An extreme example of Innovation Workshops

Teams from a big corporate set out to help a number of charities with their problems; and generate an impressive collection of outcomes from a process that had been heavily adapted to meet an extraordinarily wide variety of objectives.

      I always enjoy running problem-solving and innovation workshops because they are at the same time both fun and productive, so to have four simultaneous workshops was a challenge, not least because I had no control over the teams and because the beneficiaries were all charities. Over the last two years I have encountered at least forty different kinds of such workshops in a study I have been carrying out with the Royal College of Art (see “Innovation Workshops: what they do and how they do it”, but none of them quite like this one.

            The teams were provided by a large corporate whose innovation workshops (which they call ‘hothouses’) are highly developed and major events. But these teams were part of the corporate’s social responsibility contribution, and while the corporate saw these events as a development opportunity for their participants, they themselves saw it as an opportunity to give something back, and in some cases a bit of a ‘day out’!

The charities had been found by VolunteeringEngland – an infrastructure organisation whose remit is the development of volunteering, and actively encourages and facilitates supported volunteering – on this occasion working with two Volunteer Centres, for which centres VolunteeringEngland is the membership body.

We had worked with the representatives of these charities to help them to describe themselves and the problem that they would bring to the table. They wrote copiously about the former, but they had found the latter difficult to do, perhaps either because they were too close to it, or else because they were baffled by it.

The members of one of the corporate’s teams all came from the same section of the corporate and so already knew each other well; the members of another worked together but their expertise was quite unrelated to the problem of the charity with which they would work, and another was made up of people who had never met before. Not only were the members of these teams not chosen in relation to the problem with which they would have to deal, but none of their members (apart from the leader) were provided with any advance knowledge of the problem itself. And we had no knowledge of the leader’s experience in this kind of work, nor of their background; and little control over how they would manage the process of their groups.

            Despite all of this, they were remarkably successful. At least two of the teams managed to identify someone (in another team) who had the necessary specialist knowledge to make a major contribution to their charity’s problem – one a specialist on intranets, who helped a charity that had numerous offices and many volunteers, all widespread; another an expert on communications networks whose charity started by identifying a need for new computers, but finished with a number of off-the-shelf ways of running its communications networks. Another team came up with a large menu of ways in which their charity could raise its profile, and helped their representatives to find a way forward by suggesting that they start with a focus group that would gain commitment to their plans.  The Chair of one charity confessed that the discussions had enabled him to think completely differently about how best to use a member of staff’s time.

The task of one team, whose enthusiasm was palpable, was to help a local charity that had started a bakery – with the aim of replacing some of its cuts in grants with the profits from this new social enterprise. The team produced some carefully costed proposals that would enable their baker to earn the charity thousands of pounds, but did not touch their issues of implementation and management.

The corporate’s teams displayed remarkable versatility as well as their business skills and experience (two of them succeeded in cobbling together instant graphic presentations of their solutions.) And they evidently enjoyed a great day (as we all did!) The four charities were overwhelmed with ideas to take home, most of which were good solid solutions that they would not easily have found elsewhere. But most of their groups could have done more to tackle issues about how to implement those solutions – who could do that, how to go about it, what resources would be needed etc. 

            Both parties were obviously keen to continue contact and to contribute to furthering these solutions, but the format of these encounters did not have any formal ways in which the members of the corporate’s teams could keep in touch with the representatives of the charities, who were left to exchange cards and affirm that they would indeed ‘be in touch’ very soon.

An impressive collection of outcomes resulted from a process that had been tailored to an extraordinarily wide variety of objectives.



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