In this second part of a two-part conversation with Yahoo Small Business, Howard Tiersky, CEO of Innovation Loft, shares ways to spark innovation at off-site meetings. Innovation Loft is a state-of-the-art workshop facility in midtown Manhattan that employs a team of facilitators who help employers host strategic pow-wows, ideation events, and other types of collaborative conferences.
YSB: What is the key to inspiring innovation during a strategy session?
Tiersky: A lot of times, the thing that stimulates creative possibility is having clarity about the desired outcome: “We need to get across this river. What are the facts?” In corporate ideation they often have a vague idea and unclear parameters.
Part of our job in planning an event is to determine the parameters and to stimulate ideas. We pull together information about trends in the marketplace and what competitors are doing. Our facility is designed to put that information up all around you, on 50 flat-screen displays, charts, and big magnetic whiteboards. When people walk in they’re surrounded by information that will stimulate and sharpen their thinking.
We also know that to make it work we need people to be off their Blackberries, engaged, and focused, so we can’t do what most meeting hosts do, which is to say, “Let’s all sit in the room and listen to PowerPoint presentations.” We incorporate games, competitive aspects, and get people physically active with exercises that get them to ideation then prioritization and decision making and then action planning.
YSB: What happens when this super-stimulated group of people generates 200 ideas?
Tiersky: They fill the white board with ideas, and then people look around and ask, “Now what?” We say, “Do we all agree that in these 200 ideas is probably everything we need to be successful? We’re now mining for gold. There are three gold flecks in three pounds of sand. How do we use the group’s intelligence and combined, diverse experience to figure out what things make sense for us to do?”
It’s important to have the whole group filter through the ideas so that everyone has their fingerprint on choosing the best, as opposed to boss picking Bob’s idea. Someone conceived the idea, it got changed, and it evolved, and it improved. The ownership is blurred so that by the end we all own that idea and the decision and are committed to it.
I’d rather have the seventh best idea than the best one if not everyone will support the best one. It’s the successful implementation of an idea that makes the difference.
YSB: What gets in the way of successful ideation?
Tiersky: One challenge we face a lot is that people are very focused on who they think they are as a company. Sometimes they have to break outside that identity to figure out where to go next. We play a game called “If We Were,” where we give each team a different fictitious acquisition scenario, such as, you’re now working for the creative team at Facebook, Google, WalMart, or the U.S. Marine Corps to solve your 2016 product line. In other words, if you were Facebook, then what would you do?
We’ve had many clients come out of that one exercise saying, “Holy cow, we came up with things that we never would have thought if we didn’t think of how WalMart would do it.”
YSB: Do you have a hard time getting top executives to buy in to the idea of game-playing exercises?
Tiersky: People come with that concern all the time, saying, “I don’t know if our executives will do this.” In all my years, it’s never been a problem. It’s our job to make people feel comfortable. When you take that CFO to the Superbowl, how does he behave there? He jumps up screaming. Our behavior is highly context dependent. When people walk into our environment and see that it’s filled with toys and plants—like a cross between a daycare center and a movie set—that gives them the freedom to reset their brain.
People say, “We achieved our objectives, but even more, we got to know each other. I’m amazed how often people don’t know their colleagues in the same complex. In other organizations, they do know each other, but after two days here they know each other so much better.
They also say, “We’re now doing some of the same stuff in our weekly meetings.” We’ve given them more flexibility to incorporate creativity.
YSB: Are there times when the off-site workshop is not the right approach to strategy?
Tiersky: It works best for particular types of problems. The problems that this process works best for are those that require some level of involvement from a large group, cross-disciplinary expertise, buy in, and commitment. There are problems that aren’t like that. If you can solve a problem with 4 people getting together for 2 hours, then do that, it’s cheaper.
This process also requires a certain level of clarity about what you want to achieve. We’ve had some folks come to us and say, “We want to do our annual sales meeting here.” You could do that here, but you’re not leveraging the space. Here, we could achieve something much bigger than a sales meeting, such as getting the entire sales force to understand a new sales system.