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Problems With Innovation Workshops

by Stephen P. Anderson
10 min read
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Workshops take careful planning and execution to generate strong, actionable ideas.

Is your organization about to run a design or innovation workshop? If so, what follows are cautionary tips and lessons learned collected from my experiences both as a participant in and a leader of various flavors of innovation and ideation workshops, in the States as well as various European countries.

A typical innovation workshop consists of:

Is your organization about to run a design or innovation workshop? If so, what follows are cautionary tips and lessons learned collected from my experiences both as a participant in and a leader of various flavors of innovation and ideation workshops, in the States as well as various European countries.

A typical innovation workshop consists of:

  • A warm-up activity. Start by getting people relaxed and comfortable with each other using a quick creative challenge or quirky introductions. This is vital; there are plenty of studies that demonstrate the importance of being in a relaxed state. Anxieties and tensions prevent people from making the kinds creative leaps and improvisational thinking required to make creative workshops successful. Being in the right frame of mind is critical to the success of the activities that follow.
  • Clearly stating the objectives of the day. It’s critical that everyone understands the context of the creative activities that will follow.
  • A framing of the problem to be solved. If participants are to stay on track, it’s important to draw some hard boundaries within which everyone is encouraged to play. Think of this as building a fence around the playground. In my experience, the tighter this fence, the more likely you are to see useful ideas at the end of the day. Every constraining detail is a potential trigger for a brilliant idea, so be sure the brief is focused and specific.
  • Dividing people into smaller teams. This encourages participation and ensures that there will be multiple different ideas presented at the end of the day.
  • Idea generation activities. This is where the bulk of time is typically spent. Usually, two to three activities are spread throughout the day. While the types of activities vary with every workshop, the goals are the same: to force participants to look at the problem/opportunity in different ways. This can be by:
    • role-playing a specific brand or persons (“how would Steve Jobs, Martha Stewart and McDonalds solve this problem?”)
    • reversing the problem (“how might we encourage people to litter?”).
    • forcing connections between unrelated things (“how is our idea like a Ferris wheel?”).
    • and so on

    The book Gamestorming is a helpful collection of 80 of these kinds of activities.

  • Idea refinement and focusing activities. Ideas, typically captured on sticky notes, are sorted and prioritized using various kinds of voting exercises.
  • Small groups sharing their ideas with each other. This is followed by a discussion of relative pros and cons of each idea.

Now that we’ve reviewed how, at a high level, workshops typically work, let’s turn our attention to where they break down.

Problems Present in Many Workshops

Most of the failures in these workshops are a result of not minding the details, which can lead to gross errors or missed opportunities. Some of these criticisms are tactical, some are philosophical.

Problem #1: Prioritizing discrete features instead of feature sets

What happens when we end up with too many good ideas? We prioritize them! Common tools for this include dot voting and feature prioritization matrixes. But a potential flaw of these exercises is that participants are asked evaluate individual feature ideas in isolation from other feature ideas.

Substitute “features” with “ingredients” and you’ll see the absurdity of this situation. We could try and estimate the value of separate ingredients (flour, eggs, vanilla, pickles, milk, paprika, etc.), but shouldn’t we really be discussing the different ways to combine these ingredients into recipes? Often, the value of some features can only be understood in the context of their combination with other features. If your company only has enough money to invest in three major features, you’ll need to think about the coherent experience you’re promising, not a list of specific features.

Problem #2: Mixing how and what ideas together

Imagine it’s ten years ago and your company wants to invent the next-generation MP3 player. Everyone’s looking for a breakthrough—a music player and phone combo? a toothbrush that can wirelessly stream media files? These are what ideas focused on new features or new combinations of things.

However, a look at many of the success stories of the last decade (e.g., TiVo, Basecamp, the Flip) presents a different picture. These products have succeeded by focusing on doing a few things very well; the value of these products has been in how they allow people to do something in a way that is easier and much more delightful. There were MP3 players before the iPod, but it took someone focused on the basic experience of music enjoyment to see opportunities to create a better player (and the ecosystem needed to support that experience). Most innovation workshop activities stop at meaningless what statements like “easiest to use” or “simple.” Okay, so how are you going to do that? You need a different kind of workshop focused on how we actually create delightful experiences.

