Publications by

Amnon Levav

Amnon Levav

Amnon spent the last 22 years in 30+ countries, helping people and companies determine their future by imagining viable alternatives to their current way of thinking and doing. Amnon’s experience ranges from startups to multinationals, and he is especially passionate about social innovation

Useful Lessons to Learn from an Innovation Facilitation Session

Published on: November 1, 2017 в 9:58 am

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Categories: innovation,innovation facilitation

Several years ago…

I facilitated a New Product Development workshop (innovation facilitation session) at a large corporation in the American Midwest.  At our insistence, a Sales Manager was added to the team.  Why did his presence require an effort? Pulling a sales rep from his/her daily toil is not an easy task, but we insisted their presence is crucial in a product development effort.

As expected, this extremely energetic, intelligent and experienced Sales Manager, who we shall call Dale, was the soul of the innovation facilitation session. He readily shared his understanding of the company’s clients, their needs, wants, fears and motivations. He also possessed – pardon the stereotype – the classic sales-champion talent for engaging his colleagues in entertaining conversation, and generally spreading around an excellent vibe, telling jokes and recounting sales-battle stories where relevant.

So, it isn’t surprising that we started a bit of back-and-forth good spirited banter. At some point, Dale came up with an idea. And when another colleague pointed out an obvious flaw, Dale immediately pivoted, without losing a second, and came up with an improved version. “That reminds me of a joke,” I said to Dale and the team, and proceeded to tell it:

A Joke or a Misunderstanding?

 

One guy, call him Dale, in my home town of Tel Aviv, applies for a job in a supermarket. After a short conversation, the manager says to Dale: “There’s a customer, let’s see how you assist him.”  Dale walks over and the customer hands him a watermelon that he had just picked up from the shelf and asks to buy only half of it. Dale takes the watermelon, walks over to the manager, and says: “Some idiot asked for half of this watermelon.” The manager, in distress, tries to signal to Dale that the customer had walked behind him and heard Dale’s words. Dale immediately understands, and completes the sentence: “…and this gentleman here, would like the other half.”

 

watermelon innovation facilitation

Laughter, laughter, but the joke doesn’t end here…

 

The manager is really impressed with Dale’s agility and ability and says: “Listen, Dale, that was impressive. How would you like the job of manager of our store in Jaffa?” “Jaffa?” Dale says. “They say everyone there is either a prostitute or a soccer player.” The manager is a bit taken aback and says “Actually, my sister is from Jaffa.” “Which team does she play on?” answers Dale without a second’s hesitation.

Big laughter in the room, but I detect some ambivalence and unease. Was it my mention of the word “prostitutes” (not sure I would dare repeat it nowadays in a corporate setting)? No. Something else, which I discovered only at the end of the day when the two project owners invite me to dinner. One detail I failed to mention: Dale (the real one, not the joke character) was African-American. And to my utter surprise, that evening I learned that “watermelon” has a special connotation in this context. From Wikipedia: “Watermelons have been viewed as a major symbol in the iconography of racism in the United States since as early as the nineteenth century.”

First thing I did the next morning was, of course, have a conversation with Dale. He had noticed obviously in the innovation facilitation session, but he assured me he had no doubt whatsoever that I had been ignorant of the context and connotations, so he was not offended in any way. He did feel uncomfortable though with his colleagues’ looks and concern. He knew it was nonsense. They knew it was nonsense.

So why the unease? A hard loop to get out of, but, as often happens in the corporate context, we had a task to accomplish which didn’t leave time for brooding. We went back into the room, and I shared with the group that my blunder had been pointed out to me.  I was using my privilege as an ignorant outsider to point out the absurdity of it all. The ice was then broken, and we jumped back into the work.

Now that you’ve read about a pitfall that can happen in an innovation facilitation session, check out how you can overcome your innovation challenges.

Innovative Concepts: Managing “Air-Time to Contribution”

Published on: October 16, 2017 в 11:59 am

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Categories: innovation

My mother liked to strike up conversations with strangers of all stripes, and it was one of my favorite childhood pastimes to listen in. But sometimes, when they babbled away uncontrollably, she would turn to my sister and me and mumble: “mental constipation, verbal diarrhea”.

Innovative Concepts in dealing with Air-time

My professional life provides, alas, many occasions in which I am reminded of this indelicate quip.  With a softer approach in mind, I developed a practical tool for managing the contributions of participants in a workshop that I would like to share with you.

