How organisations use Innovation Workshops

How Organisations use Innovation Workshops
An analysis of the ways in which organisations use innovation workshops in the context of their innovation imperative; and what are their next directions and objectives

 While the Royal College of Art’s first interest in this research project – about Innovation Workshops: what they do and how they do it – was about ‘best practice’, ours at the Centre for Leadership in Creativity was about exploring different kinds of innovation workshops. The wide variety of workshops that were represented at our meeting at the RCA in November 2010 illustrated the different uses to which they could be put, and the different ways in which they might be run – to differing effects. Yet they are all about delivering innovations.

  Many or perhaps most of the participants in this research are interested in the different ways in which innovation workshops are used in terms of to-day’s economic imperative, that of delivering innovations. We have identified seven different ways in which they are used.

A final section brings together thoughts and ideas of organisations about future directions and objectives.


Among the leading points are these:

    1.  Organisations are aiming to integrate innovation workshops into

         their whole innovation effort.

2.   They are using innovation workshops at higher levels, for example in formulating policies, strategy etc.

3.   They are being used to identify opportunities for innovations,

     often in co-creation; and not only with customers, but also with

     partners etc.

4.   They are increasingly being used with outside organisations,

     such as suppliers and open innovation sources.

5.   Sandpits, so far the exclusive approach of Research Councils, open up the possibility for other organisations to use this approach for identifying new development opportunities.

6.   Many organisations are looking to match their innovation workshops (style, approach etc) more closely to purpose.

7.  Remotely networked innovation workshops are being

     investigated and in some cases used by organisations.

8      Online Forums are being used increasingly for the collection of

knowledge, information and views, often as preliminaries to innovation workshops.

    9.  Games and other computer-based activities are being used

         increasingly in innovation workshops.

   10. Released from specially designed ‘labs’ (by

         innovation workshops are increasingly becoming a common tool

         in every manager’s tool-kit.

   11. Despite all this, exponents of innovation workshops have to

         work hard to help potential users of their services to appreciate

         how they may be able to help them meet their day-to-day


  1. Online discussion forums

  Bombardier sets up occasional on-line web portals, called ‘Idea Central’. For a few hours at a time, big challenges are presented to large number of people across the organisation, looking for sources for potential solutions to specific technical issues eg for new products, risk avoidance etc. These have produced considerable cost savings over the last three years.

  DSTL run on-line discussion forums. Subject matter experts and participants are encouraged to discuss potential solutions to specific technical topics over the course of a few hours. These are difficult to facilitate, and to control negative input, but they do enhance technical networking across the organisation.

  The intranet site of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) includes what is in effect a computerised and interactive suggestion scheme, on which people post ideas to the ‘Idea Street’ site. There they can be commented on, voted on and even ‘invested in’. BIS is one of 13 organisations to pilot the online suggestion scheme across the public sector. Developed by Spigit and in partnership with DWP, Idea Street has been the source of ideas that have already saved a great deal of money, seemingly largely on departmental operations.

  Senior people at IBM UK Laboratories from time to time run week long ‘jams” – about major subjects, to which anyone and everyone is invited to respond with comments or ideas (make sure you produce periodic summaries, they say, in order to prevent endless repetition of similar comments!)

2. Idea generating sessions: for problems needing solutions

DSTL (formerly part of DERA) runs ‘Ideas Workshops’. These are 2-hour sessions – on given technological issues that their customers face, mainly with about a dozen junior and middle-level staff who have volunteered to participate in these sessions, but carefully balanced by department and expertise. Those ideas that are taken forward then need support from senior staff.

  Bombardier use sessions like these for seeking fresh ideas for difficult and unresolved problems. Participants are shepherded through a 2-3 day process which is designed, with the help of other resources, ‘guides’ etc to generate brand new ideas. All of these seem to generate promising ideas,
and a majority have been implemented.  

