My Philosophy is to Empower the Team

Interview with IdeaConnection facilitator Lisa Singh
By Paul Arnold
Lisa Singh is one of IdeaConnection's most experienced facilitators. She brings an incredible wealth of skills, talents, vision and energy to challenge teams, and with them has chalked up numerous successes over the years.

In this interview, she talks about how she works with different kinds of solvers and how facilitating our teams is helping her career. She starts with a look back at some of her standout moments from the previous year:

I think there's been a lot of successes and a lot of challenges over the last year or so. The successes are of course whenever we win a challenge, while the challenges have been in the new changes that have taken place. Idea Connection has a new client that is seeking a wide range of more creative solutions that are patentable, which means there is a little bit more flexibility in the solution.

If a solution seeker is looking to develop a patentable technology then we can be more flexible in how we want to address it as opposed to challenges where solvers are given a problem and that exact problem has to be solved. If the solution isn’t within those parameters you don’t get it funded (win the financial reward).

Lisa SinghThe changes are an incredible opportunity. Solvers can create something that may have use and may be marketable. It can be very exciting. However, there was a lot of resistance on the part of some of the solvers, because, you know, some people don’t take changes well. But I felt like they were missing incredible opportunities.

How did you try and change the perspectives of the stuck-in-the-muds?

Initially, what I tried to do was to give everyone a voice. I really believe that is the way to go, give people a chance to let go of their feelings by talking about them. However, I found this approach wasn’t working well in our timeframe. Some solvers were concerned about working on something that may not get funded.

I tried to convince them that it would be, but I wasn't able to switch a couple of people. However, I'm a quick learner. So then I took the other approach of looking at the positives and the potentials. And when you focus on those, you get people to switch.

What successes have you chalked up in the last year?

I've had challenges that were funded or partially funded and a few that were close to getting funded. And I feel that if I get close to getting funded then I've done very well with the teams, because some of the challenges are very difficult.

Do you get to work on the same sorts of challenges?

I get a wide range of challenges because I not a scientist. But the biggest challenge for me in fact is managing personality and culture, and sometimes I make a mistake. For example, I might not realize that one culture needs a little more structure than another.

How do you manage this?

It is complex and I need to flex my style. Sometimes, I may start off with an informal style and then realize that a couple of my solvers need more formality, so then I flex myself to become more formal. I flex my style to meet the needs of the team.

So there's not a homogenous approach, you'll adapt to different members of each team.

Absolutely. I have to adjust for each team depending on the makeup of the team.

You have been facilitating IdeaConnection challenge teams for many years. Do you still get the same satisfaction out of it as you did when you first started?

I do, because I find that for me, a lot of the satisfaction comes from the challenges presented by facilitating these teams. And there are a lot of challenges in doing these facilitations. I am constantly trying to hone my skills and how I approach things.

I find I also become more flexible, and this is important because I think the greatest skill that I have to offer is the ability to be flexible and meet what the team needs. Because ultimately, the goal is to get them to hand in a good solution, whether it gets funded or not. My job is to get them to hand in a solution on time, and it should be credible and be noticed as something that is recognizably good.

And to get there in a way that ensures everyone has had a richly creative experience?

It should be a satisfying experience, it should be fun. Creative people are like kids. In general, people who are creative approach life like a child exploring, and these challenges involve the same kind of thing.

It’s like: “Wow, how can I do this? How can I take these chemicals and mix them differently and make them do something? How could I discover this?” Also, when team members gel, then you have a really good time. For example, if one person is a chemist and another is a biologist, and the chemist says: “Well you can do this” and the biologist replies: “I never thought of using that chemical, let me go do it”. Then, it’s fun.

So it is fun?

It is for me, absolutely. Why would I do it if not? It’s fun and I like to do it in a playful way. I prefer it when I do it informally and playfully, because that can often stimulate creativity.

Do you find your solvers respond well to this? Do some solvers come to your groups with this child-like sense of wonder and exploration?

Very many of them do, especially when it comes to an idea. They get very excited and very passionate about it. And then there are some who are more serious, and so I’ll flex to become more serious.

You talked about honing your approaches. How do you do this?

I will read books on facilitation techniques and on stimulating creative thoughts and what creativity is about. I will also take courses, especially anything free online. Right now I’m looking at improving my approach to some of the cultural differences that exist.

For example, I sometimes find things difficult with Chinese cultures, especially people from Hong Kong. They are used to being very time orientated and having a lot of future notice about meetings.

They can sometimes feel that meetings are very last minute, which can be a challenge for them. Yet we have some solvers with very busy schedules and they may only be able to give us last-minute notice that they can make a meeting. This can be difficult for people from Chinese cultures who are used to having regular meetings starting on time. So I am working on my skills to deal with these competing pressures.

It sounds like you have to be a bit of a contortionist to be a facilitator.

Yes I am. You’ve got to adapt and twist or move to accommodate everyone’s needs, and do that while keeping the team a cohesive unit. And my basic philosophy of facilitation is empowering the team. That’s why you have to be a contortionist. It’s not me saying: “Here let’s do it this!” That’s not what my job is. I am a facilitator not a leader, so it’s more about supporting them so they can do the work. It takes a lot more skill than I think people give it credit.

You have to be a diplomat as well?

You have to balance things, because at some point you may have to get a little bit strict to move things along. But most of the time you don’t want to go there, you want to be the listener helping them.

I had a team with a culture that was very hierarchical. There was one solver who came from a place where he was high up in his career and place of work and so he was used to being in charge. The way he approached the group was to say: “Here’s my solution everybody accept it”. Well, that of course did not sit well with some of the other solvers on the team.

I had to of course give him his respect, but at the same time I opened up the conversation with the rest of the group. This is why we have facilitators!

What would you say to anyone thinking of being a facilitator with IdeaConnection?

I would tell them that it is very rewarding work to do, but much more for the intrinsic value that it brings. That is, getting to know people who are creative, people who are scientists, but not just scientists, many other disciplines and genres as well. Being part of the creative process is enormously motivating and you get that opportunity to be in the middle of the conversations. You can make it what you want it to be. Everyone has that power.

Even during the difficult moments, it’s rewarding. I mean, it has made me a better facilitator overall. You see, my regular job besides doing this is to facilitate people in cultural transitions. I work with managers who are moving overseas. Now, when I am working with someone from a big company, say Nestlé, I tell them about my facilitation of the challenges (of course I don’t go into details about the challenges). They then immediately see me as somebody who’s like them, because I know how to facilitate a scientific team.

So if I am working with a manager of a scientific company, all of a sudden I have more credibility as a cultural trainer. Working with IdeaConnection gives me a legitimacy for some of the other work that I do. And that’s how you make it work for you.

On the one hand I am having a great deal of fun and doing something rewarding, and on the other, I am seeing how I can take this knowledge from facilitating with IdeaConnection and putting it into something else I do.

And you are part of teams where great things are happening.

Oh yes. And I can’t wait to see what solutions the teams come up with.

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