Mentally visualize the participants, each placed in one of four quadrants, defined by two axes:

  • Quantity – the amount of air-time they tend to occupy (how often and how much they speak)
  • Quality – your assessment of their potential contribution to achieving the goals of the session.

innovative concepts

Innovative Concepts to keep in mind

A’s – Balance OK, no harm to the dynamics, unless there are too many A’s in the room, which means that something is terribly wrong. But even if there are relatively few A’s, it is worth exploring: Maybe an A shouldn’t have been there in the first place? If so, is it too late to release them from this unnecessary commitment? Maybe they can be highly valuable elsewhere? But maybe all they need is to better understand their role in your workshop and what they could potentially contribute. I remember a Plant Manager in Mexico who was sure that the Marketing Manager and her team should be allowed to lead an enthusiastic discussion about new products without any spoil-sport manufacturing comments from him, until I explained that his professional considerations (provided that they were phrased constructively) were crucial guidelines within which the marketing team, and others, could let their imagination fly. Participants in each quadrant require different treatments.

B’s – Need controlling, because they are misusing the team’s most valuable asset – time. There are many ways, some more subtle than others, to control a rampant B, and your task is as delicate as it is crucial to the success of the engagement. First, there is high potential for hurt feelings, and second, the possibility always exists that there is, in fact, more value in B’s contribution than initially meets the “ear”.

C’s – Can be easily mistaken for A’s and left alone. Thus, their potential contribution is lost, with unfortunate consequences both for them and the team. An important task for you as facilitator is to find a moment – probably during a break – to conduct your differential diagnosis: is the introverted engineer from R&D an A who shouldn’t have been invited in the first place, or is he an invaluable trove of coaxable, priceless information?

D’s  Are a facilitator’s best friends. They contribute. They sustain the energy. They give you the (positive) feedback you need. They will extract you from those uneasy moments of general silence. They are truly your allies. But beware of the trap of allowing them to lead the discussion uni-directionally, squelching other voices that may open the more innovative avenues you would like to explore.

In summary, all participants are your friends and allies, but a balanced management of “air-time to contribution” requires differential treatment for each and every one of them.

Found these innovative concepts useful? Now its time to learn how to break your fixedness and become a green innovator!

3 Useful Lessons from Innovation Facilitation Sessions that Went Wrong

Published on: September 27, 2017 в 10:38 am

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Categories: innovation,innovation facilitation

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We’ve all been at meetings, or in an innovation facilitation, in which we couldn’t wait for someone to stop talking. Some may say that in an innovation facilitation session any contribution to the discussion is helpful. But what happens if you are the one facilitating the meeting?

 

3 lessons I learned the hard way, during an innovation facilitation

As an innovation facilitator for more than 20 years, I put forth considerable effort to give each participant the chance to express herself/himself throughout the discussion. Sometimes, though, there is a pressing need to achieve quick results, and hearing out the ramblings of someone who is thinking out loud or the lengthy suggestion of a participant whose opinion doesn’t really count much in the organization, doesn’t seem to be the best use of the team’s time.

Still, from an ethical point of view, each voice is valuable, and practically speaking, it is often the reticent engineer from R&D or the shy lawyer from Legal who throw in the comment that swings the entire discussion towards a new and fruitful direction.

Given the compelling arguments – both moral and practical – I tend to monitor discussions attentively to ensure everybody gets a fair chance to contribute, regardless of their ability to wrestle for air time. Imagine my surprise then, when I learned that within a single month, I managed to offend two participants, in two separate workshops, who both felt I had deliberately avoided allowing them the opportunity to contribute to the innovation facilitation discussion.

In the first case, the participant actually got up and left the room. Although a somewhat dramatic and unpleasant moment ensued, it thankfully indicated that I had a serious problem, which I was able to deal with in the next break.

In the other case, I only learned about my mistake in the evening, from the process owners to whom my victim had complained. Luckily, we had an additional workshop session the next day, which allowed me to have a clearing-the-air conversation the next morning, before the workshop started. This, however, raised a nagging thought: I wondered how many other offended participants I had left behind throughout my 22 years of facilitation, without even noticing or discovering it, even after the fact.

 

My immediate learnings from these two traumatic experiences:

 

As an innovation facilitator, you have a commitment to the process owners: achieve results! But you also have a contract with the participants: honoring the time and brain power they have put in your hands. They must all be given a chance to express themselves.