  BT use some of their ‘Hothouses’ in a similar way – which they called ‘trouble to resolve’.  BT’s Hothouses are usually 2 or 3 day events, involving some thirty to a hundred people – selected for their technical contributions, divided into 3 or more teams – working both in competition and collaboratively. Every so often the teams are invited to make brief pitches of their ideas thus far, with a final full-blown pitch, from which the winner is selected.

 3. Dragon’s Den approaches: for turning ideas into marketable propositions

Nesta has used a combination of development workshop with a Dragon’s Den approach – firstly for its Starter-for-six programme, for youngsters seeking to set up new ventures; and for other projects which it was seeking to launch. Among them was a competition for launch-funding for social enterprises in support of the ageing. Some thirty candidates, selected from submissions, were invited to attend a two-day development workshop, run by ThinkPublic, (focused largely on identifying the customer, imagining the customer journey, and co-creating that journey with the customer). After which these candidates then resubmitted their applications; from which about twenty were selected for substantial grants, together with six months of mentoring.  

  Seedcamps is a similar but week-long process, set up by a venture capital group. The outcome of the process is a small investment by the venture capital company, plus the opportunity to pitch for additional funding to a number of other such companies, together with mentoring and access to a wide range of experts for the ensuing six months.

  DSTL has recently piloted an event whose aim in combination with online forums is to work with new entrants to the organisation to initiate ideas and form possible teams for delivering their solutions, to pitch developed concepts to senior staff for funding for further development, and for mentoring.

  Bombardier run what they call Innovation Dens, a concept picked up in Silicon Valley. Ideas are sought for improvements; and once a quarter, about half-a-dozen internal business angels come together to give a comprehensive hearing to a small number of people who are pitching for permission, for a sponsor and for funding to make their idea happen; and they will get an immediate thumbs up or thumbs down.

  Syngenta in the US runs similar workshops – for scientists who have ideas for new products, to help them to develop their ideas into marketable propositions, (but not to provide them with funds or other help.)  

  Among the applications of BT’s Hothouses is what they term ‘concept to market’ – everything involved in getting a new product or service to market.

4. Development Workshops: for ideas needing development

One of the applications of BT’s Hothouses is described as ‘Concept to market’ – about developing a business concept – by scaling it up, identifying the necessary technical and/or manufacturing developments and facilities it will call for, identifying and validating its potential customers, understanding its funding needs, and clarifying its requirements in terms of management.

  The BBC for some time ran Creativity Labs – week-long development workshops whose objective was to find ideas that could be developed into new programmes. People with ideas were brought together with experienced programme producers, with audience researchers, with programmers, managers and commissioning agents in a collaborative exercise whose aim was to turn the idea into as marketable a proposition as possible.

  DSTL run workshops on specific issues (about products, processes, strategy etc) as and when they are called for.

5. Developing new technologies

  BT runs external customer Hothouses, and while it does not find it as easy as it would like to get its customers to participate, it aims to be doing more with them.

  DSTL is trialling the idea of running what it calls Tiger Teams – groups of selected staff coupled with (a majority of) industrial partners, to provide a multi-disciplinary, multi-organisational team – to work in a year on year basis, to generate, evaluate, trial and develop, technologies, processes and procedures to deliver to the front line.

  Bombardier runs ‘technology scouting’ groups; and ‘crowd-sourcing’ events with its suppliers, in which its staff spend 1 to 2 hours per day with them over a week.

  IBM UK Laboratories have for several years had a department dedicated to emerging technologies, which worked on a small number of selected projects which epitomised future applications of its products and services eg pay-as-you-go car insurance, reading mammograms by computer. At present it is working on a single major project – about integrating all the multiple sources of data and information simultaneously available to and used by US armed forces. This parallels IBM’s focus on ‘The Smart Planet’ where data and information sources are used to control services intelligently.

  DSTL runs short, sharp workshops whose aim is to address technical questions raised by its customers (which it runs simultaneously on its three sites.)

Daimler-Benz is said to have established a substantial network of innovation workshops with its component suppliers.

