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Making Time for Innovation

By Joanne Jacobs

Perhaps the biggest barrier to innovation in enterprise contexts is time. Coordinating the diaries of diverse teams and ensuring everyone can be accessed across distances, time zones and responsibilities can be the most challenging aspect of getting started with innovation. But if your business is going to be successful in its innovation strategy, then it’s essential to be tackling problems actually worth solving. And that needs the commitment of an entire team to ensure that the most persistent and complex problems can be addressed to deliver value for the firm.

But how do you go about convincing busy teams to commit to the process of defining problems worth solving?  You can either explain the context for such a workshop in advance, or you can send meeting requests and hope for the best. We find the most effective mechanism is to identify one or more champions in the firm, and to have them explain the process in a manner that is meaningful to individuals in different teams. It is vital to understand that some workers will perceive that act of identification of problems in their business units as an attack on their performance. So it’s not enough simply to ask, “how can we improve?”, or “what needs to change?”.

To begin with, a problem identification workshop should always be contextualised as part of an innovation strategy. This is essential. Identifying problems without the framework of innovation will feel more like a performance review than a business modernisation activity. The workshop should be described as the first step of an ongoing journey of transformation, and it may help to capture the whole process in a visual. We use our innovation sprint diagram to show what happens at different stages of the journey, because we find this helps to describe the priority and consequence of the workshop.


We also believe the framing of a problem identification workshop should be expressed as an opportunity for employees to excel. The objective is always to remove the barriers that stand in the way of the ambitions of committed workers achieving their goals, as well as those of their suppliers and customers. Even though committing time to a workshop could itself be considered a barrier to effectiveness, it is more appealing to attend a workshop where a worker may be able to set out their unit’s forward plans, and to identify where the firm as a whole could help them achieve their goals. This is a framing which enables them to visualise their role in the innovation process, and will help draw out issues that have frustrated them in the past in their endeavours to achieve change.

So both the relevance of the workshop for company innovation, as well as the importance of supporting workers in their day-to-day activities is essential when backgrounding the workshop. Then we recommend using scheduling aids to ensure that all stakeholders can have a say in when the workshop will be scheduled. Tools like Doodle can make voting for a workshop time easy, and TimeandDate.com’s Meeting Planner can help find times that will suit employees across time zones.

Finally, once you get to the workshop, it is essential to respect the time that employees have set aside for the process. It may be handy to circulate worksheets and questionnaires that can act as triggers for the discussion, but if that is impractical, a brief positioning of the process is usually sufficient to propel sharing of ideas. The maximum time should be spent allowing participants to share their ideas. In many respects, the techniques used in psychology to encourage people to open up to each other, are essentially the same as those that need to be applied in problem identification workshops. Participants need to be heard and understood, and workshop leaders and scribes need to ask questions to clarify that they understand the needs of stakeholders clearly.  And of course, workshops need to start and finish on time. Nothing promotes trust in an innovation process more than adherence to an agenda.

Making time for innovation starts with making the time commitment worthwhile. In the work we do with our clients, we find that once the value of the innovation process is clear, we see a step change in willingness to be part of the innovation process. Companies make time. Because innovation that addresses the needs of all stakeholders will always be worth pursuing.

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