3 common innovation workshop problems and why they matter

As an innovator, you've learned to love — and even seek out — customer problems. But what about problems with innovation workshops themselves?
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At the end of a recent 5-day workshop, one comment we heard was: “I wish that our final concept was more radical”.

We get it. Why, after spending 5 days in a Design Sprint, would the final concept be an idea they might have had at the beginning?

When we lead an innovation workshop, we ask for daily feedback from participants in the form of “I like…” and “I wish…” statements. Participants share one thing they liked about the day and one thing that they wished had been different. Framed optimistically, this is a way for them to let our consultants and their innovation managers know how to improve the experience.

While some improvements are easy to make, such as “I wish we had more time to collaborate with our colleagues” or “I wish we had more opportunity for reflection,” others are a matter of managing expectations differently. With “I wish that our final concept was more radical”, it was a matter of reminding participants about the numerous insights they gained when interviewing customers, the digital tools they created for validation, and the customer responses to prototypes that uncovered so much more than just the concept on the surface level.

Setting the right expectations

As an innovation leader or manager at your company, you can (and should) set the right expectations about the outcome of innovation. You are the one communicating what people should and shouldn’t expect from an innovation workshop or program. As such, it is important that you are aligned with the innovation consultant so that you have a clear understanding about what the session will be about. Having an unrealistic (or unclear) expectations for the workshop sets you (and your employees) up for disappointment down the line. Our innovation consultants will be there to help you understand the goal of the session.

Problem #1

I wish that I was more confident that the idea we chose is better than the others that we created in ideation.

There is a lot of discomfort in workshops once the ideation phase ends and we challenge participants to narrow down their choices. We have designed tools to help prioritize the ideas that are most valuable or in line with the goal of the workshop, but it does come down to making a decision (quickly) and accepting that you may not be picking the right one. The reality is that you don’t know if the one you’ve chosen is the best idea, and neither do your facilitators.

The process is about seeking validation or invalidation. We encourage teams to pick an idea, test it (prototyping, experimentation, validating assumptions), get feedback about it, and then reassess. Should you continue with the idea as it stands? Pivot to target a new customer or market? Kill it? It is imperative to understand that workshops will not always end with the final idea that will be launched, but rather a start and a mindset that helps your team iterate and move quickly.

As an innovation consultant:

We set up the environment so that there is little to no pressure to pick the best idea. We do this because they will likely be making changes, pivots, or even killing the idea anyway. We simply make sure the teams pick a jumping off point and move forward with the concept. The other concepts they generate are captured, so if the first idea isn’t validated and then killed, there are others to move on to.

As a corporate innovation manager:

It is important to align with the innovation consultant on these expectations. It is also your role to support and understand the above when meeting with your team after the workshop.

Problem #2

I wish that our final concept was more radical/disruptive

Don’t get us wrong, awesome ideas are great. What we try to avoid is the preconception that the final concept needs to meet a certain wow factor, or score high on the “crazy idea” chart. Participants can feel uncomfortable reporting back to their manager about a workshop if the idea seems unexciting. There is pressure to come up with a multi-million dollar idea after a 3-day workshop.

A boring idea on its own is just that. But when backed by customer insights into why the idea may or may not be successful, a seemingly lame idea can add more value than meets the eye. The thing we always try to align on in terms of expectations is that radical does not equal innovative. In fact, for most organizations, radical ideas can be too scary and risky. 

Less radical ideas can be an ideal stepping stone. They build confidence, validate a concept or business model, lower risk and save money. The common misperception is that the most innovative companies in the world cropped up overnight. Most don’t consider the early painstaking efforts and failed attempts to make the wheel of fortune turn.

As an innovation consultant:

We make sure we begin workshops (and align with sponsors) by setting the expectation that the idea at the end of the week may not be radical (and may even need further validation). What participants (and investors) can expect is that they will learn from it and develop a mindset to continue empathizing with customers and experimenting with potential solutions.

As a corporate innovation manager:

Understand this when you ask for a report back about a workshop. Your employees may look for a new way of working based on their learnings.

Problem #3

I wish that our concept was more in line with our corporate strategy

A corporate strategy is imperative to create an overall vision and expectations across employees/businesses of large corporations. But there is a problem with a corporate strategy that directly gets in the way of a validated solution to a customer need.

We lead an exercise in our workshops called assumption mapping. This allows teams to identify the assumptions related to a concept and also to prioritize them. We also ask them to identify whether the assumption is related to desirability (human needs), viability (business outcomes), feasibility (technology capabilities), or corporate strategy. 

The most critical assumptions should not be about corporate strategy (and rarely feasibility at that stage). The goal is to build on learnings related to desirability first and then go through the other assumptions to progress with validation.

For this reason, we often end workshops with less focus on how the concept relates to the overall strategy of the company. Instead, we focus on the strategy to meet a customer need and identify a business opportunity.

As an innovation consultant:

We do consider the goal of a workshop as it relates to corporate strategy when we frame the problem in the beginning. But we don’t want participants themselves to be directly focused on it. This helps avoid any misunderstandings with the corporate innovation manager or executives when the workshop is over.

As a corporate innovation manager

Reassess/challenge your corporate strategy if it gets in the way of moving forward with a business opportunity that excites you and solves a need in your market. Consider how your role in innovating may be hindered by your corporate strategy.

Companies receive complaints in person, over a customer service hotline, or even via social media. Many see these as fires they need to put out rather than as free, unsolicited feedback for them to use to drive innovation. We use them to make our innovation workshops better.

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Thanks!

I’m Bryan Berger, Innovation Consultant @ Board of Innovation. Spreading innovation culture is in our DNA – if you liked the read, contribute to our mission by sharing this article.

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