6. Strategy/Policies/Plans

A number of BT’s Hothouses are about strategies and plans for its own units; and as such are substantially about marshalling commitment among its own staff.

  BIS’s ‘Innovation Space’ (previously ‘FutureFocus’) houses innovation workshops for government departments (but is open for any or all users – on a commercial basis), many of which are about developing new policies and plans. Its traditional layout, based on the original Royal Mail facility, houses computers linked together, which are used for creative thinking workshops, team building days and customer insight, including idea generating, idea developing, sorting and voting etc.

  The University of East Anglia’s Norwich iLab does a lot of work with the university’s heads of departments whose aim is to revisit strategies, to develop new plans and to design new courses and new programmes.

  Several of the Research Councils have for some time used what they call ‘Sandpits’. Essentially these are about developing a comprehensive understanding of the state of knowledge in a particular field, about envisioning projects that would meet emerging needs in which that field is closely involved; about forming teams that might tackle some of these projects; and about taking instant decisions to commission and fund these teams in order to deliver the outcomes and benefits that they seem to offer. Participants are invited to apply for the 30 or so places, and those selected, who may not know one another at all, meet for a week, usually at a hotel, where under the auspices of several facilitators and leaders they grow to know more about one another, about one another’s work, and about the scope of emerging needs; are stimulated by external visits, visiting speakers and collateral activities; and gradually come to identify problems whose solution the group feels would lead to substantive progress; and to form teams that might tackle these problems. Each team so selected receives funding for its work as agreed by the group and its leaders.


SenseWorldwide is a consultancy working with large commercial clients, that sets up and facilitates complete co-creation projects, in which it acts as a bridge between a network of collaborators and its client. Its aim is to help clients to devise innovation strategies, ie to identify innovation opportunities. The company’s underpinning philosophy is that of open innovation, that the best ideas come from outside – through collaborative creation. Its two outstanding features are its worldwide network of collaborators with whom it is able to have interactive consultations on particular projects; and secondly its co-creation workshops – workshops which encompass selected collaborators from the above together with individuals from all of the camps inside the client organisation that have a stake in the innovation(s) being considered.

  7. Innovation Training

Bombardier have started to run an innovation training programme, developed with IDEO. It has three elements:

  1. awareness: a 2-day programme whose aim is to help everyone to understand more about the why, what and especially the how of innovation; something about tools and techniques; and that innovation can be a process and a system; and to help develop the understanding that everyone has a role in innovation processes;
  2. to develop practitioners: half-day workshops with participants organised in teams, working on real problems – with help etc from expert facilitators;
  3. experts: yet to come.

The Future

is aiming
* to focus more on top-level strategy, managers and customers;
* to develop a tool-kit to work with facilitator-trainers;
* and to ‘differentiate’ its Hothouses, adapting them to specific purposes.
is seeking
* to evolve its innovation section (only recently set up) into an

   established unit in the organisation
* to get senior staff more involved; and the unit more involved in

   their work.
is seeking
* to embed innovation workshop practices in staff’s thinking and

   to get them accepted as normal practice (some staff do not see

   the benefits and can feel uncomfortable with the processes).
* to raise the understanding of workshop practices beyond that

   of simply being useful for generating ideas
(as a consortium) is seeking to
* integrate its innovation workshops into the whole of the

   organisation’s innovation processes
* match processes more effectively to purpose in the design of

   its innovation  workshops
* use the expertise of its innovation facilities for working in new

   and more effective ways (eg in partnership mode) with its main

   customer, the MoD, and with its other international partners.
’s facility is hoping to develop the capability to work

   simultaneously in more that one location, enabling several

   sections of one department located in different parts of the

   country to hold innovation workshops together working remotely.
is currently working with Nottingham University, to

   experiment with similar meetings via the net, and to see whether

   and how games and other computer-based interactions may be

   useful for the process.
is said to be aiming to develop mobile innovation

   workshop facilities.

