10 Steps to Running an Innovation Stimulus Session

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Last week I ran an Innovation Stimulus session for over 50 members of the National Exhibition Centre and Ticket Factory Marketing staff at their team away day.  For those not aware NEC Birmingham is the UK’s No 1 venue for shows, exhibitions, meetings and events.

Following the event, I thought I’d note something worth considering if you’re thinking about running your own Innovation stimulus session. Five points from the organisers’ point of view, five from my perspective when I’m facilitating these sorts of sessions.

1.    Know Why You’re Running the Session

Getting a large (or indeed a small) team out of the office or away from their day-to-day activity is no small undertaking so it’s vital to get the most out of the time. Before considering anything else, it’s important to be clear on WHY you’re running an innovation session and what you’re looking to get out of it and how it fits in with your other plans. It’s also vital to be realistic about the size of the challenge: Innovation may be the topic of the moment, but it’s not a checklist tick off – it’s a mindset change. It needs its own space: ideally, it should happen early in your agenda, and it should form the basis for the rest of your sessions. If you’re going to set aside the time, do the subject justice and give it, and your participants time to digest, reflect and use it. It’s not an item on a tick list – it’s a major change in thinking and attitude.

2.    Use an External Facilitator Where Appropriate

Now I would say that, being an External Consultant! But there are good reasons for doing it – whether it’s Betriebsblindheit (“operational blindness.”) or expertise or simply because they’ve had time to prepare a workshop based on your needs, but not encumbered by ‘the day job’. Using externals may suggest you’re taking this seriously. It may encourage your team to listen with a different ear to the way they do with peers they know and work with every day. It’s true an external may be met with initial scepticism, but if they’re good, that’s something that will be swiftly won over, and allow them to share a different, if not greater, experience to that your team might have.

3.    Ensure the Facilitator Knows What You Want

I’ve worked with companies who say no more than they want an ‘innovation overview’ to ‘get people thinking’ – and that’s okay. But the better sessions work when you’ve spent a little time ensuring the facilitator is aware of as much context as you’re willing or able to share with them. Not just for the day, or the two days or however long the away days are planned for, but the broader context: why you’ve decided this type of session is appropriate in your strategic plans. It will allow them to consider what and where they focus.

4.      Get the Right People in the Room and Create the Right Atmosphere

I’ve worked with boards, managers and day-to-day practitioners in Innovation sessions. Who are the ‘right ones’ to be there? You know your people and who will engage, and who will have the passion and the ability to engage not just in the session, but in the long run. It’s important to have the right energy in the room but it’s vital for attendees that this isn’t ‘just another exercise in lip service’ or a board belief that it’s a ‘magic bullet’. It’s also a great chance for different levels and different departments to work with each other and hear things from each other they might not normally encounter.

5.    Don’t Think of It as Just Another Session

I’ve run sessions and helped companies who want to implement an internal Innovation programme. And those schemes have their place and can add value. But they work when they’re in a wider context and a shift in cultural thinking and mindset. If they’re not, then they risk being seen with cynicism – “Months x to y are where we innovate? What about the rest of the time?” If you can (and if you think it’s important enough to run the session then you should), take part yourself. Listen to what’s being said…and what’s not being said. Think about how you take that forward to make it a living part of your strategy.

And from the Facilitator’s Point of View? Here Are Five of My Methods When Running a Session.


1.    Know the Company – Tailor but Don’t Make Too Specific

Linked to point 3 above. I try to ensure I know the company’s mission, vision and values. Its current and desired position. Its competitors and its environment. From that I’ll select from the bank of ideas and examples, case studies and papers to make the session appropriate. But I won’t make it industry specific. I won’t assume I could hope to know as much about the company or the market place as the subject matter experts in the room do. That’s not why I’m here.

2.    Blend Theory and Practical

There’s been more written about Innovation in the last couple of years than pretty much any other business area (Five years ago every conference was Big Data, then it was GDPR, now…Innovation seems to be the hot topic). I’m lucky enough to have studied Innovation at one of the best business schools in the world, so I’m going to use those learnings. So, there will be theoretical models and thinking sitting behind the session, but for most companies I work with they’re looking for practical and easily digestible takeaways – not an Innovation ‘lecture’. If your teams want the models and the pedagogy – they’re always free as a follow-up.

3.    Use the Familiar but Not TOO Familiar for Examples

As I mentioned earlier, Innovation seems to be the hot topic for speaking events these days. So why do so many of them use the same companies, the same case studies, the same ‘learnings’? I don’t use companies or cases which are willfully obscure – I use the ones which are most relevant. And if I’m using an Apple or an Amazon or a Google…I like to think it’s not going to be the examples you’ve seen before.

4.    Keep it Fun and Engaging

It’s NOT a lecture – it’s a stimulus. And having a facilitator standing in front of you lecturing for two hours…or a day or however long it might be is NOT stimulating. The purpose of the session isn’t to show how much I know about Innovation – it’s to energise and spark some thinking: and the best way to do that, and to check on it is through engagement. So there will be activities (The Innovation Consequence game proves particularly lively and, at times, amusing) and there will be discussion, and a chance to communicate from everyone in the room who wants to. And just like Innovation itself, sometimes the contributions come from the most unusual sources.

5.    Don’t Think of It as Just Another Session

Yes – what’s good for the organiser is good for the facilitator.

I don’t think of the session as an in-and-out. There will be follow up – formal or informal. If something has emerged from the discussion which any of the attendees want to follow up on – whether it’s further reading, questions, or ideas I ensure I’m available: all contact details provided, and all questions answered. It’s not obligatory and sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. But the offer is there for anyone who wants to take it up from the group.

So, there you go: ten thoughts on running an Innovation Stimulus session.

If you’re interested in running your own session and want some support or advice, or you’re looking for a facilitator for a session you’re thinking about running, you can contact me at simon.bewickconsulting.com or via the contact form on this site.

Good luck with your sessions.

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