How to innovate on a budget in 7 easy steps

Start small. "15 well-screened participants may be all you need," says Maryse Belles-Isles.

Adèle Manseau | Desjardins Group

Developing products for your clients... with your clients? That's exactly what co-creation workshops are all about!

"Creativity is the art of coming up with ideas, and innovation is the art of making them happen," says Mathieu Bélisle, who heads up the innovation team at Desjardins. "Co-creation," he continues, "is a budget-friendly hybrid of the two. It's creation through collaboration."

Investing without spending
Co-creation doesn't have to cost a lot of money--but be prepared to invest some time.

"Preparation is 80% of co-creation workshops," says Maryse Belles-Isles, a member of Desjardins's marketing team. According to Maryse, the key to a successful workshop is planning: everything from who should attend to how the day should unfold.

Want to give a co-creation workshop a shot? Follow these steps:

1. Identify the problem
Are you getting too many customer returns? Are new regulations forcing you to change your process? Have you noticed a change in your customers' behaviour? You need to clearly identify the problem you want to solve so that you can define objectives for your workshop.

Understanding the problem is key. It's the foundation of the entire process and will affect all the other choices you make as you go along.

2. Come up with participant profiles
The goal: to clearly define the clientele affected by the problem, while also ensuring variety. By including people with opposite profiles, you'll have a better chance of sparking productive discussions. There are qualities you need everyone to have, though, including communication skills, creativity, and teamwork skills.

"Your participants don't need to be satisfied customers, because you're looking to change things. The main quality you're looking for is a willingness to problem-solve and work with you to build your business," says Maryse.

3. Find your participants
Where do you look? Start simple: run through the list of your customers, suppliers and employees. Try word of mouth. And why not social media?

Some kind of financial incentive might also be effective--something to thank participants for investing their time and creativity.

As soon as you recruit a participant, create a communication channel with them (like a private Facebook group) to get to know them, make sure they understand the process, give them some preparatory homework, and follow up with them after the workshop is over.

4. Decide on a format
In-person or online? Whichever one you choose, make sure you give yourself enough leeway to make adjustments as you go along. Every meeting will be an opportunity to improve the concept based on the experience of the last meeting.

But don't overdo it! If the format requires too much from your participants, you run the risk of losing them.

Start small. "15 well-screened participants may be all you need," says Maryse. "It's a big enough group to break into mini-groups, but small enough to run activities with the whole group and still have meaningful discussions." 

Feel free to include employees, provided they agree to let other participants do most of the talking and are willing to be open-minded and get out of their comfort zone.

5. Choose a facilitator
Decide if you want to facilitate yourself, hire an expert, or a combination of the two.

The role of the facilitator is to move the workshop along smoothly, keep up a good pace, encourage creativity, and get people to share their goals, ambitions and feelings. "A facilitator is there to facilitate--they leave the talking to the participants," says Maryse.

6. Get planning
If you opt for an in-person format, it's important to choose a venue that will make people feel comfortable, stimulate their creativity and encourage them to talk. As for materials, there's no need to get fancy: think giant Post-Its, markers, Legos, etc.

To get things started, plan an ice-breaker to help participants break out of their normal headspace. Once you get a conversation going, you'll want everyone to feel comfortable speaking up. You're looking for a variety of opinions to help you come up with ideas.

Make sure you keep a steady pace, with regular breaks (and food, for in-person workshops!) to keep your participants energized.

7. Work toward consensus
This isn't a brainstorming session; the idea is to come up with actual concrete solutions. At the end of the day, you want to come to a consensus that will lead to a clear result: "How would you solve this problem?"

Don't hesitate to turn promising ideas into a rough prototype (mock-up, video, PowerPoint, 3D model, skit). "Get participants to discuss the prototype," suggests Maryse. "Their thoughts and feedback will help you fine-tune the concept until you have the result you want."

6 important things to remember
1. Jump in and make adjustments along the way--don't aim for perfection from the get-go.
2. Make sure you tell your participants that their contributions will be put to good use, and offer a financial incentive to compensate them for their time.
3. Make sure they know from the start that there's a possibility none of the solutions you come up with will be used (whether due to financial reasons or other factors).
4. Start small: focus on a project that's small in scope (or less tech-involved, for example) and limit your group size.
5. Be open to changing your mind! The feedback you get won't always be the feedback you want.
6. Find a simple way to mock up promising ideas so you can test them out and get a group consensus, which will hopefully lead to the result you're looking for.

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