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10 tips to transform in-person innovation training into a virtual experience

Future of Work|Talent

By Paige Seaborn and Karen O’Leonard | September 8, 2020

Teaching innovation in a virtual environment is possible and may present new and unexpected opportunities.

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About Willis Towers Watson’s Innovation Masters Program

The Willis Towers Watson Virtual Innovation Masterclass is an intensive virtual workshop conducted over five sessions of about two hours each. The course is designed to help colleagues develop the foundation they need to build a faster-moving, more nimble organization and take a creative, thoughtful approach to problem solving with their clients. Specific topics include design thinking and lean startup methodologies.

Several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the message is clear: Innovation, while challenging under the current circumstances, is essential in a time of crisis. Organizations that make room for innovation will position themselves to take advantage of new opportunities that arise both during the crisis and in the aftermath. And those that discontinue their innovation efforts may find re-starting long-paused innovation programs difficult, stalling the development of new ideas and solutions.

However, obstacles on the path to continued innovation are formidable. For organizations that have the capacity to push their innovation efforts forward, a different set of challenges emerges:

  • How can they ensure colleagues have the right mindset to identify new opportunities?
  • How can they foster an innovative environment, enabling individuals to connect and share ideas and allowing for serendipitous encounters that spark creativity while employees are working from home?
  • How can existing innovation programs adapt quickly to equip colleagues from afar with skills and tools that enable them to partake in innovation and help the organization get ahead?

Whether it’s overwhelming new job responsibilities, inconsistent technology capabilities (either platforms or people) or budget constraints, innovation programs are facing new hurdles that push the limits of not only our time but also our creativity.

Supporting a culture of innovation

For Willis Towers Watson, continuing to innovate has meant ensuring colleagues have the innovative mindset, skills and tools they need to identify opportunities and brainstorm solutions. To do this, we recently converted our in-person Innovation Masters program, an experiential course focused on design thinking and lean startup methodologies, to a fully virtual format, and so far with great success.

However, the transition wasn’t easy. It required us to treat the course like a prototype, collecting input from numerous stakeholders, completing test runs and multiple rounds of revision and being prepared to optimize on the fly — all which should sound familiar to innovators. We have now completed virtual masterclasses in Northern and Southern California and another in Singapore. A masterclass in Hong Kong is currently underway. Over the coming months, we will roll out the virtual program to Metro New York, Montreal and London.

Now, more than ever, a commitment to innovation and the process discipline of design thinking is critical for ensuring we are bringing the best thinking and solutions to our clients.”

Cecile Chang
Health and Benefits U.S. Commercialization Leader

“Necessity is the mother of invention, and while 2020 continues to throw unforeseen challenges our way, it is also giving us an incredible opportunity to flex, be nimble and responsive to the evolving needs of our clients and their employees,” said Cecile Chang, Health and Benefits U.S. Commercialization Leader. “Now, more than ever, a commitment to innovation and the process discipline of design thinking is critical for ensuring we are bringing the best thinking and solutions to our clients.”

Although we are still learning and continually improving, here are 10 findings from our efforts so far that may help you take your innovation program virtual:

  1. Divide learning into two-hour windows or less and make sure to include breaks and energizer activities. We all have a limited capacity to stay alert and engaged in a virtual setting and remaining seated and hunched over a screen is not conducive to creativity. In fact, participants (and facilitators) tend to fatigue much more quickly in a virtual setting than they do in person. As a solution, we asked a few participants to lead the group through stretching exercises at the end of each break, which made it easier for them to transition back into the class and refocus on the material.
  2. Decide how many participants you want. We have found that having 10 participants works well if you want to keep them in one group. When the number gets closer to 20, we recommend keeping the group together for learning, but splitting into two breakout sessions for virtual activities. Microsoft Teams enables participants to be on the main call line and on a breakout call line simultaneously (either line will go on hold while the other is active). However, depending on the software you choose, breakout sessions may not be seamlessly integrated with the main session and might require participants to leave the main chat.
  3. If possible, schedule a more casual call focused on getting to know each other before the course formally begins. Becoming acquainted builds psychological safety within the group, which is necessary for free sharing of ideas. In contrast, traditional introductions at the start of a long meeting are the perfect time for participants to zone out.
  4. Establish clear expectations for being on camera and rules around multi-tasking and dealing with work or personal interruptions. This isn’t to say participants should be penalized if they experience an interruption but having clear protocols around how to handle these instances will help avoid disruption for other participants.
  5. Carefully consider what software you will ask participants to use. “Wowing” participants with a creative new program may seem appealing, but there’s a chance not everyone will have it installed or feel comfortable using it. And if the software is limited to this one-time use, it may not be helpful to participants. Novel software may seem like an ideal way to foster innovation, but it may become a distraction.
  6. Have two facilitators. Teaching, managing a presentation, watching participant video feeds for questions or looks of concern and coming up with prompts to get the conversation going can be exhausting. With two facilitators, one can focus on teaching while the other reads the “room” for questions or helps with technology issues. Facilitators can then switch roles for different learning sections, so each person stays fresh.
  7. Call on participants during each session instead of waiting for raised hands. We have found that participants likely do have something to contribute but are less eager to volunteer virtually, especially if they think they might get talked over or don’t know how to virtually raise their hand. If you’re using a program like Microsoft Teams, it can be helpful to run down the list of attendees, so everyone gets a fair chance to contribute. It’s also helpful to use any hand up or flag tools for questions.
  8. If you assign homework after the sessions, consider having at least one instructor join the participants’ homework meetings. It’s important, of course, to first select participants who are invested and take the initiative to set up homework time. However, even the most dedicated group can run into technology issues or suddenly realize they’re not sure what to do, so having a facilitator present can ensure the meeting is productive.
  9. Assign homework coordination roles. For example, one participant should be responsible for setting up the homework meeting time. Other participants can be designated meeting leaders and note takers. This way, participants know who is responsible for what and there’s no assuming someone else is handling it. Plus, this means participants will need to be hands on with virtual tools. This is a great opportunity for them to practice collaborating virtually, and they can take this experience into their daily lives.
  10. Finally, ask for feedback at the end of each session and be prepared to make changes on the fly. It’s important to find out what’s working, what’s not and if participant goals are being achieved in order to keep them engaged and ensure they feel heard. Seeking participant feedback can also help with cultural inclusivity. For example, we learned that group stretch breaks work great for certain cultures but could be considered awkward or unprofessional in others. We quickly pivoted to less physical break activities in those locations to ensure participants had a fun, culturally comfortable experience.

Taking the Innovation Masters program online has enabled us to bring innovation to a broader range of colleagues than would have been possible with in-person sessions and limited facilitator bandwidth. The virtual program also has the added bonus of increasing colleague fluency with virtual collaboration tools. Colleagues who complete the course are better prepared for a world of virtual collaboration and to take an innovative approach to the challenges of tomorrow and in day-to-day life.


Senior Associate – Corporate Innovation

Head of Innovation

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