  1. Don’t assume that verbose participants  in an innovation facilitation are necessarily content with their allotted time. They might not understand your “global” fair-time-allocation considerations. He may have talked more than his share already, but he has a great idea now that he wants to communicate, and therefore no patience to hear what lesser minds wish to offer.

2. Use break times and facilitation cues to manage both reticent and vocal participants.

Read about the innovation facilitation session in which I offended my best participant on racist grounds (or not?), and some tips on how to manage the balance between participants’ motivation to speak and their potential contribution to the discussion.

5 Surprising Reasons Why Innovation Experts Don’t Always Rely Solely on Their Innate Creativity

Published on: August 21, 2017 в 10:59 am

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Categories: innovation

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Why would a world-renowned serial inventor fall in love with a method for inventing?

Recently, we had the pleasure of awarding, for the seventh consecutive year, a scholarship in memory of our client, mentor, and good friend, Dr. Micha Shemer, who passed away in May 2007. Micha was a brilliant inventor, innovation expert, globally renowned with numerous patents to his name. Based on his PhD, he invented an entire industry of soy-based meat substitutes, resulting in a company – Tivall, and quite a few imitators and followers.

The company went on to be acquired by Israel’s Osem, and later became part of Nestlé, where Micha’s innovation skills were put to much use. Our friendship and long-term relationship was important for us on many levels, but it also begs a fascinating professional question: who benefits more from learning a method for innovation, a novice or an expert? This question has been discussed in SIT for many years, with strong arguments on both sides, and is relevant, of course, to any method or technique that purports to assist people in becoming more innovative.

The case for teaching novices is quite obvious. Lack of skills and experience in innovation is no different than their absence in any other endeavor. The more interesting question is: why would someone who is inventing like crazy anyway, such as Micha, spend time and effort in studying and practicing – as Micha fanatically did – a method designed to teach him the very skill in which he so excelled?

I want to propose five possible reasons:

1. Re-inventing your own wheel

The Tiger Woods syndrome, or more recently Roger Federer syndrome, is the phenomenon of a master in his or her field practically dominating it, and yet taking the decision to completely change their style, re-invent the way they go about playing. At the risk of simplification and generalization, we can say that this step can be motivated either by a sense of imminent decline (as in the latter case) or by what we can just assume to be an unstoppable urge to excel without limits (the former). The mark of true innovation experts is the constant search for more and better.

2. Tools for Others- Innovation Experts

Even masters of their craft tend to prefer certain tools to others. Years ago, we analyzed the award-winning work of a leading ad agency in a European country and discovered that – in SIT terms – they tended to repeatedly use three “Thinking Tools”. It wasn’t easy to convince them that they could benefit from innovation training, but once trained, they greatly expanded their toolbox, resulting in a dramatic increase in the number of awards, including a Cannes Golden Lion.

3. Spreading the Word

It is not uncommon for inventors or innovation experts to find it hard to communicate their ideas, harness others to collaborate with them, and convince stakeholders to lend their support. As their thought processes are often different, and sometimes much quicker, from others’, they can be difficult to follow and understand. Organizing their thinking methodically can be very effective in overcoming the communication challenge, provided, of course, that this regimentation does not stifle their inventiveness.

4. Teaching Curve

Micha loved to teach. He was a great teacher, but the method allowed him to take his teaching a step further. It gave him the tools to explain his own inventions and ideas in a structured format, allowing his students to readily translate their learning into immediate, practical results.

5. Innovate In What You Eat

The fact that you are an inventor and innovator, does not mean that you haven’t been eating the same steak and potatoes for the past 30 years. Learning an innovation method allows you to expand your innovative capabilities to areas that were previously out of your innovation bounds. Micha, for example, did not limit his use of the tools to his regular work as a food technologist and inventor.

He also radically applied the Subtraction technique, by banishing PowerPoint presentations from his courses and lectures. The effect on audiences was impressive, but no less moving was Micha’s recurring enthusiasm at the opportunity to replace, time and again, the missing presentation with yet another new exercise, video or additional inventive idea.

Cracking Innovator’s Innovation

The argument has been practically settled years ago, and you can probably guess how. Time and again, we see that newcomers to the world of innovation gain huge value from learning a method. However, the most impressive leaps are achieved, contrary to what many would think, by seasoned innovation experts who are still open to refresh their thinking and enrich their toolbox by learning and adopting an innovation methodology.

Now that you understand the importance of innovation methods, check out how to break your mental fixedness and become a green innovation expert.

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