Problem #3: Losing sight of the big picture – Ecosystem vs. product focus

When you reframe the problem from an experience perspective, you see an entirely different set of opportunities, often extending well beyond a single product.

While the iPod was a breakthrough product, the bigger innovation was the ecosystem Apple created to make portable music accessible to the masses. With iTunes, the iTunes store (which brought record labels into the fold), and the simplification of using different media file types, Apple created a way for the average person to download, transfer, and enjoy digital music. The what functionality was already there, waiting for someone to make it accessible. This required a focus on the entire system, not just a single piece of hardware.

For a more recent example of this shift in focus, consider the Fitbit. From a what perspective, it’s a $99 pedometer. Who would pay for that? But Fitbit gives you more than just a piece of hardware. The Fitbit has rethought the classic pedometer, focusing instead on the experience of monitoring daily physical activity. The result: the Fitbit is an elegant data collection device that syncs wirelessly with your computer. But most of the interactions happen through a simple and attractive web interface, one that allows users to monitor calories burned, steps taken, sleep patterns, and other information gathered from a few basic data points. The system also links users into a larger community.

In innovation workshops, it’s quite common, in the rush to invent some new thing, to lose sight of the context in which a product or service is used.

Problem #4: Tactical vs. conceptual innovation

Tactical innovations are those that arise from an existing product or service experience, whereas conceptual innovations are altogether new ideas. Most innovation workshops focus on new concepts; everyone starts with a blank page. However, an entirely different flavor of ideas emerges when you start with an existing service. Conceptual innovations start from scratch, but tactical innovations have the advantage of starting off from a solid baseline. The closer we are to the specifics of the problem, the more likely we are to create novel and valuable ideas. Note, this is not the same as incremental improvements, which are often left to specific departments or budget decisions. This is about pulling together a team of folks from across the organization to dream big, while keeping one foot anchored to the present.

Problem #5: Not enough details, leading to unrealistic ideas

Our group had a brilliant idea. We had thought through the pitch, the customer experience, the design and business model, and the logistics. And then, as we were pitching ideas at the end of the day, the bomb dropped: “That’s a nice concept, but there’s no way current technology could make that a reality.”

While it’s good to open the door to wild ideas and there’s an argument to be made for removing the naysayers from a workshop, it’s equally valuable to have realistic perspectives in the room. Make sure the truly unmovable details are clearly documented. I’ve seen brilliant people come up with tragically flawed ideas, all because of missing information.

Also, make certain your small groups are representative of different areas of expertise. Make certain you have people focused on the customer, business, and technical needs (and, in some cases, the legal regulatory factors). When deciding who to invite, choose people based on their flexible thinking skills, not on their role within the organization.

Problem #6: Putting the activities ahead of the objectives—don’t be afraid to go off the trail

Have you ever been really excited by a conversation, only to have it cut off because it was “off topic?” As teams start to stray from the agenda or the stated goals of the activity, it’s often good to steer them back on track. However, this isn’t always the best course of action. It’s not uncommon to have an exercise backfire or have groups deviate from the intended outcomes of that activity. Being overly attached to the planned agenda is a sign of less experienced facilitators. Experienced facilitators keep their eye on the broader goals of the day, and have the experience to improvise, change course, abandon a planned activity, or embrace serendipitous moments that can make or break an innovation workshop.

Problem #7: Brilliant ideas are compromised by groupthink (a.k.a., “too many cooks in the kitchen”)

While it’s popular to praise teamwork and group collaboration, many innovations succeed only because of the strength of one person’s vision. This doesn’t mean one person can pull something off in isolation; teams are needed to help express and refine ideas.

However, precise expression and refinement doesn’t usually happen in innovation workshops. What typically happens is a free-for-all of ideas, which are quickly smashed together. Instead of the moment of serendipity we aspire to have, the result is more often a “frankensteining” of ideas. Sure, you have something presentable in the end, but it’s not really the coherent idea that any one person was hoping for.

