To Facilitate or Not to Facilitate Innovation

To facilitate or not to facilitate innovation goes beyond the want or need for innovation. Facilitation is about a content-neutral process to support innovation. This blog post was inspired by Fulcrum Connection’s Science of Success podcast interview with sustainability guru Andrew Winston (sign up for Fulcrum Connection’s Quadrant II Newsletter at to find out when and where podcasts will be posted). The podcast explores the type of collaboration needed to address society’s most pressing environmental challenges. This blog post explores the role of facilitation in innovation as gleaned from the podcast.

Merriam-Webster defines a facilitator as follows: one that helps to bring about an outcome (as learning, productivity, or communication) by providing indirect or unobtrusive assistance, guidance, or supervision. The International Association of Facilitators ( claims the following on their web site: Good facilitation can change the way people think and act, and ultimately support them to positively change the world around them. In other words, if it is mission-critical for an organization to change the way its members or key stakeholders think and act, then professional facilitation is the answer. This post considers three topics specific to facilitation for innovation. The first topic is the types of innovation that call for facilitation. The second topic is the importance of effective facilitation. The third and final topic is what distinguishes an effective facilitator from a poor facilitator for innovation.

If it is mission-critical for an organization to change the way its members or key stakeholders think and act, then professional facilitation is the answer.

Valerie Patrick

To explore the first topic, the types of innovation that call for facilitation, let’s look at the types of innovation. I found five different ways to describe types of innovation.

In one way, Glen Ford describes innovation on a continuum from operational at one pole to true innovation at the other pole (Glen Ford Innovation Continuum ). Glen characterizes one pole as innovations that are easy to identify and implement and that represent small changes with low risk and low reward. In contrast, the innovations at the other pole are hard to identify and implement but are radical changes with high risk and high reward.

Similarly, in a second way, Seth Kahan describes an innovation continuum from incremental improvement on one end to total transformation at the other end (Seth Kahan on Innovation). Seth describes incremental improvement as doing something you are already doing only better. Seth describes total transformation as a change that impacts the whole system. However, Seth distinguishes the two ends of the continuum based on effort and metrics: incremental improvement takes less effort and the impact is easier to measure than total transformation.

In a third way, three types of innovation are identified as evolutionary, expansionary, and revolutionary ( Evolutionary innovation addresses the question of how to do things better, expansionary innovation addresses the question of how to do things differently, and revolutionary innovation explores redefining problems and creating new paradigms.

Fulcrum Connection provides the fourth and fifth ways to describe types of innovation through two-by-two matrices shown below. One matrix categorizes innovation from a product and service development perspective while the second matrix characterizes innovation from a manufacturing perspective. For example, an improvement from the product/service development perspective is one or more features of the product or service are changed incrementally in response to customer input or competitive/societal pressures to grow the existing market. However, an improvement from the manufacturing perspective is one or more settings or operating procedures for equipment have been changed incrementally to reduce costs or increase product yield.

Innovation Types Fulcrum Connection 2Nov2015

These five different ways to categorize types of innovation mean that innovation is context-dependent. What is incremental versus novel innovation for one department, organization, or industry may look quite different than for another department, organization, or industry. However, one thing that is needed for the novel extreme of innovation (true innovation, total transformation, revolutionary innovation, white space, or disruptive) is diverse perspectives. The diverse perspectives are needed because novel innovation is hard and the presence of diverse perspectives can generate the creativity needed to think in a new way and to overcome challenges in producing value from the new idea. But the presence of diverse perspectives is not enough to generate creativity, social intelligence must also be present. Professional facilitation is a surefire way to run meetings with social intelligence so diversity can be put to work generating creative solutions rather than slowing things down when not managed well. It is not surprising that novel innovation has a high failure rate. This is because multiple perspectives and the right team conditions are needed to support the creativity needed to overcome obstacles to novel innovation. Unfortunately, most project leaders don’t understand the science of creativity in groups (see Dr. Keith Sawyer’s book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration), and, unintentionally, block creativity rather than nurture creativity for novel innovation. Regardless of which innovation categorization best fits your situation, the skill of facilitation is most needed when the risk is high, when the challenge is high, or when both risk and challenge are high.

The second topic is the importance of effective facilitation. Facilitation is permanent just like practice is permanent. In the case of practice, if you practice good technique then you will improve but if you practice bad technique then you will get worse. In the case of facilitation, if you experience effective facilitation, then group performance improves but if you experience ineffective facilitation then group performance is poor. When you experience the difference that effective facilitation can make, you raise the bar on all future group interactions. However, when you experience the damage that poor or non-existent facilitation can do, you tend to avoid future group interactions. An effective facilitator is a guide, working on behalf of a sponsor, and focused on process to achieve what the group needs to achieve in a way that the group agrees is valid. A facilitator must be able to perform the balancing act of satisfying the needs of both the sponsor and the group in the most effective way possible. A facilitator also needs a broad range of social skills. For example, a facilitator needs influencing skills to gain group consensus on the most effective group processes and decisions for action. A facilitator also needs insight into group discussions to be able to identify what is most appropriate to achieve in the group versus outside the group. Finally, a facilitator needs to be able to manage group dynamics in a way that addresses disruptive behavior without shutting down perspectives needed for group creativity.

Facilitation is Permanent

This brings us to the third topic of what differentiates effective from ineffective facilitation for innovation. I think there are three secrets to effective facilitation for innovation. The first secret is a facilitator who understands the science of creativity for individuals and for groups. An effective facilitator for innovation unleashes the creativity of individuals and of the group through science-based techniques to guide thinking, behavior, and process for the group. The second secret is a facilitator who manages the diversity of the group in a way to avoid the potential problems of group brainstorming. These problems include production blocking or the distraction of listening to others’ ideas, social inhibition or the holding back of ideas out of fear, and social loafing or not feeling as accountable working in a group as working alone. The third secret is a facilitator who can provide new ways for the group to think that can lead to valuable insights towards the group objective. This means that the facilitator employs an integrated design approach to inform implementable action by the group. In addition, the facilitator recognizes the value of subject-matter expertise and complementary adjacencies for creativity. Finally, the facilitator understands the value of proper due diligence to the innovation process and captures what is needed outside the group meeting. For example, Seth Kahan’s seven due diligence activities for innovation in his book Getting Innovation Right (see also Seth Kahan Getting Innovation Right Workbook).

Fulcrum Connection LLC solves collaboration problems for organizations. For example, Fulcrum helps organizations improve social intelligence, creativity, learning, and innovation using structured processes and proven tools. Sign up for Fulcrum Connection’s Quadrant II newsletter to receive a free white paper on five ways to improve creativity for innovation ( and stay up-to-date on Fulcrum Connection’s blog posts and podcasts. To learn more, please contact Valerie Patrick at Fulcrum Connection LLC (412-742-9675 or Also ask about our first-time client offer.