John Whatmore                                                                 May 2011
The Centre for Leadership in Creativity
020 8748 2553



Incubators in the Arts

Innovation workshops: what they do and how they do it – a research project of The Centre for Leadership in Creativity and the Royal College of Arts


Incubators – in the Arts


While they are in their fragile early stages, new ventures are often housed together in incubators, with the aim of helping them to reach a point where they have become marketable propositions. In the course of our research with the Royal College of Art – about Innovation Workshops, what they do and how they do it, we have found ourselves seeking to uncover the alchemy in incubators. We offer here several short descriptions of ‘incubators’ and their processes – in the arts, which suggest a restless willingness to undertake experiments, from which useful lessons might be drawn: two at Watershed Bristol – one about the ‘incubation of ideas’, and the other about an experimental process for incubating technology; the third about part-time incubation in a university department; the fourth about Battersea Art Centre – as ‘creating the future of theatre’; a contributed description of participating in an incubator group; a description of a new incubator of technology in the arts; and finally a note about the Old Vic as an incubator of talent. 

             They suggest that what incubatees find valuable are: 

* the opportunity to explore new technologies and to generate and

  develop ideas about possible applications;

* the stimulation from having around you people working on similar

  but different projects; and the opportunity to beg, borrow or steal

  from them;

* an open, focused and supportive atmosphere;

* the ready availability of experts and supporters (especially mentors)

  as contacts;

* the opportunity to explore and experiment – for its own sake; 

* regular and fulsome feed-back – both formal and informal;

* pressure not necessarily to achieve a practical outcome but to reach

  the next stage.


Watershed Bristol’s Pervasive Media Studio

Watershed in Bristol, an established arts institution – which operates in a number of different dimensions – is a significant local presence at the retail level, but runs several different processes whose aim is to generate and develop inspirations in the arts (as the currency of meaning, and hence the shaper of our culture) especially in theatre, film and other media.

             The aim of the Pervasive Media Studio is to be a curated Open Innovation Space:

  housing a limited number of carefully selected innovators working in a variety

   of  different disciplines.

  in an ambience whose essence is openness but curated – with happenings that

   are designed around supporting creativity and interactivity.

The studio forms a unique kind of innovation workshop; it is indeed a workshop in the sense of being a physical space; and it is one that is in continuous session, in which people from different disciplines are brought to work together on their different projects, in a common environment that is carefully curated.

Members of the studio (under one roof it has about thirty desks – ordered in serried ranks, with a public space at the Reception end) value:

  • the opportunity to benefit from the technology, knowledge and expertise of the other members of the studio (as it were ‘open innovation’ in a single space – members are selected among other things for their potential contributions);
  • feed-back – on your project; the opportunity to discuss your work openly with others without the  need for any Non-disclosure Agreement [there being tacit agreement around the studio as a whole about non-disclosure];
  • the access, free, to high level expertise, contacts, opportunities etc (via top level networks); the fact that you do not need to fund protection of your ideas (IPR) until  you know that you have something of value;
  • the opportunity to experiment, the freedom to take risks, and to fail;
  • the availability of [personal/technical/project/business] mentoring;
  • the stimulation from formal and informal visitors, and others who have succeeded on similar journeys.

The Pervasive Media Studio brings together a collection of people with ideas who would not easily find homes for their work elsewhere, whose projects are based around pervasive media.


An experimental incubation process 

               iShed, part of Watershed in Bristol, has recently run an experimental process designed to explore and develop applications for new technology in a particular field.

                Invitations were issued widely in this field to attend workshops across the country where participants were introduced to the technology in question and taken through an idea generation process. These people then submitted applications, and an advisory group oversaw a shortlist and interview process. Six commissions were selected to undergo a three-month development process with a leading (non-competitive) organisation in this field, at the end of which they were expected to make ‘early stage performances’. Their remit was simply to explore and develop their ideas, entirely without any imperative as to commercial outcome.

