbled upon early!
It Takes More Than Creativity to Drive Innovation
Creating the conditions for innovation requires careful planning and execution. As you design your next meeting or workshop, consider how choices around participants, environment, and agenda will shape your potential outcomes. With the right workshop design, your team is capable of generating unique ideas, considering problems from new perspectives, and rapidly solving complex problems that to generate new energy and possibility.
- Satell, Greg. The 4 Types of Innovation and the Problems They Solve: link.
- Hewlett, Sylvia Ann; Marshall, Melinda; and Sherbin, Laura. How Diversity Can Drive Innovation: link.
- Sayiner, Sibel. Physical Spaces Drive Innovation: How the Environment Can Increase an Organization’s Productivity, Creativity, and Innovation: link.
- Satell, Greg. It’s Time to Bury the Idea of the Lone Genius Innovator: link.
- Acar, Oguz; Tarakci, Murrat; and van Knippenberg, Daan. Why Constraints Are Good for Innovation: link.
- Photo by Matthew Henry.