I left the Excelsior feeling good about my presentation, hoping I had ruffled a few management feathers and challenged Accipiter to take innovation by the horns. After any executive presentation like this one, I felt drained but strangely elated, the way I expect that people who run marathons feel at the end, although the furthest I’d ever run was from the booth to the bar and back, careful not to spill my drink.
The next day I was scheduled to facilitate some ideation work at Cantide Enterprises, an old client that had adopted many of our ideas about an innovation capability. We had helped Cantide define their innovation goals and processes and identified a core team to build out the methods, processes and tools for innovation. The core team would periodically identify new opportunities to pursue or work with the lines of business to spark new innovation campaigns to target emerging market opportunities. Cantide would call us to facilitate scenario planning workshops based on the trends the core team captured, or to facilitate ideation sessions on important topics.
The great thing about working with Cantide is that the core team understands what innovation is all about and is eager to get going on any innovation project. We don’t stand around gazing at our navels and wondering what we should do next. When Cantide calls, I know there will be a clear opportunity or challenge defined and the teams will be trained and ready to go. Frankly, at this point in their evolution, Cantide has the people who can lead the ideation sessions without us. But I think they like to keep a fresh perspective and bring us back from time to time to keep their innovation teams honest. Cantide’s core innovation team had been through our training and implemented the ‘best practices’ we’d published for them about idea generation, so they had a team ready to go when I arrived that morning.
Frank Adams, the head of the core innovation team at Cantide, met me in the lobby.
“We’ve got the team all lined up for an ideation session today. They’ve reviewed the background materials and we’ve prepared them for an ideation session on new opportunities in the electric vehicle market. Personally Sam, I think there’s a huge opportunity there for Cantide, and this idea generation session can really kick start new ideas to help us enter that market.”
Frank was fully on board, as was most of his team. Cantide’s CEO was noted in the industry as someone who liked to shake things up, and entering a new market like electric vehicles was exactly the step that Cantide was likely to take.
“Is the purpose of entering the market to disrupt the existing market for electric vehicles?” I asked.
“Yes” he said. “Many of the existing firms in that market are merely porting gasoline powered vehicles into that space. We believe there’s an opportunity for a completely new design of the vehicle, the body, the chassis and the motor.”
“Is the team ready?” I asked.
“We sent out a framing document with our expectations and background material last week. The head of the vehicle LOB personally sent emails to those who were selected to brainstorm, encouraging them to use this time to think creatively and bring back great ideas. I think we have a great group. Come on, let’s introduce you as the facilitator and get the ideas flowing.”
Frank and his team had definitely done their job well. The team assembled for the idea generation session was engaged and excited, and you could sense from the energy in the room that they felt the work was valuable and important.
I prepared myself for the facilitation role. Normally I’m not much of a ‘leading man’, especially when it comes to ideation facilitation. Not to be too hard on myself – I do have a range of great ideas, but I’m not quite the on-stage personality that Dave or Matt can be. I like to say that facilitating a brainstorm is like being a game show host and a therapist all at the same time. You are certainly on stage, and to an extent the center of attention, but none of the meeting is about you. The ideas are the star of the show, and your job as a facilitator is to keep the energy and enthusiasm of the team high, while keeping the focus on the ideas. At the same time, you have to draw out the ideas from those who are a bit pensive, and help rephrase or reframe ideas that are suggested. Often there’s a deeper meaning or a better idea lurking just below the surface, and you have to draw that out, while not forcing the idea into your own little box. The best facilitators are people who can light up a room, but know when to draw attention to themselves and when to focus attention on the ideas.
While I am not dramatic, I do like to kick off the meeting with a few dramatic touches. The first is the ritual closing of the door – to seal the team off from the rest of the world for a few hours. My standard pitch is usually something like this:
“While we are in the room together, we can generate any idea we want. We have all the money we may possibly need available to us, and we can break or make any rule we want. While we are together, there are no physical boundaries. If we need to travel in time, we can do that. If we need to fly, we can do that. The only way for us to succeed today is to be willing to work together, to suspend our critical thinking for a while, and generate really interesting ideas. Do you think you can do that? And if you can’t imagine doing that, what other meeting or venue will allow you to do that at work?”
This generally gets some smirks, giggles and a few disdainful looks, but I knew Frank and his team had prepared the brainstorming team, so we moved on to the next step.
“Frank and his team have placed some rules up on the wall. We have always found that good brainstorming is managed by a set of rules. Seems strange, doesn’t it, that idea generation works best when governed by some rules? The rules are:
1) Generate wild ideas – we can always make them safe later 2) Don’t judge ideas too early – there will be time later to decide which ideas are feasible. Don’t judge while we are brainstorming. 3) Generate a large quantity of ideas – don’t worry about whether or not your idea is the best – just generate many. Your idea may spark a new idea from someone else. 4) Build on the ideas of others. The best ideas are often ones that are builds from a previous idea. Use the phrase “Yes, and” rather than “Yes, but”. 5) Use the phrase “What if” to start your dialog when possible. 6) Stay in the phase we’re in. If we are generating, then generate ideas and evaluate or judge them later. If we are in an evaluation phase, then evaluate the ideas then. Finally, once an idea is generated it belongs to the group, rather than any individual. In that way we aren’t associating an idea or concept with a person, but considering the idea in its own right.”
Those rules were taped up on the walls, easily available for the team to see. I think Frank had prepared the team to expect these rules and they seemed to accept them readily.
“I’ll be facilitating the brainstorm today, which means it’s my job to start you talking and keep you talking about ideas. Frank will be acting as a scribe, to capture the ideas you present. From time to time we’ll stop and ask for clarification about an idea as we are capturing. Frank and I may also submit ideas from time to time. Before we get started, are there any questions?”
An overly eager person named Todd toward the back of the room raised his hand.
“Yes” I said.
“What will we do with the ideas we generate once the brainstorming is complete?”
I turned to Frank, who answered. “We’ll rank the ideas and select the ones that we believe are the best, which will then be assigned to a team for further evaluation.”
“How can I get on that team?” Todd asked.
“You just did” said Frank.
“Any other questions before we start?” I asked.
None were coming, so I prepared to start the brainstorm.
“As we begin, let’s reconsider the opportunity that brings us here. Cantide is interested in entering the market for electric vehicles. Our purpose today is to generate ideas about the electric vehicle market and examine how we can use the knowledge and products and partners we have to best disrupt that market.”
I turned to Frank. “Anything else to ensure the team is on the same page?”
“You’ve read the material and know the opportunity” Frank said to the team. There were nods all around. “Let’s get started” he said.
And we did.
Jeffrey Phillips is VP Marketing and a lead consultant for OVO Innovation. Jeffrey has led innovation projects for Fortune 5000 firms, academic institutions and not-for=profits based on OVO Innovation’s Innovate on Purpose™ methodology. The Innovate on Purpose methodology encourages organizations to consider innovation as a sustainable, repeatable business process, rather than a discrete project.
Jeffrey is the author of “Make Us More Innovative,” a book that encompasses much of the OVO Innovation methodology, and blogs about innovation at Innovate On Purpose. He is a sought after speaker and has presented to corporations, innovation oriented conferences, and at a number of universities. In 2010 he chaired the Innovate North Carolina conference and was a keynote speaker at Queen’s University, University of the Pacific, UNC and several other colleges and conferences. Jeffrey has an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin and an undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of Virginia.