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Innovating Facilitatively

Transforming from a meeting Leader to an 'Innovating Facilitator'

A 2nd line Leader from a Technology company makes a subtle confession in the ‘Fostering Innovation’ workshop that I am facilitating, by putting up a Question, “What if, my team members don’t just come up with ideas! Am I then not supposed to lead innovation with my own ideas?”
And my reflective googly to him was “So, what’s the enabling environment like in your meetings… are meetings being LEAD or are they FACILITATED?
And therein lies the ‘tale’ of South-Asian Leaders or should I rather call it complete ‘story volumes’. (I’m sure it happens in other regions too however as my range of work primarily is in South Asia, so my context is more here).
And what gets missed out is the ‘ignition’ aka the start point of an innovation environment…. Meetings!
And the reflective question is, “How many of us in Leader positions really facilitateinnovation meetings?” The default drive is to “lead it”.

So how does a Leader become an Innovation Facilitator for enabling Innovation in teams and organisation?  

The 13 commandments to Innovating Facilitatively:

  1. Time of the meeting – very important and critical – know when your team is “at its Best” and have this meeting at that time or day of month.
  2. Agenda – let the team know that the agenda is ideation and innovation. Or else the “what-is-this-about” fear can derail the required creative atmosphere.
  3. Problem statement –tweak this to stating it as the Desired Outcome (DO)? Innovation can be for a problem or an opportunity. Defining it as DO gives positivity around the discussion. Ideally keep the DO to a sentence.
  4. Let someone else from the team be in charge of the agenda. Ideally get a neutral facilitator. If that’s not possible then be as neutral as you can. Avoid controlling the meeting.
  5. Don’t overwhelm minds with a long preamble to the “why this innovation is required”.  
  6. Speak last if (you as a Leader) have to – be neutral when facilitating this meeting. Often seen that when a Leader shares a particular idea or shows leaning towards one, teams tend to agree with the boss and this stops them from coming up with something different.
  7. Set up an enabling environment – encourage wild/outlandish ideas.  Mocking an idea based on the present level of thinking defeats the creative best in people. Remember Einstein’s quote "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it."
  8. Innovation is in conversations – make it safe for attendees to speak. Design group divergence and convergence process that guides the group to collaborative outcomes. Processes such as Post-It Note Brainstorming, Fast thoughts, Merlin, Fish-Bone, Talking Heads, etc. are better tools than Flipchart Brainstorming. If you have right-brained audience, use ‘arty’ processes such as Drama or Improv with Fable Story enaction, Role-playing with stakeholder characters etc.
  9. Avoid asking specific questions only to specific people for e.g. saying that “You are an Engineer, you should have some ideas around solving this. Don’t you?” Ideation is not a child of engineers only – the best of the ideas can come from anyone.
  10. Pause is uncomfortable. When Leaders ask for ideas and then if there is a pregnant pause in the group, the Leader tends to answer. Let the pregnancy go its full term or beyond – no ‘caesarean’ here!
  11. Beware the ‘pious altar’ of experience – many ideas have got slaughtered here. The idea may sound done-it before however the time now could be fertile for it to nurture.
  12. Converge with the group deciding which ideas have been selected to move forward -using voting, 2X2, five fingers method to select the ideas.
  13. Have a special slot for outlier ideas – they may not be voted by the group as selected ideas but as a Leader facilitate its innate potential – ask for someone to flag-bear this idea and move it – if it fails support the person for the courage of moving it forward.


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