On rare occasions, a compelling and persuasive individual is able to articulate an exciting idea that can everyone can extend. But why should these ideas be limited to the most persuasive people? We need more innovation activities that allow for designated owners and supporters. This “pro-individual” perspective takes into account the personalities involved as well as each person’s aptitude for seeing things differently. Since we’re often working with mixed groups, in my workshops I allow for individuals to work independently (or with other “loners”) if they feel they have an idea that as, an abstraction, isn’t ready for the collaboration with others.

Problem #8: Illustrations cloud judgment

The most popular ideas are often the best-illustrated ideas, but this doesn’t mean they’re the best ideas. A little secret: the person who sketches is the one who frames the problem. This is important to remember during the ideation and refinement processes. I’ve seen great ideas get ignored in favor of another idea that was more powerfully communicated through visuals. The best pitches that rely on illustrations, storytelling, and theatricality will often win hearts and minds.

Running Better Workshops

In addition to the above lessons, I also have some ideas about how to improve most innovations workshops:

    • Allow time beforehand for people to research and prepare. Good participants will desire more than is provided in the briefing. Provide adequate information at least a week in advance of the workshop so everyone has an opportunity to conduct their own independent research. This will result in better, more focused questions at the onset.
    • Ask people to come with ideas ready to share. While many of these ideas will be based on misinformation or misunderstandings, having more “pieces” to throw into the mix is rarely a problem.
    • Allow two days for the workshop. One day has never provided enough time to get the optimum results. Yes, adding a second day adds to bottom-line costs. However, given what’s already invested to get everyone together, I believe this additional time is critical to give good ideas the time they need to fully bake. Too many workshops end the day with a bunch of half-baked ideas.
    • Create opportunities for honest feedback on the process and results. Want to hear a bold-faced lie? Ask someone, “So, how do you think it went?” at the end of a long day. No one says what he’s honestly thinking until later on during one-on-one conversations. Find ways to elicit this honest feedback from everyone involved, perhaps by soliciting anonymous feedback.
    • Limit how the authority figure participates. There are typically businesspeople with very strong personalities who are involved in coordinating these events. Unfortunately, the leadership personality that earned them their positions is almost always toxic to the group they are assigned to; you’ll see deference instead of ideas from the other participants. Either exclude these people from joining small groups, or have them play the role of consultant to all the groups.
    • Make certain each team has a good (and fast) illustrator working with them to articulate their ideas. This gives every group a better shot at having their ideas clearly communicated. It’s also much easier to review ideas after the workshop if there are visuals included.

In closing, I suggest that you to look at research conducted by Tom Wujec. In his TED presentation, Tom summarizes the results of the “Marshmallow Challenge” (a creative problem solving exercise) repeated with more than 70 groups, including business people, elementary school children, doctors, lawyers, etc. One of the findings? Get to something tangible as quickly as possible.

This is a good argument for more prototyping in our innovation workshops. Moving from an abstraction (language and sticky notes) to something resembling the intended form leads directly to better feedback, criticism and extension of a core idea. But that’s a topic for another article.

Successful workshops take careful planning and execution. Hopefully these tips will help you run a better innovation workshop in the future. If you have any ideas for how to run better workshops, or which pitfalls to avoid, please share them in the comments on this article!

post authorStephen P. Anderson

Stephen P. Anderson, Stephen P. Anderson is a speaker and consultant based out of Dallas, Texas. He spends unhealthy amounts of time thinking about design, psychology and leading intrapreneurial teams—topics he frequently speaks about at national and international events. Stephen recently published the Mental Notes card deck, a tool to help businesses use psychology to design better experiences. He’s also writing a book on "Seductive Interactions" that will explore this topic of psychology and design in more detail. Prior to venturing out on his own, Stephen spent more than a decade building and leading teams of information architects, interaction designers and UI developers. He’s designed Web applications for businesses such as Nokia, Frito-Lay, Sabre Travel Network, and Chesapeake Energy as well as a number of smaller technology startups. Stephen likes to believe that someday he’ll have the time to start blogging again at PoetPainter.com


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