Challenge Team Reminded Facilitator of Her Glory Days in Academia

Interview with IdeaConnection facilitator Alexandra Lajoux
By Paul Arnold
Alexandra Lajoux is the founding principal of Capital Expert Services, LLC and the chief knowledge officer emeritus of the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) in the USA.

She has worked on several projects for IdeaConnection and recently facilitated a challenge related to areas of human comfort. This was her first R & D problem-solving challenge as a facilitator and the team was successful.

In this interview, Alexandra talks about her approach to facilitating the challenge, the workings of the problem-solving team - which started with five solvers, but two had to drop out - and how they arrived at a winning solution.

How did you get to be a facilitator?

Alexandra LajouxI had written a few white papers for IdeaConnection and Paul Wagorn [President, IdeaConnection] asked me to apply. So I filled in the questionnaire form online and it was so interesting to look back on my life and say – “how many times have I facilitated projects?” - and it turns out there were plenty of times, but I hadn't really thought of it as that. Filling out the online questionnaire I thought I'm a born facilitator and this is my destiny. I got assigned to the comfort project which was totally fascinating.

You’ve got this vast hinterland of experience to call on, but this is facilitating remotely, you are not in the same room as the rest of the team. What was that experience like?

Ever since I started using the Internet back in the day I've become increasingly comfortable with remote interactions but still, there were a couple of things that I had never done. I had never really used an online portal for storing and uploading documents. I knew how to do it, but it was never my first choice. I still wanted to use emails one on one.

IdeaConnection’s online portal was a little scary for me at first and secondly - this is so crazy, it's a funny confession - because of my role in the Association of Corporate Director’s I always had someone under me who could arrange conference calls and set up a conference number. I was nervous about that and it's probably the easiest thing in the world. I asked Nicole [Van Herwaarden, Senior Open Innovation Project Manager] for help and she said, “No you are on your own this is what a facilitator does. Take a deep breath.”

And so, when I held my first conference call everybody called in and we were all on time and we all spoke together, and I felt I can do this. I can be a 21st-century facilitator! And IdeaConnection’s online portal is very user-friendly.

How did you set about solving the challenge?

IdeaConnection gave us a general description of the project which was so impressive. They had already done so much thinking and research about the project and they pointed out the things the client was struggling with. The client wanted a broad approach to human comfort and some emphasis for their own industry.

I looked at this and I got a feeling for the strength of each of the team members, their backgrounds and what they could really knock out of the park. I converted the client's wish list into an outline and split this up into assignments and we all reviewed each other's work.

So, it was a very structured and methodical approach to addressing the challenge.

Yes, it was. Each person got his or her sweet spot.

Were there any logistical or other difficulties in facilitating this challenge?

One of the challenges was that one of the team members had a full day every day and could only contribute on the weekends. Although occasionally when we really wanted to talk people did wind up talking extremely early or extremely late, but it worked out nicely.

Another challenge was smoothing out the voice because we had very different backgrounds. One person would write in a way that every single reader of any educational level, any walk of life could easily understand what was said. On the other hand, there are certain things you need to say using technical terms and one person wrote it that way. So, I tried to rewrite both of them, so the voice was even throughout. I would send each person privately a marked version – “this is what I’ve written what do you think? Did I change your meaning?” And they would write back “I’ll take this but not this”. And so, by the time it was sent to the group it had already been homogenized in terms of the mid-level tone we wanted for the entire document.

How well did the team work together?

It was really magical with the three solvers and worked out so well. People had such respect for each other and were so eager to make sure the others would approve or agree with what was said. And the roles got very specific. If it’s this aspect of the area so and so has the final word. If it’s that aspect so and so has the final word. And so, it worked out well that way. The client seemed so impressed with our work that they started hinting that maybe they would want a part two, a follow-on project which remains to be seen. So, we don’t know what the future holds with that.

We all really wanted to make our deadlines and do something amazing. And so, there was a marathon feeling to it where some of us would work from a Wednesday to a Monday on nothing but the project for every available hour. Then we would all meet and exchange things and there was a great camaraderie there.

Everybody pitched in.

Definitely. One of our solvers, the generalist started writing her pieces right away well ahead of deadline and she ran out of work almost immediately. She absolutely gave it her all and was able to articulate her insights quickly and very well. So she was done very quickly and then she asked for more work. She wound up reviewing things, checking through references and some of the mind-numbing tasks just to help the team.

With the other two solvers, it was almost like waiting for a storm. You know, when the sky is gray and you know it’s going to rain and then all of a sudden there’s lots and lots of rain. The other two are both technical experts and they sent in long, massive pieces in fulfillment of their obligations. It took them longer but they came up with some amazing things.

The client accepted your solution so that must’ve been a fantastic moment when you heard the news.

Well, we had two such fantastic moments during the challenge. The first was when we sent in the reiteration with the full outline and sample text and the leader of the client group said on the phone that they really liked the writing and the approach and were so pleased. And we felt very happy about that. And then at the very, very end, we learned by email from Nicole that the client had accepted it and were so pleased, also because we received a bump up in terms of compensation. The original budget for six was then divided between the four of us and so we all received much more than we anticipated. So that was a truly great moment.

And finally, please sum up your experience of facilitating this challenge with this team?

Nothing reminded me as much of my glory days in academia working on intellectual topics with a total intellectual freedom. The ivory tower is like unto heaven. We had such a broad challenge and we had such bright minds. It was truly the life of the mind. It really felt like we were innovating and exploring new boundaries. It was intellectually so satisfying.
I truly enjoyed it and would love to do it again.

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