ASU growing innovation in its own backyard

Spark training will lead staff in brainstorming creative solutions in their jobs


Arizona State University, you may have heard, is known for being innovative.

With a goal to bring higher education to as many people as possible, the university has created new teaching methods and pioneering partnerships to carry out that mission.

Now, the university is empowering every employee to find innovative solutions in their own job by rolling out a new initiative called ASU Spark — two-hour sessions in which people are led through a collaborative brainstorming process to untangle problems and create answers.

Nearly 90 employees have already been trained to be Spark facilitators. On Nov. 1, ASU will hold its second Innovation Day, when employees will take part in dozens of Spark sessions across the entire university.

The goal is for teams to step away from their daily tasks and dedicate time together to address problems, according to Cary Lopez, director of strategic initiatives in the Office of the Knowledge Enterprise Architect at ASU, which is running the Spark initiative.

“Sometimes we feel like we have to work around things, especially at our speed here,” she said.

“We don’t have time to stop and fix things. It’s ‘I’m just going to work around these pain points.’”

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

Spark sessions will have four steps, with facilitators keeping the discussions tightly focused:

Understand the process: Each individual is asked to reflect on what it means to be innovative, and then the team defines the challenge or goal to be discussed and maps out the process for the session. Teams don’t have to tackle problems; they can also use Spark to define a new project or initiative.

Analyze challenges, find root causes and envision the future: Next, the team lists the pain points being experienced by staff and customers, or all of the opportunities for improvement. Then they break down each problem or opportunity to identify the root causes. Everyone envisions what the work would be like if the pain points were removed.

Brainstorm solutions: Team members identify solutions that address the root causes and then plot the solutions on a matrix, evaluating each based on estimated cost and resources and what the positive impact would be.

Create an action plan: The team then summarizes the key tasks that must be completed to implement each solution. Accountability is critical, so tasks should have an estimated start and end date and should be assigned to one person, who will be responsible for ensuring that it gets done. The team must describe how it will measure success. Finally, participants are again asked to reflect on their personal innovativeness.

The process is important because pain points can create tension among co-workers, and breaking down the problems into manageable tasks removes emotion from the discussion, Lopez said.

“The nature of looking at it as steps, as work, allows me to say, ‘I’m getting frustrated because I need this done’ and allows you to say, ‘I can’t do that until I get this.’ And then it’s not about you and me, it’s about the work and how we can streamline that,” she said.

“We named it Spark because it didn’t resonate when we said, ‘Come to a two-hour meeting where you do process-improvement design thinking.’” 

The Spark method is active and visual, as participants brainstorm ideas to solve problems in their departments. Photo by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

Lopez said that a Spark session includes ground rules, like “being present” (no checking cell phones) and keeping the space judgment free. Also, the meetings are visual and active, with participants writing ideas on lots of sticky notes on big posters at the front of the room.

Facilitators address any power dynamics in a session. Some groups might include a management intern as well as a dean — and their ideas have equal value.

The idea for Spark started last year, when Lopez was the chief people and talent officer at the W. P. Carey School Business, and she organized a problem-solving “hackathon” to mark ASU’s first Innovation Day.

“It was successful, but what was fascinating to us was the ripple effects it had,” she said.

“The people who participated in those sessions felt empowered and that they had the agency and ability to change things that came up afterwards. This helps people feel, ‘Maybe we can take two hours to actually fix this problem and not just work around it.’”

After that, ASU Spark was developed collaboratively by a groupThe collaboration included participation from Clayton Taylor, director of the Business and Finance Organizational Performance Office; Alan Rogers, business process analyst in the Organizational Performance Office, and Dennis Martinez, associate director of student financial services in the W. P. Carey School of Business, with support from Amy Hillman, dean of the W. P. Carey School, and Minu Ipe, the Knowledge Enterprise Architect and Senior Fellow of Leadership and Institutional Design in the Office of the President at ASU. using the same process-improvement, design-thinking structure that Spark employs.

Anca Castillo was one of the original collaborators at the W. P. Carey School. She’s now associate director of student recruitment in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and is one of the trainers for Spark facilitators. She said that shedding restrictions and being completely open is key to creativity in the sessions.

“I did a training where we were reviewing a process, and the point was that everyone hated the process but we couldn’t do away with it,” she said.

“One of the ideas someone put out there was, ‘Do away with it.’ And there are no boundaries, so that idea sparked other ideas that got us to the proposal that got approved. I told them that we couldn’t cut it and they said, ‘Let’s just cut it.’”

Katrina Fogelson, an instructional designer at the College of Health Solution’s Learning Innovation Group, took the Spark facilitator training this month.

spark session

Clayton Taylor, director of the Business and Finance Organizational Performance Office, leads employees in Spark training to become facilitators. The facilitators will then lead their teams through the four-step Spark process on Innovation Day, Nov. 1. Photo by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

“The training was very interactive and did a good job detailing the process for iterating on a group project, or discovering a way to find a solution to a problem,” she said. “For instance, when you are working with a group, you can use Spark to discover what they want to achieve, brainstorm how to get there, and come up with an action plan.”

Fogelson works with College of Health Solutions faculty members who want to try new things to improve their courses.

“I felt that this training might give me tools, and definitive steps, to use while working with the instructors,” she said. “I quickly saw that these steps can also be used within our department for making an effective plan to implement when tackling large projects.”

 After training, facilitators can attend a "practicum," where they co-facilitate another session — a benefit that Bryan Barker appreciated.

"Our team has always invested effort into process improvement activities," said Barker, program manager for web and design in the Global Futures Laboratory. "The Spark facilitation method is a complimentary process that is helping us improve the way we approach and optimize complex pain points and potential opportunities. We will continue to use this method well beyond Innovation Day."

Registration is now open for departments to sign up for a Spark session on Nov. 1. The deadline is Oct. 15. Sessions will be held at every campus. Employees also can still sign up to become Spark facilitators.

The goal, after Innovation Day, is for departments to keep using Spark regularly.

“It’s a beautiful thing because if everyone has knowledge and some experience with it, it can happen organically for anything,” Castillo said.

“It relieves the stress of thinking that things can’t be changed or approved because you need a lot of time, when what you really need is to set just a little bit of time aside and a few steps to tackle it.”

Top image: Cary Lopez, director of strategic initiatives in the Office of the Knowledge Enterprise Architect at ASU, leads a Spark training session for employees who will be facilitators on Innovation Day, to be held Nov. 1. Photo by Ken Fagan/ASU Now