Unleashing the Power of Three

A few weeks ago, Russ Kliman contributed a post about SEI’s Idea Farm – an inspiring workspace we created to promote a greater level of innovative thinking throughout our company. He wrote about the importance of creating an engaging space and what to consider in the process. This week he returns for the conclusion of our “Power of Three” series to share the critical role that tools, techniques and facilitators play in maximizing our ability to innovate.

When it comes to fostering new ways of working, thinking and motivating a workforce, we have found that combining an engaging space with tools, techniques and strong facilitation can powerfully drive the innovation process.

Step 1.  Creative space is only the beginning

In my last post I discussed the importance of creating a unique space – one that is very different from the typical office environment – when you are trying to solve big problems and create innovative solutions. But creating that space is just the first step. The real magic is when you add tools and techniques that force us out of our daily grind, challenge our mental models, and enable us to channel our inner creativity.

Having the right set of tools can enable us to work differently, more efficiently and think without limits. And with today’s technological advances, there are so many opportunities to foster innovative thinking.

Step 2. Harnessing innovation through creative tools and techniques

It’s not just about standing up in front of a white board asking for ideas. You need to have a specific game plan and playbook for the type of session (design, problem solving, strategic planning, etc.). And, you need to use specific tools and techniques to help your team uncover, explore, and discover opportunities.

Here are four great ideas to help maximize the impact of your innovation space:

  1. Digital: Having technology such as digital touch screens and white boards, wireless projectors and printers, and on-screen collaboration can enrich and enhance the creative experience, allowing for true engagement and collaboration. Technology should extend and enhance the conversation; digital whiteboards and touch screens can bridge the gap between the creative mind and the physical world.For example, we use digital white boards to capture session conversations, including breakouts, and we can quickly share the content of the sessions in PDF form after the session.
  2. Techniques: persona development, journey mapping, story boarding, silent brainstorming, gallery walk, force field analysis, FAN evaluation, multi-voting, wireframing, prototyping, team building exercises, and more! These techniques are part of an overall playbook that can help you achieve the goals of your session. Knowing when and how to best apply them can truly make a difference. Depending on the group and objectives, a combination of techniques can foster engagement, collaboration, and enable creative problem solving.For example, the force field analysis technique is a great way to engage a group in understanding enablers and inhibitors in achieving a specific goal, and gaining consensus around them.
  3. Software: mind mapping (Mindjet MindManager), card sorting (Trello), rapid prototyping (PowerPoint or balsamiq). Software, like other technology, should be used to enrich and enhance the experience of problem solving and creative expression – and there’s no one-size-fits-all model. Sometimes the software is simple – such as PowerPoint – and can be used to support rapid visual prototypes for those without a technical background. In other instances, mind mapping software (such as Mindjet MindManager) is great for documenting brainstorming sessions, helping organize various streams and categories of ideas, and then enhancing those ideas with images, links, notes, or rankings – all of which is exportable to Microsoft Word or PowerPoint.
  4. Tools: unlocking everyone’s talents is critical, and everyone’s minds operate differently. Arming the space with fidget toys, puzzles, playdough, post-its, paper, crayons, and markers are all aimed to foster creative play, thinking, and engagement. Used right, they can be powerful tools. Used the wrong way or forced upon a team, and you’ll get the inevitable eye roll. A tool such as the Marshmallow Challenge can be a great team building exercise that not only engages everyone in the creative process, but also teaches some great lessons along the way. We’ve learned to make different tools visually and physically available to the teams, and let them self-select. You’ll be pleasantly surprised how the tools – if used and presented in the right way – can make smiles, loosen tension, let the mind wander, and foster an environment for creative expression.

Step 3.  The power of facilitation 

Now that you have the space, tools, and techniques to drive towards your goals, you need to know how to bring it all together and enact a process to engage everyone in the experience. A trained third party facilitator is the secret weapon to the innovation process. At SEI, we have trained many of our own employees to become certified facilitators, and it’s been a great experience. It is a cost effective and scalable way to increase the amount of innovation sessions we can run, and it’s provided great career development opportunities for interested employees.

When using facilitation, here are four tips to keep in mind:

  1. Choreographing: Facilitators choreograph the session to achieve the stated goals. They weave the tools and techniques together to bring the team on a journey towards their goal. A well-choreographed session feels smooth and effortless, where each exercise builds on the next.
  2. Foster engagement: Facilitators ensure engagement from everyone in the room – that is their entire purpose. They are not an active participant, and as a result they can focus entirely on engagement of the group. They utilize techniques to match personalities, team dynamics, and the objectives of the session. They are also keen observers of verbal and non-verbal cues, and use these observations to elicit the engagement of the team throughout the session.
  3. Manage outcomes: The facilitator’s key role is to manage to the desired outcome. They do this artfully, not rigidly through task management. Facilitators must skillfully read the room, engagement, and conversation of everyone to know when to allow latitude of discussions, when to re-focus, or when to elevate to see if a course correction is needed.
  4. Be objective and independent: The most successful facilitators are those that are independent of the team for which they are facilitating. This gives them an unbiased viewpoint and enables them to challenge all participants, and conversely participants feel more open to offering contrarian viewpoints.

We have had great success already with our new Idea Farm, and each time we run a session we learn from it. In the process we gain additional ideas to make it even more valuable in the future. It’s an iterative, creative, interactive and fun way to work.

If you have done anything similar to drive innovative thinking at your organization please share via the comments below. We are always looking for new things to try. Additionally, if you or your organization are contemplating an innovation space and would like to learn more about our process or tour our Idea Farm please do not hesitate to reach out to me directly at rkliman@seic.com.