            Each team had a small budget (£10K) plus a further smaller sum for expenses and equipment; they were provided with a mentor (future projects are expected to run with an additional mentor); they were paired with and worked with a leading venue; they had support from a fellow ‘producer’ in that organisation; they had access to a panel of industrial advisers; they worked in parallel with the other groups (who were working on their different projects all of which were based on the same technology) at other locations; and they had periodic collaborative workshops (called ‘salons’) with all parties involved in the project at ‘HQ’. A project documentary was created; and there was an online collaborative workspace and blog, to which each team was expected to contribute.

            The main benefits were seen as:

*  the opportunity to explore new creative ideas

*  learning about the technology and its capabilities

*  honing down potential applications of the technology 

*  having the opportunity to experiment, to fail, and to continue to explore

*  working collaboratively in an experimental process.


This experiment was about possible applications of Pervasive Media in theatre – a project supported by the Arts Council, through Watershed in Bristol (‘HQ’). (To see something of the outcomes, and a report on the process and the outcomes, see <> )


A culture of student entrepreneurialism in a university department

               Professor Treleaven claims that he has established a culture of entrepreneurialism in his Computer Science Department by:

*     allowing students to develop businesses at their desks in parallel with their  

      student work;

*     providing them with development projects of genuine value – from commercial

      organisations as partners (many of these projects are Apps);

*     developing an algorhythm-based computer program for submitting and assessing

      ideas and proposals;

*     developing a system of early-stage finance (‘Micro finance’) for ideas that are

      evolving but are not yet investment-ready (with initial small grants that may be

replaced as those ideas develop with larger grants; and a portion of the new larger grant then goes to repay the smaller one). This system, he says, can be used by any group, and applied on a competitive basis, with a small pump-priming capital sum which should thus be self-renewing.  

               Business subjects are taught every Thursday afternoon, and visiting speakers and other such special events are arranged by a part of the university dedicated to that aspect of learning.

  Prof Trevealen feels that his biggest gap at present is that he lacks working partners for his entrepreneurial students – people with commercial experience and knowledge of potential markets, who can work with those students to help in turning their ideas into marketable propositions. 


An incubator in the performing arts

               The Battersea Arts Centre states its mission as to create the future of theatre. It works with what it calls a ‘scratch’ methodology as part of its ‘ladder of development’ for new work, where performances are shown at various stages of development to an outside audience, whose input and criticism guides the further evolution of the work. As such it is a (‘drop-by’) incubator in the performing arts. The Centre sees its building as a home where people of all ages and backgrounds can take part in the theatre-making process

   It runs drop-in creative workshops in theatre, music, dance and futures. ‘You might be an artist looking to test an idea, a teacher looking to develop your practice or perhaps you’re considering a career in theatre’.

               It hosts a wide variety of theatrical happenings. As well as more conventional theatre pieces, it hosts brief experimental concept productions (after which feed-back is sought at the bar by authors); it runs a one-on-one festival, in which each visitor chooses his/her personal theatre production from a number on offer (and there are other one-on-one experiences hidden throughout the centre); and it develops and runs other innovative theatre experiences. It also runs life and other drawing classes, sometimes themed on productions. 

                And construction has begun of a residential wing in order to support those creative minds who get their best help from others late into the evening.


Incubator Groups: Faber’s Creative Writing programmes

“In 2009 I signed up for a creative writing course at the Faber Academy.

I’d been struggling with my novel for sometime and thought I needed help.

Their Writing a Novel programme ran for six months in central London.

There were twenty-two of us students divided into two groups of

eleven, a tutor per group.  Every week we attended a two-hour evening

session.  There were also full Saturday sessions once a month. The weekly

sessions, divided into two halves, a break in between, comprised a writing

exercise set by the tutor, followed by a critiquing session or ‘crit’.

In preparation for the ‘crit’, three of us submitted a piece of writing

(in our case it was mostly the first 5,000 words of our novels, followed by

two further submissions of the same length, the second and third 5,000 words

of our novel, respectively).  Each piece was then read and critiqued by

everyone in the group, tutor included, for forty minutes apiece. 

The Saturday sessions followed the same format but also included

contributions from outside speakers – novelists, publishers, editors,

agents, etc.. 

