Saturday, May 02, 2009

Brainstorming about Brainstorming

This week I was asked to facilitate a session on "Brainstorming" for the monthly meeting of the Geneva Facilitators Network (linked to the International Association of Facilitators which certified Lizzie and I last December as CPFs). It sounded like a relatively easy brief, however it proved to need some deeper thinking to make it interesting and a learning experience for the network members who would attend.

The previous week at IUCN we had hosted a Facilitators Demonstration and Learning day and one thing I noticed was that some techniques and materials cause some fatigue from participants from simple overuse. This poses a challenge when you want people to be brainstorming new ideas – if presented with a usual way of doing things, it might not add that extra stimulus to get people thinking beyond the easiest interpretation of the question.

So to start our brainstorming session I put cards on the table and markers and stood at the flipchart and asked the group to brainstorm a list of the “most common brainstorming techniques”. Without too much enthusiasm, they easily generated a list of about 7 of the techniques we all use all the time. The one I was using was the first mentioned (open question, call out, flipchart capture), the next was using cards or post-its (for individual work, collection, grouping, labeling, prioritizing), then came a few others (card races, autumn leaves, wall graffiti charts, a few others), and we had our list.

At that stage I had some rather rhetorical questions – which I asked myself first in my design considerations – why do the top brainstorming techniques get used so often? And if we want a brainstorming technique to help groups generate new creative ideas, what is our opportunity to model that in our brainstorming session? (After our intensive Facilitators Demo last week and some workshops I had run recently, I never wanted to use markers, cards or flipcharts again!)

So the next step of our sequence was to have a discussion around three questions related to brainstorming: 1) What are the most important conditions for successful brainstorming and what can hang up a brainstorming session; 2) What are the most important things a facilitator would need to consider to choose or design/adapt a new brainstorming technique for a group? And 3) What are the crucial next steps after a brainstorming session?

But I didn’t think that running a similar idea generation exercise would get us really thinking, so the groups got the following task:

1. We each picked a card which put us into three groups: hearts, diamonds and spades.
2. Each group had a place in the room (pre set up) with a table and a bag of items. On the bag was the Ace with their suite and one of the three questions (above).
3. Their task was to take 15 minutes to: Design a brainstorming session that would help the group answer their question, NOT using ANY of the common techniques that we had generated in the previous session, and using at least ONE item from the bag. They would have 10 minutes to run their session.
4. People didn’t know it in advance, but the bags had in them an eclectic mix of plastic dinosaurs, cows, balls, blindfolds, musical instruments, as well as the standard cards, tape, scissors and scrap paper.

So I timed out their 15 min and each of the groups had their 10 minutes to run their sessions – and what entertaining and unusual sessions we had!

The results were very thoughtful. The debriefing conversations which followed the three demos served to supplement the answers to our questions. This worked well because they were based on our shared experience of these brainstorming sessions, and as a result they were much deeper and layered than I imagine they would have been if we had simply stood at our flipchart and shot out ideas, or written them on cards for clustering.

In our reflection we went back to those three questions, and asked ourselves about our own process to generate the ideas as facilitators, and also our experience as participants. What did we see as the conditions for good brainstorming and what hung us up sometimes? (e.g. things like lack of clarity on the question or the process, although this generated quite a lot of discussion as some of the facilitators felt that broader questions initially might produce more creative left-field responses an not lead people in one direction or another and ). What did we take into consideration ourselves when adapting or creating new techniques for our colleagues (things like familiarity with the group, their level of trust and risk openness, etc.), and finally what needed to happen next after the brainstorming (here we went from the mechanical in-session follow-up like defining roles and reporting, to the softer side like commitment to action of the group, and celebration).

We finished with our take-aways as facilitators – which included my own – never underestimate the creativity of any group to take on an unusual task and make something interesting and useful for themselves out of it. As long as you hold the goals firmly and with respect, people are happy to trust the process and might get even more out of it than anyone expected. Which is usually one of the reasons groups engage facilitators in the first place.