Purposeful Innovation Skills to Unlock Opportunities in Crises

Participatory workshop: From Challenges to Opportunities

Authors: Pauliina Mattila, Tiina Tuulos, Floris van der Marel

In our earlier blogpost, Purposeful Innovation Fitness as a Vehicle to Unlock Opportunities in Crises, we outlined our perspective and thinking regarding how resilience and purpose can be integrated into design thinking practice. To find ways to improve and advance our project, we ran a participatory workshop session. In this post, we share our insights and experiences. 


Transformation and disruption are becoming the norm in our professional and private life. In particular, crises present opportunities for change, development and alignment with values and purpose. We are looking to support individuals and organisations in being resilient and push for meaningful, sustainable transformations during crises, to be better prepared for unknown futures. We aim to define a transferable set of tools and skills, which can be learned and experienced in various forms. 

The context of the Covid19 crisis is a trigger for transformation and change, and this workshop was designed to begin to explore and improve people’s capability to identify challenges participants are facing as a result of a crisis, and flip them into opportunities. The workshop design was inspired by design processes and principles around understanding the problem before jumping into solutions. 

This session particularly aimed at enhancing participants’ skills in recognising challenges caused by a crisis or disruption, unpacking them both individually and together, to reframe them into opportunities and formulate actionable steps. This was designed to contribute to enhancing participants’ resilience.

Figure 1. Slides in the Miro board in which we explain our understanding of the crisis

The workshop set up and flow 

Eleven participants joined the virtual Zoom/Miro session on August 19th 2020, from Canada, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Norway, Finland, Czech Republic, Australia, and New Zealand. Due to the time zone differences, we had one participant in Canada dialling in at 3 am their local time and participants based in New Zealand finishing after 10 pm their local time. The diversity of thought, backgrounds, experience and perspective were very inspiring to everyone. 

Before the workshop, participants were asked to map out what had changed for them as a result of the current global crisis, the pandemic. From this mapping, they formulated five challenges, personal or work-related, they are currently facing. Participants submitted the challenges to a Miro board (Figure 2) before the session. 

Figure 2. Submitting challenges

During the session, participants were guided through a set of activities in three smaller breakout rooms in Zoom, each supported by an individual facilitator (Tiina, Pauliina or Floris). Starting with mapping their challenges, they chose one to work on during that workshop and uncovered some of the root causes related to their challenge. By exchanging questions with other participants, they gained different perspectives, and inspired by this, reframed their root cause into a design challenge. Now that their challenge was flipped into an opportunity, participants thought of several potential solutions and small actions to begin to address the challenge. People were guided through these activities verbally by the facilitator, and also visually in Miro (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Miro board for the workshop

Insights and experiences

After the facilitated experience, we returned to the main Zoom room, where we reflected on our experiences collectively, with a fruitful discussion around next steps (Figure 4). 

Figure 4. Participants of the workshop

We have summarised here some of the critical insights, reflections and feedback, and based on these will discuss our next steps. All quotes are feedback and reflections from the workshop participants.

Reflecting on emotions to identify hindrances

My challenge is more about how I feel about it rather than the actual practical issues.

Participants shared they enjoyed “the framework and the incorporation of ‘feelings’ into the process, associating tasks to emotions”. This was done through a quick temperature check indicating how participants feel towards the challenge they are facing. This helps us to get out of our “rigid way of looking at things” and rationalise our decision-making, as many of us “tend to shy away from problems [we] can’t easily solve” and “have some mental blocks and anxieties preventing [us] from seeing things clearly, but feel those are easily assuaged through reflection dialogue and reframing”. Often we “have the ideas to the problem, but didn’t make actions at that time”. Recognising your, sometimes contradicting, emotions is a way to reveal what might be hindering you from acting on a challenge, supporting our problem-solving capabilities.

Breaking things down enables planning for action

“I learned to break things down into key issues, values of others, and where I can have agency.”

A challenge or issue that arises from disruption or crisis can feel enormous and impossible to tackle. This workshop was intended to flip that, and use “reframing as a way of making problems less daunting”. We took our time thinking about the problem, which made people discover that usually, they “really do want to jump to the solution and that [they] need to feel more comfortable to hang-out in the problem space”. Participants enjoyed “to take time to look at a situation from a different perspective”, and mentioned that the “relaxed and ‘let’s not ideate solution’ approach […] made for wonderful, deep and insightful conversations”.

Participants realised that a challenge can “seem like just a big picture change but can be broken down to individual level things that can be changed” and “thinking through complex issues can start small and that’s ok!”. Additionally, they shared how they learned that “we have much more room for action than we think, we just need to learn how to switch to a different narrative than the one we’re used to!”. Participants mentioned that the visual elements and structured process supported their reflection, and made them realise “introspection and patience have a much higher value than we think.

Questioning supports unlocking new perspectives

“I need to seek out others to gain other perspectives on issues.”

