Over time, Knowinnovation has worked out that the optimal length of one of our innovation workshops, a Sandpit or an Ideas Lab, is five days. That gives ample time for participants – strangers when they walk in the door – to feel each other out, find some common (and uncommon) ground and begin to trust each other, intellectually. It also takes time to unpick the challenge area. People may arrive thinking they understand it, but it may be that they understand only a portion of it. The exercise of defining the scope of the challenge together, as a group, informs a broader perspective and helps to avoid making assumptions about the problem. But that takes time.
The ideas actually come quite swiftly, if the diverse group of participants have mingled enough and if the challenge area has been throughly explored and deconstructed. What requires more time and nurturing is the development of those budding ideas. At an Ideas Lab, we like to spend more than a full day improving and critiquing the ideas so they benefit from repeat rounds of peer feedback reviews that really enhance the quality and feasibility of the original thinking.
Ideally, the whole process takes five days. And for some people, that’s a long time for a workshop.
A few times we’ve attempted to achieve the same outcome in four days. We got close, but the final proposals felt not quite fully developed. Inevitably a few participants come up at the end and said, “I wish we had another day.”
We’ve worked with some individual universities who wanted to follow the Sandpit model, but couldn’t afford to pay for the 5-day event that most funding agencies are able to support. For them, we constructed a 3-day compact version of the workshop, known as a Jumpstart. It is just that: a jump into the science that gets people started thinking in an inhabitual direction. It produces the initial nuggets of for novel research, but then it’s up to the participants, after the workshop, to continue to develop these nascent ideas, without the benefit of all the peer feedback from the rest of the group.
It’s better than not having had the chance to work as a group to review the challenge and generate new ideas as a group, and the research projects that come out of this shorter meeting can and do thrive. But still, at the end of a Jumpstart a handful of people come up to us and say, “it’d be nice if we had just another day or two.”
Time is a resource that is so valued, it’s become hard to ask people to step away from their routines for too long. Is the concern that it will impose upon them too much, all the work that piles up while they’re gone? Or a fear that they won’t come at all, refusing to volunteer a week of their lives in one stretch?
Yet most of the participants of a week-long event – not all, but most – report to us at the end that it was really a luxury to dedicate a whole week, without interruptions, to thinking about science. The deep dive that is possible over the span of a week is nourishing and produces radically different results. Very often, participants are gobsmacked that we covered such a great distance in such a short time. “I can’t believe how far we got in only five days.”
All of a sudden, five days seems incredibly short. The ground we’ve covered, implausible to people even though they’re the ones who traversed it. The time taken out of our normal routine has been so valuable, in terms of the content and the professional connections, that nobody seems to mind that it was five whole days away. We’re all tired, no doubt, but maybe we begin to think differently, about the value of just one more day.
Know Further: The concept of slow innovation, and taking time to perfect ideas. The pros and cons of taking time off to innovate. Christian Marclay’s 24-hour synchronized film, The Clock, raises our awareness about time. Some thoughts about interruptions in the workplace, and managing distractions so you have time to think, thoroughly. Are we really too busy or is it just an excuse?
Credit: “It’s a Long Story” is a painting by Dan Walker.