I Love Learning New Things

Interview with IdeaConnection facilitator Patty Cox.
By Paul Arnold
For more than 25 years, IdeaConnection facilitator Patty Cox worked as a management consultant and advertising agency executive. She led global sales teams and her clients included Fortune 100 companies among others.

Currently, she's in academia, and in addition to her work there is drawing on her experience of driving collaborative international groups to help IdeaConnection’s teams develop breakthrough solutions.

In this interview, Patty talks about her experience as a facilitator and how she harnesses solvers' genius and creativity. She starts by reflecting on why she hooked up with IdeaConnection in the first place.

I've been in the digital space for a while and my industry background is automotive. There have been a lot of open source car designs, and long ago I worked on a consortium for electric vehicles and I just liked that concept of open collaboration. I've also held several global roles and getting folks from different perspectives around the world is so important for innovation. That's what attracted me the most. In order to innovate you really need to have a number of different perspectives. I think that comes not just from the subject matter expertise that are brought together on teams but the different parts of the world they come from.

What sort of challenges have you worked on with IdeaConnection?

It has been a broad set of projects. And it's been interesting for me too, because I am not a subject matter expert in any of them. As a facilitator you don't necessarily have to be a subject matter expert and I have learned so much by participating in the teams.

We've done things such as animal tracking devices, a new chewing gum formulation, seed germination, ice production in vending machines, sensors for packaging freshness for consumer goods and a new consumer snack. On that one I wasn't a subject matter expert as a maker of consumer snacks but certainly was as a consumer of snacks. They were looking for a really innovative snack and the snack packaging.

You mentioned not having subject matter expertise. Is that a benefit, a hindrance or doesn't it matter at all when you are a facilitator?

I think it is a benefit because then I can objectively facilitate the team. There is a certain amount of background I do as a facilitator. We get all the challenge documentation in advance and I read that thoroughly just as I ask all the team members to do. And then I do a little of my own research. This gives me a baseline. I think it's better that I don’t have more intimate knowledge so I can listen better. Whether you try to or not you usually inject your own thoughts into things if you know too much about a subject. But I can step back and listen to everyone else and help facilitate the team to a solution that isn’t biased in any way.

I will admit with the consumer product challenge I did have an idea, which was one of the solutions we wrote up. I only thought of it conceptually, and packaging experts and chemical food specialists had to figure out how it would work. I did it that one time because I felt more comfortable knowing the topic, but in general I think it's better if I don't engage that way.

Do you have any techniques to ensure the teams work together as cohesive units?

Well, they don’t always work together well. I don’t want to make it sound like they work poorly, but you can imagine in a group of four or five folks there is always someone who is more dominant than another person or more softly spoken than someone else. I am always careful to ensure everybody gets an equal opportunity to contribute. Even given equal opportunity not everyone contributes at the same level, but that's OK because everyone is their own personality and they have whatever they have to bring to the table.

One of the things I like to do when we start in addition to a round table of introducing ourselves, is to ask team members to thoroughly read and research before our first meeting and to give their initial thoughts and ideas. I give everyone equal time to do that. We don’t make any judgments about what is said, so everyone leaves the call without any criticism of their thoughts or ideas, but they have everyone's perspectives. They can soak on all that for a little while before we come back to the next call. That’s when we’ll start thinking about things more critically, coming up with other ideas and working our way forward.

We've also had teams where other ideas tangential to the original challenge have come up. They wouldn't be appropriate solutions to submit based on the challenge request, but are sort of related, which we think could help the seeker. Even though it's not part of the challenge we'll go back to the seeker and say: ‘hey we've an additional idea, would you be willing to look at it?’
Some seekers are willing.

Has that borne fruit?

We know that those are long shots, but we have gotten interest.

How much success have you enjoyed with IdeaConnection?

We have won some challenges, but I’d like to see a higher percentage of challenges won. I work with IdeaConnection all the time to learn what I can do better to make my team's chances better. It has been worth my time, but I wouldn't say we’ve been exceedingly successful.

What excites you about being part of the challenge teams?

I love learning new things. I come away after working with these folks knowing just a little bit more on whatever it was we were working on. I am a constant student so I love that aspect of it. I also have really enjoyed my global roles over the years, and while I have stepped away from a full-time professional life and moved to academia I have missed that global aspect of work. So, it's been great to have these teams, especially when there is a rapport with team members where you can have conversations that are not just focused on the challenge. And that makes it a lot of fun for me.

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