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



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