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Running a Successful Staff Innovation Meeting

By Julian Mercer

Innovation meetings are a tool to harness the collective creativity of your team. Whether you’re seeking breakthrough ideas or refining existing concepts, a well-run innovation meeting can be a catalyst for generating and validating ideas and refining them into action plans and roadmaps.

Bringing your team together to engage in an innovation meeting can take several forms, depending on your goals, the time available, and any other resource constraints. The format and duration of an innovation meeting can also vary based on factors, such as the complexity of the topic, the goals of the meeting, and the dynamics of the team. It can range from a tightly focused discussion at a staff meeting, to a half-day workshop or a multi-day retreat. You can also devise a staged process over time that allows participants time to reflect and refine their ideas between sessions.

Probably the most common type of innovation meeting is a staff retreat, a one- or two-day meeting, often held off-site to allow the team to focus without the distractions of the office. Retreats represent a significant investment of time and resources, so it’s important to consider the pros and cons before making that investment:

Pros:

  • Enhanced Collaboration and Communication: Retreats provide a relaxed and informal setting, fostering open communication and collaboration among team members. This environment can stimulate the exchange of ideas.
  • Creative Thinking and Problem Solving: Retreats offer an opportunity to engage in creative thinking exercises, brainstorming sessions, and other activities that encourage innovative ideas and solutions to challenges.
  • Team Building and Cohesion: The retreat setting allows team members to connect on a personal level, building stronger relationships. This can enhance trust and teamwork, key components of a culture that fosters innovation.
  • Diversity of Perspectives: Bringing together individuals from different departments or levels can introduce diverse perspectives. This diversity can lead to unique and innovative approaches to problem-solving and decision-making.
  • Focused Time for Strategic Thinking: Retreats provide dedicated time away from day-to-day tasks, allowing team members to focus on long-term goals, strategic planning, and innovative initiatives without interruptions.

Cons:

  • Cost and Resources: Organizing a retreat can be expensive, considering costs such as venue, travel, accommodation, and facilitation. Smaller companies with limited budgets may find it challenging to allocate resources for such events.
  • Time Away from Operations: Taking employees away from their regular work for an extended period can disrupt daily operations. It’s important to plan the retreat timing carefully to minimize negative impacts on ongoing projects.
  • Resistance to Change: Some team members may resist the idea of change or view the retreat as an unnecessary disruption. Overcoming resistance requires effective communication about the purpose and potential benefits of the retreat.
  • Mismatched Expectations: If participants have unrealistic expectations about what the retreat can achieve, there may be disappointment. Setting clear goals and managing expectations is essential to avoid this potential drawback.
  • Lack of Follow-Through: Without a clear plan for implementing and following through on innovative ideas generated during the retreat, the event may not lead to tangible outcomes. It’s crucial to establish accountability and a mechanism for tracking progress.

To maximize the benefits and mitigate potential negatives, careful planning, clear communication, and a commitment to follow through on outcomes are crucial. Here are six tips for managers to ensure a productive and impactful retreat:

  1. Set Clear Objectives and an Agenda for the Retreat: Clearly define the objectives of the retreat. What specific issues or challenges do you want to address? What outcomes do you expect? Setting an agenda will help provide the meeting with focus and clarity and ensure the efficient use of time. Make sure the agenda includes time for team building, brainstorming or ideation, evaluation or problem-solving, and next-step planning discussions. Share the agenda with participants in advance to allow them to prepare and contribute meaningfully. Set times for each agenda item and hold to your schedule to keep the meeting moving and lively. It’s important to strike a balance between allowing enough time for meaningful discussion and avoiding participant fatigue which leads to diminishing returns.
  2. Ask your team to prepare for the retreat: Its important to get the team thinking before they come together. Consider framing and sharing an innovation or series of provocative questions, such as those described in my previous article on innovating with questions. You might also consider sharing research reports that give insights into trends in your industry, or case studies that illustrate new approaches and successful innovations in your area of focus by other competitors or even companies in other industries.
  3. Create a Positive and Inclusive Environment: Choose a retreat location that promotes focus and collaboration. A change of scenery can enhance creativity and team dynamics. Set ground rules for participation that encourage active listening and foster an inclusive environment where all team members can feel comfortable expressing their ideas and opinions. Consider incorporating team-building activities as an icebreaker to strengthen relationships and encourage open communication. Also consider bringing in participants from other departments that bring different expertise and perspectives on the business.
  4. Utilize Facilitation Techniques: Use effective facilitation techniques and assign facilitation roles to ensure everyone has a chance to contribute, and discussions stay on track. The facilitator(s) should capture and report outputs from group discussions and frame important issues and key questions for further exploration.  Consider bringing in a professional facilitator to help frame and monitor discussions, and act as a referee when necessary to enforce the ground rules. A good facilitator may bring options and ideas based on their own experiences. But make sure that your facilitator understands the type of business you are in and is familiar with your business constraints.
  5. Encourage Creative Thinking: Incorporate exercises and techniques that stimulate creative thinking. In addition to helping break the ice, the key is to get the team in a mind-frame to think outside the box and brainstorm innovative solutions to problems. As an alternative to the classic brainstorming session, there are a variety of techniques you can employ, including mind mapping (a visual brainstorming technique), storyboarding, role-playing or simulations, reserve or lateral thinking, and the Six Thinking Hats method developed by Edward de Bono. Another interesting option is the SCAMPER (Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to Another Use, Eliminate or Reserve) technique, which asks participants to work in small groups to apply each approach to a specific problem or challenge.
  6. Develop Action Plans and Assignments: Conclude the retreat with concrete action plans that outline next steps and follow-ups. The plans should include specific assignments and clearly define roles and responsibilities for each team member, ensuring accountability for the agreed-upon actions. Establish a timeline to track progress and revisit the outcomes of the retreat regularly.

Remember to remain flexible and adaptable throughout the retreat, allowing for spontaneous discussions and adjustments to the agenda as needed. As the convener of the retreat, understand that your primary roles are to listen, facilitate and answer questions. The retreat should not be framed as a sounding board for your ideas, but as a brainstorming and planning session for your team.

Concluding Notes

When done thoughtfully, a staff retreat can be a powerful tool for fostering innovation and driving positive change within a company.  A successful retreat will not only surface new ideas and approaches to help move your business forward, but will also strengthen team morale and cohesion, which sets the stage for ongoing success.

This is the third in a three-part series that looks at how managers can unlock innovation. The first part looked at how managers can build and sustain an innovation culture. The second focused on framing provocative questions to help fuel creative thinking.

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Julian Mercer

Julian Mercer is a retired executive, with more than 30 years’ experience in the technology sector as a leader, manager, consultant, and teacher.

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