Tips for Facilitating Conversation About Big Ideas and Innovations

I love to facilitate conversations and sessions that explore big ideas and possible innovations.  Reflecting on previous efforts I designed and led reminded me of some common sense tips about what they require.  The list below is not all-inclusive, but highlights some of the core considerations.

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1. Determine the right time and environment. Participants need the right mental and physical space to think differently and more expansively.  Block sufficient time and create an environment conducive to sharing ideas, sketching possibilities, and that honors both introverted and extroverted processes and contributions:  Intimate and flexible space; flipcharts, whiteboards, or walls covered with IdeaPaint; food, music, and props to sustain the energy; modeling clay and other prototyping supplies.

2. Articulate the purpose and define success. Skeptics and fans alike need to understand just what the conversation is intended to produce in order to contribute appropriately.  It's hard to do the what if you don't understand the why.  Clarify the problem to be solved and/or the opportunity to be leveraged.

3. Put the conversation in context. Don't make innovation something that occurs outside of your organization's regular efforts.  Connect conversations about ideas and innovations to your ongoing development of programs and services and incorporate these discussions into your regular planning routines.

4. Leverage pre-work. To stimulate everyone's best thinking, provide core background information and a few compelling questions in advance that session participants can mull over. While some people think fast in the moment, others contribute best when they have had time on their own to reflect.  Design for both as best as you can both before and during the actual session.

5. Clarify the terms and process to be used. People need to understand the rules of
engagement, whatever they are determined to be, as well as terms likely to be thrown about including creativity, innovation, value, et al.

6. Create, critique, construct. Remember these three types of thinking (usually attributed to Edward deBono) and make sure your process addresses them in this order:
  • Expansive, divergent thinking exploring what's desirable and/or possible; 
  • Convergent, narrowing thinking selecting which ideas to advance using shared criteria for evaluation all the possibilities; and
  • Getting in action and determining and constructing rapid prototypes to test the chosen ideas with actual users.
7. Facilitate assertively when needed. What I routinely witness when facilitating ideation and innovation conversations is that participants too quickly abandon the stated process and move straight to problem-solving and implementation.  Don't let that happen.  Ensure people dwell longer in possibilities and more expansive thinking. Clarify upfront with participants that you will be assertive in not letting them step too quickly into critical thinking.

8. Let user behavior be a catalyst. Thomas Stat, formerly with IDEO's Chicago office,
reminds us that innovation often begins with behavior, not pre-determined ideas.  If you carefully observe member or customer behavior without judgment and with deep empathy (try this IDEO exercise on Creating Empathy Maps), the rich story their actions tell will instruct you on where innovation may be needed.

9. Use disruptive premises to evoke creative possibilities. Once you've identified the opportunity areas to pursue, use disruptive hypotheses or unreasonable provocations as suggested by Luke Williams in his book Disrupt. Ensure the questions posed for exploration are "beautiful" as Warren Berger defines in his book A More Beautiful Question Doing so will help shift the subsequent creative thinking away from the traditional solutions and into potentially more inventive and interesting areas.

10. Introduce cross-disciplinary ideas and thinking.  Chances are others may already have generated ideas or solutions that you could adopt in principle and/or adapt in practice.  Solicit insights and resources (and challenge participants to do the same) drawn from outside the organization, profession, or industry.

11. Listen for concepts behind ideas.  No matter how assertively you facilitate the process, our inner critics emerge too quickly in the discussions.  When you hear people reacting negatively about a specific idea (example: there should be set office hours), identify its underlying concept (example: flexible work schedules) and ask what other ideas people might that relate to it. This keeps the creative energy moving forward and is a technique called Concept Fan by Edward DeBono. Watch a short Prezi on the concept fan process.

12. Identify opportunities to experiment.  Seeking small wins (James Kouzes and Barry Posner).  Try stuff to learn what works (Jim Collins).  Making little bets (Peter Sims).  Normal innovations, not just blockbusters (Rosabeth Moss Kanter). Name your innovation guru and each has his or her own way of trying to quickly get us in action and in the process of discovery.  Instead of trying to 100% plan our way to success, we need to move quickly from planning to playing with some of the possibilities we have identified.

13. Your choice. What is a relevant principle or practice your experience suggests should be added to this list?


Looking for sample outlines and activities to facilitating big conversations about ideas and innovations?  This PDF contains dozens that I created for ASAE's InnovationTalks. 

Contact me here if I can design and facilitate an ideation/innovation session for your org (or help you design and prepare to facilitate one yourself). 

This is an update of an earlier post.