A recent check of the phrase “business innovation” with the Google Keyword Search tool showed that over 74,000 people per month from around the world were seeking information related to this phrase. Many of these searches were likely initiated by people who recognized a need for help in generating and using new ideas, solutions, and opportunities for their businesses.
This is the realm and the challenge of an Innovation Facilitator. As organizational consultants, we are often asked to act in this capacity as groups seek innovative approaches to current or anticipated challenges, customer needs, or market conditions.
What does an Innovation Facilitator do? What does it take to play this role? Is it right for you? If these questions intrigue you, read on…
What Does an Innovation Facilitator Do?
Facilitation in General
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “facilitate” means to make easier, or to help bring something about. In a business setting, facilitators often assist a group to establish and achieve a common purpose or goal. Here are two definitions of the facilitator’s role from those who work in this field:
“The facilitator’s job is to support everyone to do their best thinking and practice. To do this, the facilitator encourages full participation, promotes mutual understanding and cultivates shared responsibility. By supporting everyone to do their best thinking, a facilitator enables group members to search for inclusive solutions and build sustainable agreements.”
– Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner with
Lenny Lind, Catherine Toldi, Sarah Fisk and Duane Berger
“Facilitators guide group process toward shared outcomes with high participation ownership, and creativity.”
– Principles of Facilitation by David Sibbet
The Mission of the Innovation Facilitator
The mission and role of the Innovation Facilitator is further focused by understanding what outcomes organizations intend to achieve through innovation initiatives. These typically can be sorted into nearer term and longer run outcomes.
Nearer Term Outcomes Expected from Innovation:
In a business context, A. Baregheh, J. Rowley, and S. Sambrook1 offer the following definition of “innovation” in Towards a Multidisciplinary Definition of Innovation, Management Decision, Vol. 47, No. 8, pp. 1323-1339: “Innovation is the multi-stage process whereby organizations transform ideas into improved products, service or processes, in order to advance, compete and differentiate themselves successfully in their marketplace.”
In a wider context of social value (including both commercial and non commercial value), John Veitchʼs definition adds further insight: “Innovations are purposeful changes made to an existing product, process or service with the intention of creating additional new value.“ (John is a New Zealand-based consultant who founded the Innovation Network on Ryze.)
This may be end-user value or it may be internal or production value. We would expand this definition to include changes which, while building upon existing ideas, products, services, and processes, in fact create new products, services, or processes addressing emerging needs defined by customers or by the producers/ providers of goods and services.
Peter Druckerʼs frequently quoted observation, “[innovation is] change that creates a new dimension of performance”, seems consistent with this view of innovation.
Longer Run Outcomes or Effects of Innovation:
Bergstrand (Why New Technology Demands New Business Models. CIO. www.cio-asia.com, March 2011) observes that three larger outcomes or effects can be expected for an enterprise engaging in successful innovation: (1) the current enterprise becomes more efficient, (2) the enterprise is assisted in identifying and reaching its potential, and (3) the door is opened for creating a new type of enterprise for a different future.
Chris Harris (Building Innovative Teams) notes that the most significant and frequently-cited measures of successful innovation include (1) exceeding the customerʼs unsatisfied, unarticulated, and/or emerging needs and expectations, (2) creating a new market space, and (3) creating a superior value return.
Innovation Facilitators assist groups of people to achieve these purposes over time through collaborative meetings and processes.
What Does It Take to Be an Effective Innovation Facilitator?
Now that you have explored the role of Innovation Facilitator, you may be wondering what it takes to do the job well. Here are a set of characteristics drawn from our own work as facilitators, and from review of writings and observation of leaders in this field.
Vision – Effective Innovation Facilitators are able to visualize broader possibilities and enable others to discover their individual and shared visions of what is possible related to a perceived need or opportunity. These facilitators use development of a shared vision as a powerful lever to increase motivation, to open up thinking, and to generate ideas and initiatives that enable fulfillment of the team's vision.
Identity – Effective Innovation Facilitators are able to suspend content-related likes and dislikes and their own professional egos while facilitating, in order to assist individuals and the group as a whole discover key ideas and themes and expeditiously move forward. They recognise that group members "own" the content of each meeting, and that the facilitator is responsible for maintaining a neutral stance on content discussions and suggesting supportive processes that enable members to do their best thinking.
Key attitudes and beliefs – Effective facilitators express and embody their conviction that people in the group are able to access the information and ideas needed, to work together effectively, and to produce brilliant and innovative ideas, approaches and solutions. They believe that a supportive environment, set of tools and processes, and encouraging/positive beliefs and values will increase group members' capacities to produce breakthrough ideas appropriate to their task.
Capabilities/Strategies – These characteristics encompass your ability to (a) adopt facilitative attitudes and beliefs, (b) understand, apply, and link together basic facilitation behaviors into purposeful facilitation strategies, plans, and agendas, and (c) adapt and improvise in the moment to meet the group where it is at and guide processes that enable members to move forward together.
Specific Behavioral Skills – Innovation facilitators are masters of a wide range of communication skills, and are capable of (a) deep, active listening while performing another task such as recording, (b) writing down key phrases and ideas in the language used by members of the group, (c) posing questions to clarify and open thinking, to draw out information and ideas available from people with different perspectives and communication styles, and to honor different cultural or stakeholder expectations, (d) executing specific facilitation processes needed for innovation, (e) enabling consistent involvement of the whole group and productive use of differences in group work, and (f) managing meeting processes, information, attention, and energy to keep the group on track.
Environment – Innovation Facilitators recognize the impact of space, setting, and facilities on group thinking, and can locate or creatively transform a meeting site and resources for productive group work. Room layouts that support group innovation may be quite different than the state you find them in!
Is the Innovation Facilitator Role Right for You?
Innovation Facilitators help others go where no one has gone before, to capture high-potential discoveries from their idea expeditions, and to apply these discoveries in achieving desired business results.
- this vision excites your imagination;
- you are curious about how people think, learn, & innovate;
- you want to stimulate or help draw out valuable ideas and insights from those with different experiences, cultures and perspectives;
- your communication skills are well developed; the risk and reward of collaborative discovery appeals to you; and
- you are willing to get your ego out of the way to help your group focus, generate ideas, and succeed in its mission,
…. we welcome your interest in the extraordinary work of Innovation Facilitators and invite you to hone your abilities to serve your organization, network, or group.
Stay tuned to for future blog posts on facilitating and supporting innovation and contact us if you are interested in training for your organization or group.
Susan Berry and Randy Thomas