Innovation at edges: four facilitation principles

I have a refreshed sense of the relationship and importance of edges and convergence in enabling the emergence of new ideas and innovations. A fine awareness of the dynamics at edges (of disciplines, geographies, ecotones and comfort zones) seems necessary to facilitating successful convergence – whether that be at a conference or in a coworking space. In this post I suggest a few principles for consideration if are doing something similar.

 

The main prompt for contemplating this topic were the the Groundswell events in Geraldton. They included an investment showcase event that brought together diverse innovators and investors, a lead-in program for early-stage and high-growth ventures, and a weekend trip to the Abrolhos Islands focused on kitesurfing. The activities exposed investors from big cities (San Francisco, Sydney) to regional ventures (Geraldton, Carnarvon, Mt Magnet), and took local ventures outside their normal discipline to learn alongside others (artists with farmers, app developers and tool makers). The events happened in Geraldton and at the Abrolhos. Both are isolated locations where temperate, tropical and desert landscapes meet. Notably, many of the activities ran with parallel streams meaning few participants had the same experience.

 

The feedback from others who participated is that this ‘convergence on the edges’ experience was special and highly-valued. A common reference point for the contrast was comparing it to the experience of being in the ‘middle’ of a big city, in a big conference, amongst hundreds of others like you in your work roles. In converging at the edges instead of meeting in the middle, there was a tangible sense of spaciousness, looking outwards, mixing in unknowing, discussing unexpected topics, and forming new relationships through interactions in meetings, over meals, in the water and in small aeroplane cabins.

 

On the back of that experience, I’ve suggested four enabling dynamics and what that implies for facilitating future events.

 

The first thing about edges is the sense of isolation and space that enable openness. When you are in the middle of something, all you can see around you is an abundance of more of the same – it’s dense, you are buffered, there’s a tendency to ‘focus’, and many people feel the need to compare, compete and assert their uniqueness. As a physical equivalent, when I’m on the edge of a continent, cliff, obscure edge of a discipline, or at the limits of my comfort zone or skill level, I am more open, aware, and sensitive. Exploring on the edges has a riskiness that encourages simultaneously more careful, more adventurous engagement, and collaboration with those around you.

 

A practical implication may be in the physical setting of an activity. As an example, imagine changing the physical setting of your next meeting from a closed-door conference room buried in a building within a concrete city, to the upper deck of a boat where the sun and wind stream through, and the shared view is the endless blue horizon.

 

The second thing about edges is taking both an inwards and outwards perspective. If you in the middle of something you can’t see the edge, or out. You can see more of the same, could presume it’s like this everywhere, and that this is ‘normal’. In contrast, on the edges you can see both the dense middle but also outwards to, and beyond, the edges. From the edges it’s easier to see there how the middle is not the normal, just an aggregation place for ideas or people with common assumptions or preferences. Because you stand on the edge, it means you have experience, or can imagine, where those assumptions, rules and givens are different.

 

What this could mean for facilitating convergence is selecting participants who have deep expertise, but in at least two disciplines. The multi-disiplinary experience is likely to mean you have people who: habitually or deliberately move across boundaries, see from inside and out, and are well-practised in empathy for other perspectives. They are more likely to drop their assumptions, more comfortable shifting location, and see opportunities for innovation that those ‘in the middle’ might miss.

 

The third thing about edges is, basically, weirdness. Out on the edges is where you find the outliers, curmudgeons, laggards, prospectors, pioneers and by definition, stuff that isn’t popular. You can’t know if they are really barking up the wrong tree or are early trendsetters about to strike gold. This unknowing is part of the attraction to edges, and the very energy that powers risk-taking mindsets and entrepreneurial innovation. Often, people at the edges are making deliberate and independent choices to be there, not going with the crowd.

 

A practical implication of this for facilitating convergence is how you invite participants. The content and channels for attracting a single eccentric to an event is very different to how you attract the populous masses: a hand-written note or conversation at the beach, compared to a mass mailout and boosted social media campaign. Attuning to and appreciating the passion, insight or persistence of those at the edges (while others write them off as idiots) is a necessary skill to facilitating convergence.

 

The fourth thing about edges is mixing. As an ecological equivalent, the Abrohlos islands are where currents from the north meet with cold southern oceans, swirling around the islands, creating eddies and niches for an amazing diversity of co-located tropical and temperate ecologies. There’s something in that – the edges aren’t ruler-straight, and beyond them isn’t emptiness, there’s an ecotone, a littoral zone, a transition where mixing naturally happens: where Google Analytics ends behavioural economics begins, where geographic information systems blends into big data visualisation, where dryland ecosystem regeneration blends into micro-nutrient supplementation.

 

The practical implication for facilitating convergence is about an agenda and program that allows time for mixing around deliberately-chosen topics that sit on the edges of participants expertise. It brings to mind the dynamics in the mentoring sessions at Groundswell or ‘open space’ ethos, where the ventures stood up as ‘islands’ around which investors, mentors, bureacrats and politicians mixed in an otherwise open agenda. It was a little awkward, which is perfect, as from discomfort or unfamiliarity comes new behaviours: moving, reaching out, mixing rather than concreting into a familiar position.

 

I think there’s something important here for some types of event organisers, and a deliberate point of difference between events in inner-city hubs, and outer-region islands. Facilitating convergence is different from just ensuring diverse and representative participation, sending out a one-size fits all invitation, building massive crowds and momentum, or creating an agenda that leads to a neat wrap-up and conclusion.

 
Facilitating convergence of people at their edges, beyond the boundaries of their disciplines and in remote natural environments is more effort, a riskier investment, with uncertain outcomes…and isn’t that just perfectly appropriate for innovation?

4 thoughts on “Innovation at edges: four facilitation principles

  1. Nb I was not a participant.
    This is an extra ordinary read. I can see that this approach could for the participant, achieve significant insights that create changes to perception that will almost never be achieved from other “workshops”. They’re is depth in the underpinning concepts and reasoning for this approach that that makes me want to strongly support it… I think the four points made by Andrew fit my knowlede and experience around change and innovation and it’s facilitation…. but i am sure there is much more contained within this innovative approach that would be worth discussing. Congratulations to those that created this and those who participated. It is beautiful to encounter. I think Andrew’s words correct and excellent that: Facilitating convergence of people at their edges, beyond the boundaries of their disciplines and in remote natural environments is more effort, a riskier investment, with uncertain outcomes…and isn’t that just perfectly appropriate for innovation?

    1. Hi Chris, thanks for your feedback. Reading your feedback and sense of alignment makes me wonder what else you may have done, encountered or read that’s aligned or similar? I am curious about what you’ve experienced that I haven’t, yet because we are resonant, could likely expand my understanding.

  2. Thanks Andrew, Interesting reflections!
    Thinking about bias’ associated with being in the middle…it can be very hard to judge whether our ordinary is extraordinary to others, or likewise realising that our believed extraordinary is pretty ordinary in other contexts. This can lead to missed opportunities or misallocated priorities.
    It is at the edge that such clarity swims into focus.

    1. Thanks for you comment Jason. It got me thinking about bias, judging, swimming – seems like a necessary skill in innovation is to be attuned to contexts e.g. for me to be actually interested in how others perceive things, how they experience me/us/it. By watching how others see, I learn how I am seen; by watching how users / customers respond to a product, we learn what they perceive is its value. Make sense as a proposition, and align with your experience?

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