How to plan a valuable corporate innovation summit
At Next Mile, we’ve facilitated more than our fair share of corporate product innovation and ideation summits. This guide contains our lessons learned and general steps to ensuring it’s a success and not a snoozefest.
We’re coming up on that season! No, not the holidays. Past those. Past all the festive spirit.
Yes! After the new year begins workshop season, where we gather ‘round scuffed boardroom tables, readjust to recycled conference room air, and decorate infeasible ideas with hundreds of Post-it notes as we come together and impress each other (and the higher-ups) at our courtly summit.
As is tradition.
But this year’s corporate summit doesn’t need to repeat last year’s performative futility. It shouldn’t become the dreaded work version of your holidays’ annual slog, replete with the corporate equivalent of that dinner with the relatives where your uncle says the Thing. Again.
We can do better. Let’s step through the following to tighten things up:
- Summit purpose
- Company objectives
- Participant objectives
- Participant criteria
- Your agenda
As the summit coordinator, your clarity and intentionality on the above will help make this year’s summit valuable (but probably not painless).
A corporate innovation summit gathers usually-separated groups from throughout the company’s business units and focuses them toward product innovation along an assigned theme. Corporate product innovation summits have two key purposes:
- Showcasing good ongoing product initiatives, maximizing their internal utility by inspiring others.
- Unearthing new and adjacent product/business initiatives and determining whether they are truly worthwhile.
It sounds straightforward, but it’s more than enough work for everyone, which is part of why these are usually such a slog.
A summit can be a net positive experience when you emphasize the right parts. The company and our participants have plenty of objectives to fulfill.
Whether they say it out loud or not, your business stakeholders will have the following goals:
Aligned efforts rarely tops the list as a primary goal, but becomes more important as your summit unfolds. As people present, it’ll become clear that similar initiatives are underway everywhere, therefore eliminating misdirected effort or combining those initiatives will rapidly transform into a priority action.
Plan for it by: Mixing teams who don’t normally interact. When someone detects that someone else is doing similar work, they might beef over turf for a bit, but they’ll sort it out eventually. This is where that sorting out begins.
Your senior management can use an innovation summit as a lens **to inspect divisions and people, evaluating who’s thinking and who isn't. They’ll want to do it, too, seizing the opportunity to highlight and/or unmask leaders. We’ve seen one corporation going as far as placing a division lead who was a suspected dud in a key speaking position to help reveal him as unimaginative.
Plan for it by: Deploying senior managers where their evaluative eye adds value. Don’t waste their time (or yours) by booking them for all-day slots. Be precise and they’ll attend.
The #1 internal threat to corporate product innovation is inertia. Your leaders approved this summit to fight that inertia and gin up interesting and innovative work. In many cases, they’ll also use the summit to place corporate dollars behind division projects. Some motivating questions we’ve heard include: "Do we have enough good ideas? What's worth incubating with corporate dollars?"
Plan for it by: Getting specific and clear with your corporate champions and division-level participants whether your summit’s a showcase, a shark tank, or both. Ambiguity will create several “I wasn’t ready”s and “I didn’t know”s in the summit’s various presentations.
If this summit is a shark tank, your internal and external expert facilitators may be asked to evaluate and rank each proposed initiative so corporate can award winners. We often play this role at Next Mile.
Here’s what the competitive presentation format does for participants:
Several executives observed that one summit was "curious, like looking at a fishbowl". Corporate leaders were motivated to look, division leaders were motivated to look good. As a result, their summit was decidedly not a free-lunch goof-off session.
We encountered another interesting purpose at a similar summit: company leaders "reverse pitched" their audience with big problems that need solving and could be funded. This may or may not make sense for you.
Plan for it by: Teeing up all the fiddly logistics that support competitive pitching like days, times, rooms, internal experts, external experts, evaluators, evaluation formats, and award criteria. This one can be a ton of work, but the work done here can set the pace for an entire year’s efforts.
Summit participants need reasons to participate versus merely being present and accounted for. Here’s what you can help them gain:
Most often, corporate lures participants with potential funding. Often, said funding will have multiple rounds. In an example we helped facilitate, corporate wound up funding 7 initiatives in a first round, later cutting that down to 4 as ideas proved feasible or infeasible.
Plan for it by: Helping your corporate sponsors clearly define and articulate the stakes and the funding process. Any ambiguity will make the prize feel nebulous and unattainable.
The key questions posed by leaders, facilitators, and division staff will be useful to all. Exposure to other groups' thinking, plans, and people equip participants with intelligence and shortcuts they wouldn't have otherwise known and can accelerate innovators around impasses they’d been stuck on.
Plan for it by: You’ve already planned for this one by deliberately mixing staff at the division and team level.
As a consequence of the executive attendance and attention, summit participants (and especially presenters) will gain significant visibility from your corporation’s executive body.
