In Defense of Workshops

Remember that IBM (IBM) commercial? The one with the room full of people lying on the floor with the lights out, claiming that they're "ideating" when they plainly appear to be sleeping? The one that implies that ideation workshops are fluffy, wish-and-a-prayer frivolities and that "real" innovation is something far more staid and serious?

To be fair, there are plenty of bad workshops out there. At some point I'm sure you've suffered through an afternoon crammed in a windowless conference room with a stammering colleague at a flip chart repeating, "C'mon guys, who's got an idea?" Or walked into a session where candy, crayons, and toys were in far greater supply than clear objectives, strategic insights, and a structured process. As an innovation specialist at brand and marketing consultancy Prophet, I once attended a session where the leader insisted that we dangle crystals over a list of concepts to identify the idea with the most "energy." (The winning idea was as arbitrary as its selection method.) With all of the bad practices out there, it's easy to see why the very word "workshop" causes many of us to duck and run.

But when done well, workshops are highly effective vehicles for engaging individuals and teams around innovation challenges, promoting creative thinking by incorporating multiple perspectives, and speeding commercialization of fresh ideas. In the words of one of our clients: "It's great to see everyone engaged and the project gaining traction and momentum. The workshop helped us get so much further in such a short time."

Furthermore, workshops make innovation tangible and provide a touchstone that employees can go back to the next time they're called upon to think differently. After participating in a workshop, a client in the B2B space told us, "It struck me yesterday that our team seems to be gaining competence and confidence with this innovation thing!"

It's true that systemic, sustainable innovation is complex. Ideation workshops are not a replacement for a structured innovation process and growth strategy, and they will not convert a risk-averse culture in a single day. Still, they can be effective paths to new ideas. And at the end of the day, ideas are central to innovation, which, in turn, is how companies create value and deliver growth.

So how are leading innovators using workshops to create value? I've outlined a few examples below:

Frito-Lay's Innovation Symposia: Inspiring Fresh Thinking and Renewed Energy

In the highly competitive food and beverage business, a key performance driver is "new and improved" products. From new flavors and packages to entirely new products, innovation is a critical part of day-to-day business. When you are constantly striving for the next new thing, though, the challenge becomes how to keep thinking fresh and engagement high. PepsiCo's (PEP) Frito-Lay does it by conducting yearly "innovation symposia." These turbocharged workshops bring more than 100 people and 10 brands together for several days of inspiration, outside perspectives, and ideation to jump-start the innovation process with renewed energy, engagement, and ideas.

GE's Experiential Workshops: Empowering Leaders to Think and Manage Differently

Rightly recognized as an innovation leader, General Electric (GE) is working hard to develop businesses and business leaders that are agile, highly adaptable, and embrace change. Workshops are a key transformation tool where leaders can learn these skills in a collaborative, hands-on environment. Recognizing that it is human nature to challenge and question ideas imposed by others, GE employs workshops where leaders roll up their sleeves and create their own solutions. This approach helps managers embrace new ideas and has been used successfully to explore new markets, unveil new customer strategies, and develop high-potential leaders.

Timberland's New Product Boot Camp: Product Development Through Open Innovation

Open innovation is a hot topic, and with good reason. No matter how big you are, it's a safe bet that most of the pertinent intellectual property resides outside your walls. (Kraft Foods (KFT), for example, estimates that 98 percent of food-related IP is owned by outsiders.) Tapping external resources is an effective way to boost growth and extend internal innovation brainpower. To pay off, though, open innovation requires a culture, infrastructure, and posse of enablers. Timberland (TBL) understood this when it tapped Prophet to lead a product-development workshop that brought together more than 60 global supply-chain partners for a week to develop production-ready blueprints. In the short term, the collaboration resulted in new product ideas and radically accelerated time from concept to commercialization. But another benefit was long term: strengthened partnerships.

Trustmark's Renaissance: Winning Top-Level Support for Transformation

Trustmark is a conservative place populated by people who are paid to minimize risk—it's an insurance company, after all. But when this nearly 100-year-old business found its revenues getting squeezed by industry consolidation and regulatory changes, senior leaders knew it was time for reinvention. Recognizing that change had to start with them, Trustmark's top 250 leaders embarked on a series of innovation workshops to help them look beyond actuarial tables and stimulate thinking about the company's future. The approach may have felt unconventional, but thanks to the off-campus sessions, senior leadership clarified and bought into the need for organizational transformation. Since embarking on "The Trustmark Renaissance," the company has evolved into an organization where fresh thinking is encouraged and fresh products and services are generating revenue.

As these examples underscore, most market-moving thoughts, ideas, and solutions don't simply leap off spreadsheets and PowerPoint decks. They come from people discovering insights for themselves and finding the personal passion and energy to push those ideas to fruition. Workshops help set the right conditions for this type of discovery. They create the space for organizations to practice experimentation, collaborate and discover insights, and apply their ideas to their most pressing business challenges.

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