How do we innovate online with 300 participants in 48 hours?

The Puzzle

YES-Europe invited us to provide an innovation framework for their Climathon focusing on “Creating a more sustainable world after COVID-19”. More than 300 participants from 50 countries created 34 projects in just 48 hours. Our contribution was to provide all participants with an initial spark and a common thread they could follow on their journey. We delivered in two parts, at the beginning and at the halftime of the Climathon.

Puzzle Innovation’ contribution was crucial to the success of the Climathon. Tiago and Falko provided key inputs both at the event’s inception and during the event itself. In doing so, they coached not only the participants, but also the organizing team and the entire pool of mentors. We are enthusiastic about this collaboration and we hope to take it forward in the future!

Silvia Binet, Vice President @ YES-Europe

Part 1 – How do we successfully live the innovation journey?

Answering this question is no easy task, as each individual and each team needs to find their way to it. As in most other cases, preparation is key, and so, we focused on giving all participants the core pieces needed while facing the ups and downs, the frustration and joy that might come during the innovation journey – knowledge, quality of relationships and purpose.

Innovation Journey

Below, one can see our adapted version of the Theory U, developed by Otto Scharmer. It is not THE way to create something new, but rather A way, designed for this particular endeavour… To create something new, by definition, one has to go through and beyond the unknown. 

Normally people do not feel comfortable being in the unknown, and we try to find shortcuts out of this situation. These shortcuts are a significant hazard for innovation. One has to stay in the unknown and the following three core pieces are essential to success:

  • The quality of the Relationships we built with our environment defines the resilience of our endeavour. Team members can trigger and amplify our thoughts to create the required resonance.
  • Knowledge is a two-sided coin, too much and our view is limited by what we know, too little and we are walking in the dark. The right balance within the team and gives the ability to shift between focus and overview whenever necessary.
  • Why are we doing this? Purpose is the one thing which is likely to remain constant and can serve as a guiding light whenever we feel lost.. It is worth understanding our purpose truthfully so that in face of changing conditions (resources, partnerships, time, etc), we are capable of making the right decision to move forward along the journey. 

Being prepared (to be agile, purposeful and kind) for the unknown promotes genuine innovation. During this time, the acquisition of knowledge tends to be the easiest part. It does require a certain level of observation and ‘open-mindness’ but it is mostly a cognitive (almost mechanical) process.

Establishing quality of relationships and defining appropriately their purpose and the context where it operates is where most teams usually fall short.

Types of conversations

How do we want to work together? How do we follow and lead each other?

William Issacs has developed a flow diagram in which he describes the evolution of a conversation. A conversation can go in two distinct directions, either becoming a debate or a generative dialogue. 

A debate is being defined by two or more parties, each embodying opposite opinions. The end results of a successful debate are one elevated winner and one or more neglected losers. This is a restricted territory if you push for innovation.

Rather than having opinions, the goal is to have conversations evolve into a reflective and eventually even a generative dialogue. A reflective dialogue gives room for change. A generative dialogue goes even further by creating a strong connection between participants so that they behave as one. It can be best described by “a Jazz musician improvising and inventing new music”. (William Issacs, Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together)

Context Overview

As previously shown, it is at the deepest point of the unknown, between what we already know and the new we want to create, where most systems get broken. In this valley of potential frustration, compassion and courage help us to stay on course. A keen focus on sensing, questioning and wondering lead us to breakthrough.

Particularly with sensing/reflecting, we point out the need for other types of inputs besides cognitive. We must use our senses, emotions, body and environment to gain inspiration and find new patterns.

Here, we encouraged all Climathon participants to investigate two main questions:

  • What is our current reality (past, present, emerging future)?
  • What is our contribution / what are we in service of / what is the impact we want to create?

By having a clear picture of what our opportunities are, we understand where to put our attention, energy and resources. By identifying the obstacles we are facing and building ways to reduce them and/or eliminate them, we find concrete solutions that serve our overall purpose and light up our paths out of the valley of unknown.

From here on, the rest of the journey will be uplifting again. We take our innovative solutions and build business models, prototypes and case studies around them to validate their existence and manifest them into the world.

Part 2 – How do we have a lasting impact?

A lot of times a challenge solving event is an island. The ideas barely survive and are seldom manifested onto the mainland. In most cases, this is due to the fact that the team is falling is disconnecting or apart and the venture is not able to tell their story effectively to create the required momentum and attract support.

Bringing a new project, solution or business to life and making it thrive is an immensely draining journey that requires heroic amounts of perseverance. A team that is able to stay in touch with who they are and why they are together is a team that gives themselves the best chance to succeed.

Team Culture

In general, the team is essential for the success of an endeavour. Investors prioritize the team in their due diligence before engaging with the project. Ideas will pivot while teams inhabit the purpose and therefore the will to endure. In critical events, like the COVID-19 crisis, organizations with a good team culture are more likely to thrive again, because people support another.

At Puzzle Innovation, talking about the team culture, we highlight 5 aspects:

We encouraged all participants on the event to spend some time on these questions.  This exercise improves the relationships within the team significantly to a level at which they can feel comfortable approaching each other for any other life-changing idea.


There are many resources available out there on storytelling. For now, we would just like to make one point before referring to other sources.

Anybody can tell a story!

Be clear on the core message of your story, the main points you want to mention and fill it with examples, objects and metaphors. Don’t deviate, focus on the main message. 

And most important, rehearse, alone and in front of others. The more you tell a story, the better it gets over time. 
Take a look at our digest here, which we have created for YES-Europe.

How did we do all this online?

We had two presentations over Zoom to address all participants. Our presentation was recorded and shared together with the slides and templates to work on almost immediately after the presentation. This is all an essential base, and we believe that the following important key ingredient made it a success – a coaching channel was established in which all 40 coaches could coach each other in challenging situations. We stayed available throughout the whole 48 hours to explain templates, listen to pitches and reflect on ideas. 

Part 1: How do we succesfully live the Innovation Journey?
Part 2: How do we have a lasting impact?

A big thanks to YES Europe for this great puzzle to solve. And a bigger thanks to all participants for this amazing time.

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