Plan for it by: Remember the part about being precise when using executives’ time? Play the summit out in your mind from a participant’s perspective. What moment will provide them with the best exposure? A presentation? Group exercise? A panel? Whatever that is, plant your execs there.
Who participates and why will have a serious impact on your summit's ultimate outcomes.
Usually, division staff will be your primary players and your senior executive team the primary audience. Internal centralized services staff can participate or facilitate, but an innovation summit isn't for them per se.
Plan for it by: Explicitly defining your primary players and your primary audience. Then, specify why they should be there. Yes, write it down, it’s less obvious than you want it to be.
With the proper bait, such as a nice lunch or corporate money for division projects, participants show up. They will not show up for undefined nonsense, and they sure won’t participate if they do. At the last summit we ran, 24 teams of 5 people each came to vie for the prize and the roast beef sandwiches.
Plan for it by: You don’t need a pot of gold, just be clear about why someone should go. Whatever it is, would you say yes to that?
Here’s a task that we, as paid facilitators, won’t undertake but do recommend: determining who should come, who should sit next to who and when, which executives to bring through at what time, etc.
Additionally, since division participants were required to submit their ideas/presentations prior, our stakeholders got a sneak preview of who was really thinking and who wasn't.
Plan for it by: Some light affinity mapping combined with your own sense of internal politics can help you determine who should present what or sit next to who. It won’t be perfect, do your best.
There’s no secret here: get people out of the office.
The cliche/phrase NIHITO or "nothing important happens in the office" is meant to motivate market-facing activity, but applies to summits and workshops as well.
I know, I know, we’re in the midst of the return-to-office movement, and it’s a hard sell due to left-out, sad-faced corporate real estate. But you remember the office and all the innovation that didn’t happen there. Why punish people with their own routine?
Plan for it by: It helps to book something a little unexpected without being kitschy or cringe. We’ve used art centers to great success. Catering also helps keep everyone focused.
Who should emcee this circus? Depends on the specific demands of each agenda item. Often, insiders and outsiders facilitate different parts of a summit:
Think hard about who presents what and how that impacts your audience and that presenter's profile. There can be a lot of politicking here.
External facilitators will have domain expertise that internal staff don’t have and can keep innovation-focused sessions on the rails and out of the infeasible ideas. Additionally, external research services can produce useful, stage-setting strategic briefs that facilitators can use to kick off working sessions or the summit itself.
Plan for it by: Identifying the internal facilitator for each session, then find and fill any gaps with outsiders as required.
Above all, keep your agenda achievable. Remember, you’re not writing a to-the-second train schedule. Plan for that by considering your:
For a large company, 3–4 normal, maybe slightly-abbreviated workdays works best. Keep the intensity low—the shorter term, high-intensity workshops Next Mile used to do will drain participants and the audience too quickly and only work well with smaller audiences.
On a given day, alternating morning/afternoon time slots serves well:
Monday morning—Introduce the summit, prime the audience (more below)
Monday afternoon—Topic 1 (specific briefing, relevant division presentations, large-group exercise)
Tuesday morning—Exercise for topic 1
Tuesday afternoon—Topic 2
Wednesday morning—Exercise for topic 2
Repeat as needed.
Your summit’s introduction is easy to screw up without a solid plan. Over time, we’ve found the introductory period of a summit is best used to separate participants from their day-to-day by priming them with critical external and internal context.
Some beneficial external context includes:
- Pick topics—industries, markets, macro trends, etc., then think about your company or division's play into or against said industries, markets, and trends. For example, if you believe that autonomous vehicles impact your business, look at your play there.
- Forester and Gartner type reports are surprisingly useful here, but it's up to your facilitators, topics, and participants to make things truly concrete.
- Paint the picture inside adjacent industries—who's doing what and why?
Internal context (what divisions/groups are doing) will benefit participants primarily when used as an introduction to a key topic on a given day, but can be used during the general intro as well. If you have teams make any presentations, ask them to present their 5–10 year plans against a given issue in 5–10 minutes.
Our alternating format (topic/exercise) works because topics focus participants, while exercises get them thinking and keep things interactive. A more specific example:
- You present a topic
- Division presents their plan
- You facilitate a high-level exercise using a known format (business model canvas, value proposition design, etc.)
- Audience breaks into groups (which you should mix) to complete the high-level exercise or do another one. Focus them on business models, value obtained from solving pains and gains, etc.
- Exercise discussion/debrief/lessons learned.
No need for big reveals. No need for high-touch intervention, either. Set the exercise, let people do it, then discuss. Exercises must be directional, focusing, and useful for the business against the topic, even if they don't produce the answer then and there (they won't).
A few final tactical notes:
- Give people time to reflect
- Allow space to handle emergency stuff
- Give people time to sleep on it
- Don't go too long on any day
At Next Mile, we’ve facilitated innovation summits and workshops large and small. If you’ve been challenged by your business or market to create a desirable connected product, contact us—we’d love to help you get started.