How to Facilitate Operations to Innovate [Yes! And. Blog 185]

Operation v Innovation

“You could at least watch as I innovate”

How might you facilitate Operations to innovate?

I facilitated a workshop recently with a team of people who had the task of fostering innovation in their part of the organisation. I asked them their hopes for the workshop and one person wrote that he hoped to, “understand the roadblock mentality”.

When I inquired further on this, he explained that he could not understand why the Operations people in his area seemed to have an attitude of blocking innovation or at best, ignoring it. It was clearly very frustrating for him, as I know it is for other innovation teams.

The innovation team leader had invited to the workshop one of the Operations leaders who was very supportive of innovation. Over a cup of tea, he explained to me that many people did not appreciate that the Operations managers were totally focussed on achieving their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). He had spent a year turning round an underperforming team and while he was supportive of innovation and had encouraged it on his unit, unless the innovation initiative helped him improve his operation and did not divert resources, why would he support it?

So here are three actions you might take:

Focus on their pain

Entrepreneurs look for where people have pain and develop (create) and implement (innovate) solutions to eradicate that pain (at a price). So look for where the Operations manager is having pain and focus on the challenge that provides the opportunity to create innovative solutions. This makes innovation real, not abstract, not “the fad of the month”. Once there is some payback on initial innovation, people become more willing to take risks. Make sure everybody knows about the innovation too. Success breeds.

Make it simple. Make it real.

I worked in the payment industry and one thing I learned is that if you make the product simple enough for the user, they will use it (and vice versa). My son thinks Apple Pay is “mad” (that’s good), “it took me two seconds to pay”. It’s simple for him. So don’t ask the Operations manager to send six people on a training course to learn how to be creative. That’s not simple for her and it doesn’t ease the pain. Employ a trained facilitator to run short sessions fitted around the operation, using a simple and structured innovation approach and facilitate the team to find the solution. This focus on the needs of the operation makes innovation realistic. Short sessions are not the perfect solution but are pragmatic. When it works the first time, the manager is likely to be willing to train her people as facilitators, or at least be open to more innovation initiatives.

Provide the seed funding

Solutions often need some money to check they are feasible or develop them to a stage where approval can be sought. The Operations budget is likely focused on the day to day operation. Have budget available to the innovation team to fund the initial stages of development. Once it is proved feasible, ensure there is money to invest in it. Nothing kills innovation like lack of funding for investment.

Solutions often need a small amount of funding to check they are feasible or develop them to a stage where approval can be sought – what some people call seed funding. This may be for something as simple as travel expenses for different members of the team. One company I work with offers €5000 packages for interesting opportunities. Another has an innovation fund that allows small allocations before the opportunity has to go through too many layers.
Additional funding is important because the Operations budget is likely focused on the day to day operation. Once a team proves an opportunity feasible, ensure there is money to invest in it. The lack of funding for investment is a great tactic to discourage further innovation.

Yes, there are many other issues, but these are three key areas to focus on for any innovation team.
One further suggestion is to approach every situation with the assumption that the operations people are already innovating. They probably are but might not have noticed because to them it is just continuous improvement. An example mentioned to me was that a team moved their spare parts nearer to their operations and saved a great deal of time. Radical or disruptive innovation it is not! Yet highlighting small examples can encourage people to realise that innovation does not have to be radical and disruptive, but might lead to this. If people start to treat innovation as part of the day job, with luck it will become so.
Good luck!
PS. If you work in Operations, I would be very interested to hear your views on this article.


John Brooker I Yes! And. Think Innovatively.

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About the author

John Brooker is a former Senior Vice President of Visa and is now the MD of Yes! And where he has worked internationally with multicultural teams since 2001. John has developed the Team Impetus Model, based on Solution Focus, to help teams develop strategies to achieve targets and resolve complex challenges. He has also developed his Inn8 Approach to help teams maximise opportunities innovatively. You can listen to clients discuss the Inn8 Approach [click link] and our Solution Focus Approach [click link] or read about what we do at our website,

John is an Open University MBA and tutored on the Creativity, Innovation and Change course for 14 years. He is a Board Member of the international Association for Solution Focused Consulting and Training.