It was the best learning experience I have ever had for a number

of reasons.  First, we were learning principally by doing, ie., there was

nothing for it but to write, in class doing the exercises and before class

to prepare our submissions.  A concomitant of this was that there was nobody

lecturing us or as I often saw it previously, talking, ‘at us’ or telling

us, ‘how’ to write.

In other words, we were free to experiment and basically had to

work it out for ourselves and, for most of us, this was happening, for the

first time in front of a real live audience, our fellow students and tutor.

This completion of the creative circle, was, I believe critical to our

development as writers.  I will never forget my first ‘crit’.  It didn’t go

too well.  At first I was mortified and thought, I’ll never write again.

Then, I got huffy, thinking, they just don’t understand.  Then I realised, I

couldn’t put my new writing friends through that kind of reading experience

again.  I systematically addressed the issues they’d raised.  In the end,

they liked my work that has, I hasten to add, changed beyond all recognition

as a result of their input and my hard work.

Second point then: peers, all in the same boat wrestling with

their novels, were critiquing each other’s work.  The critiquing was always

constructive and offered in a supportive environment facilitated by a tutor

who ensured that everyone had their say.  The tutor also prevented any one

person from dominating and steered us to fresher pastures when we had begun

to go down blind alleys.  We also learnt by knit-picking others’ shortcomings:

once you have seen someone else making the same mistake as you, it becomes

much easier to recognise your own.

Of additional significance, was the fact that we were not, as has so

often happened to me at the beginning of other courses, asked about our

previous writing experience or what we did or did not do, workwise. As

a result, we were less likely to be inhibited by others students who might

otherwise have been perceived as more able and therefore intimidating.

This, ‘not knowing’ about other students also meant that we got to know one

another through our writing. This, together with artful facilitation by an

experienced, positive and supportive tutor meant that we formed a very

special bond: one that has allowed us to continue working informally as a

group over a year later, and, we are still meetings.”


Hyper Island – a digital media school started in Swedenhas just set up in Manchester in a pilot programme sponsored by NESTA. This is a school without teachers, without grades and without exams. Students will lead their own learning, and will be supported to develop skills to evaluate and reflect on their own performance and on the performances of their peers. Failure is explicitly encouraged as a critical step in learning how to do something or developing a solution to a problem.

Hyper Island is underpinned by a pedagogy which features problem-based learning, experience-based learning and industry briefs. Students work on projects set by colleagues from businesses within the digital media sector, so all learning happens in simulated or real professional contexts.                                                                     

            The Hyper Island curriculum is created in a close collaboration between Hyper Island’s expert curriculum designers and a range of industry partners (who are asked to offer a picture of current industry priorities, trends and skill needs and who often go on to design modules or projects for students). In the Manchester pilot, these include MTV, McCann, Channel 4, Saatchi and Saatchi, Sony Games, Code Computerlove and Weiden and Kennedy.

            The deep involvement of industry players in design and delivery means the Hyper Island curriculum is fresh and relevant, which is particularly important for dynamic and innovative sectors, such as high-tech creative industry. If ambitions are realised, students at Hyper Island will have a real head start. They will be ambitious, entrepreneurial, adaptable and in demand. They will also have developed a strong network of peers, potential employers and collaborative partners.     

Transferrable lessons

The Old Vic as an incubator of talent 

               The Old Vic runs a London-based club that provides support for young people embarking on a career in theatre, through contact with leading industry professionals, support for members’ own projects, and participation in networking events with like-minded peers. Its corresponding New York club offers Masterclasses in addition to the above; and there are transatlantic exchanges and collaborations between the two. 

                The Old Vic has also been a founding partner of ‘a creative online network and funding body for emerging arts talents, where members can find information about events, interact with other users and apply for projects as well as advertise their own shows, form collaborations and access a network of advice, inspiration and opportunities’. 


The Centre for Leadership in Creativity


Tel 020 8748 2553


Copyright John Whatmore 2011