Participants shared how feedback and input from someone removed from your context or situation provided a lot of value, and wished “opportunities to work through issues with peer feedback was available more often”. We usually ask and get feedback from people with a vested interest, from people who know us and thus might have a biased view. However, getting an external viewpoint from someone with a different background, experience and context, who feels or thinks differently from you, can unlock new ways of thinking. Someone who understands your context but isn’t invested in your challenge, also known as boundary spanners, can provide fresh and unexpected viewpoints. 

Participants considered it “really good to break the issue down to become a question and then ask people who are removed from it”, and liked the “honest and open engagement with people who are completely removed from the situation – that opportunity rarely presents itself. Normally you discuss challenges with friends, family or colleagues, or even someone with a remote connection. Not a ‘stranger’.” 

When people ask for help, we tend to suggest solutions. Although this can be meaningful, the solutions are often based on assumptions and may not fit the bill. The power of questions, however, is that they guide the receiver to think differently, to come up with their own solutions. Being questioned is often seen as something negative, as it tends to impose certain ways of thinking, or contains forms of judgment. However, we can formulate questions openly and positively to better understand something, as a manifestation of our curiosity. The questions we ask (and the way we ask them) can influence the direction of the potential solutions.” This way “the process can start from one angle and evolve into a different one as you ask more questions”.

The participants found a lot of value in having other people asking questions about their challenge and shared how “there’s always more ways to look at one issue – more questions to ask” and how “stepping back and asking many questions provides different perspectives”. They even concluded wishing “questioning would be seen as a positive thing in life in general like it was in this workshop”.

The digital environment created a safe space for authentic collaboration

An interesting question was raised at the end of the workshop: “Would this have been the same in an in-person setting?” There was a shared feeling how in this digital space, a group of strangers from all around the world connected very quickly and everyone felt safe to be vulnerable and present. Participants shared how they felt comfortable being challenged by others, which to their surprise did not feel disrespectful or out of place at all, but everyone seemed to agree that this might have not been the case in an in-person setting. 

Is there something about the comfort of our own space and location where we are joining the call, combined with the perceived disconnection from others, that helps us to connect easier and not be disturbed by the possible anxieties or social constructs that would take place in an in-person setting? 

If this was done in-person would it have been as effective or more awkward? I wonder if this online approach is actually better or a hybrid approach would also work?

Another explanation might be that since the participants came from very different contexts, it was easier to share challenges with one another as the was no fear of disclosing anything that would have put them in a vulnerable situation with possible consequences. Therefore, the in-person experience might not be that different if the participants are from different organisations, for example. All in all, creating a safe environment was the key, and this is possible, and necessary, to create both in digital and physical environments. One factor in creating a psychologically safe environment is to keep the number of participants small throughout the workshop. There is a common conception that digital platforms enable a scalable delivery for a larger number of participants. From our facilitation experience, we could argue that it is almost the opposite. Embracing intimate conversations and open sharing and tailored support for participants can be achieved only in a small number of participants per facilitators.

From fight, flight or fright to “figuring it out”

The overarching theme of the discussions concluded that crisis or disruption does not make us incapable. Crises are often seen as something negative, an obstacle that needs to be overcome or wiped under the carpet. However, we see that crisis is an opportunity for change, for growth and transformation. We have the autonomy and capability for and to change. 

However, this requires a new approach to ‘knowing’ and ‘being prepared’, as our coping mechanisms are often geared towards making sense of things, getting a grip on something and regaining control, being in the driver’s seat. We need to learn to be comfortable with not knowing, with not having a definitive plan, a clear outcome. Our reaction to threats and the unknown, as we experience in times of crisis, is often to either fight, flight or fright, but as one of the workshop participants shared, now is the time to add a fourth element: to figure it out. 

Finally, becoming aware of one’s agency is key. We tend to have more influence over elements around us than we think, whether they are changing or stagnant. It might be as small as altering one’s perspective or attitude, which is often fundamental before creating tangible changes as well.

“We got to talk through how uncertain times are now – it helped even on a personal level to just accept that this new normal will change how we behave and think.”

Next steps

Our aim is to build on this workshop experience and create a more substantial offering to help both individuals and organisations transform and see opportunities for growth and change.

We will use the feedback we gained from this workshop to design the following steps in flipping opportunities to action and developing behaviour change (See Figure 5 for an overview of the project stages). In addition, we will explore ways to incorporate value-based thinking in solution development. Particularly, we will address the following areas that were identified in the workshop feedback. We will explore the possibility for more co-creation as opposed to individual work, which was the predominant working mode in this workshop. We will also consider cohort-based work on the same challenge and comparing outcomes at the end. Finally, we will consider different ways of making behavioural change more explicit for example through measuring. Recognising one’s growth and learning throughout the process was called for by many participants. We will advance the workshop design and simultaneously interview some of the participants to gain more insights into our proposed activities in enhancing purpose-driven innovation skills. 

You can read more of our thoughts on this particular topic, why it is important to unpack problems prior to jumping into solutions, in this short thought piece on Design Factory Melbourne’s website.

Figure 5. How this workshop relates to the larger project intention


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