IdeaConnection’s problem solving teams are melting pots of ideas that form groundbreaking solutions to tough challenges. At the heart of this feverish intellectual and creative activity are the facilitators. In supporting and guiding the teams in their problem solving endeavors they perform a number of critical functions. Plus, they have a front row seat to watch innovation as it happens.
Many of IdeaConnection’s facilitators have been in their roles for several years, motivated not only by helping their teams to deliver solutions, but by numerous other factors as well. For some, like Tony Contento, it is intellectual curiosity that fires up enthusiasm:
“Expanding my own experiences and knowledge is what I like about it, and the challenges are always very interesting.”
Tony also values the networking opportunities, a sentiment echoed by Lisa Singh. She has led several successful teams and has made numerous friends along the way.
“Scientists tend to be interesting people with interesting lives and many are doing exiting things. For me, it’s that connection. I love the art of conversation and connection. My other motivations are an appreciation of science and its possibilities and being part of the creative process. If you are creative you have a bit of the child in you and it’s like being in that childlike process of discovery and that’s quite fun.”
IdeaConnection facilitator David Gleiser originally saw participation as a way of putting into practice tools he was cultivating to catalyze innovation.
“I was in the process of developing a set of tools and techniques by which I was convinced that innovation could be achieved. I was becoming more skilled in using them so I took advantage of the opportunities to use my facilitator skills to help IdeaConnection get closer to the solutions they were looking for.”
IdeaConnection's teams consist of brilliant minds from all over the world. Many solvers are leading experts in their fields, be it engineering, chemistry or biotechnology for example. Each team is a mix of solvers from different backgrounds, with a facilitator listening to and synthesizing the diverse range of perspectives on the issue at hand.
These strong interdisciplinary teams draw on and exchange ideas from their different backgrounds, and in so doing outperform individual solvers working on their own. Collaboration is the name of the game.
“We are drawing on a fantastic resource of really brilliant people,” comments Peter McCoppin, conductor, executive coach and IdeaConnection facilitator. “When these people get together and because they come from different backgrounds and so forth they just lift each other beyond their conventional game.”
“We mitigate the perspective of the problem solver believing that they're one of hundreds of people submitting a solution,” adds facilitator Sue Adams.
“Everybody in their own mind, whether they like it or not, every time they do something there's a mental evaluation, ‘Will I succeed or will I not?’ When you assume that your probability of success is low you don't give the same effort. That’s something we can avoid by going to the crowd of people that have expertise in an area and hand-selecting the best and putting them together on teams. We have people believing that they're in a team environment that has strength; that has the ability to solve this problem hands-down."
The discussions between solvers are always vigorous and robust. Corralling this mass of brainpower into a cohesive unit isn't always an easy task, especially when some solvers are not shy about coming forward with their ideas.
Skilled facilitators ensure that whilst the ideas are heard, verbose solvers are not seen to monopolize online meetings and drown out the contributions of others. All have their own ways of dealing with this, but a common solution is to get to know team members in advance of a challenge starting.
In this way, personality types and expertise can be identified which helps facilitators direct solvers to the parts of a challenge that will make best use of their talents and that they will find the most enjoyable. There are also other ways of preventing team members from dominating conversations.
“I tend to be very direct which is not always the best facilitation method, but I can be flexible with that,” says Lisa Singh. “I tend to want to get straight to business and I think scientists appreciate that because they tend to be less relationship-orientated. For me there’s also a cultural side to facilitation. You have to look at the culture. If you have a team member from a relationship culture you have to add some of the relationship flavor.”
There are some solvers who just don’t feel comfortable in a group situation even a small one. So, in helping to navigate dialogue and debate, facilitators also need to make sure that quieter members of a problem solving team are heard, that there is a level playing field where everyone can contribute equally to the team.
"We also communicate by email and writing and so those tools are there. Some people may be more comfortable communicating in that way,” says Debbie Narver. “It’s making sure they’ve got all the tools at their disposal. They all participate equally, but not in the same way."
“The quiet members are often really productive behind the scenes,” adds Tony Contento. “I might task them with different aspects of literature research or writing the final whitepaper to make sure they can still express themselves. They do have ideas, so I try to bring those out in a more contained setting and represent them to the group as their ideas later.”
It may come as no surprise that winning a financial reward for being part of a successful problem solving team is one of the most enjoyable aspects of being an IdeaConnection facilitator. However, there are many other rewards, not just the useful swelling of the bank account.
“The people I’ve met are incredible,” enthuses Debbie Narver. “I come off the calls for the most part feeling great. Just being able to work with these people is great. Often, the discussions are really energizing and positive and I really enjoy being part of that. It’s fun to watch and listen to.”
For Lisa Singh, like many other facilitators, it is a genuine thrill to be a witness to discovery and innovation.
“In one of my challenges, I watched two different disciplines connect which resulted in a new and creative direction. The chemist was saying to the biologist ‘you can do this’ and the biologist was saying to the chemist ‘how about trying this’. They got to be like little kids and that's when it is really wonderful and exciting. That's the creative process, right there.”
IdeaConnection's solvers are often working on very technical problems and creating solutions that are at the cutting edge of science, technology and engineering. By and large, facilitators do not have the same level of scientific subject matter expertise, but none of them see this as a hindrance. In fact, it is hugely advantageous.
“I think it’s probably good that I don’t have it,” commented Debbie Narver. “It means that I am not tempted to take any sides in the discussion. I like working with scientists, but I can’t contribute scientifically so it makes me neutral. Not being caught up in any position is probably a good thing.”
Some facilitators are leading science academics in their own right and occasionally use their knowledge to help a team deep probe deeper or further.
“I think a lot of the experts are a little more comfortable explaining things a little bit further when they realize what my knowledge level is,” says Tony Contento, who is also a trained scientist and university lecturer, specializing in protein biochemistry and plant cell biology.
“I know facilitators who are more experts in organizational leadership and their job typically is to facilitate to make sure the meetings are run smoothly and that the teams stay on task. Whereas I explore things with my groups a lot. I try to get all the answers and make sure everyone is on the same page.”
Before embarking on a new challenge, David Gleiser studies the subject matter so that he can share some common language with solvers. At other times, such is the complexity that he asks them to provide him with a little tuition.
“One of my questioning techniques is to say ‘guys you will have to explain this to the seeker in any case so you better explain it to me in a way I can understand it.’ And I challenge them to explain things to me. Once they do, they have made clear what they’re thinking so that anyone can understand the solution. A good solution is a good solution because it serves the purpose. And it wouldn’t serve any purpose if people didn’t understand it.”
Together, the facilitators and solvers are members of cohesive interdisciplinary teams that are providing companies with groundbreaking solutions and world-class insights.