Friday, August 10, 2012

Consensus Challenges: Weathering Brainstorms

This is the continuation of a blog series started June 7 in which I'm addressing a number of issues in consensus. Today's topic is Harnessing Brainstorms.

I. When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
III. Wordsmithing in plenary [posted June 16]
IV. Redirecting competition [posted June 23]
V. Bridging disparate views [posted July 5]
VI. Harvesting partial product [posted July 20]
VII. When to be formal [posted July 29]
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms
IX. Coping with blocking energy
X. Defining respect
XI. Balancing voices
XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go
XIV. Accountability

• • •
Brainstorms are one of the most common ways that groups try to gather information on a topic. The ground rules for setting one up are fairly simple: 1) There are no "wrong" answers; 2) Everything will be recorded; 3) Evaluative comments are out of bounds.

In general you try for an up-tempo atmosphere, where the ideas are flowing freely and the group is having fun. If the group is fairly large (20+), it often works well to have dual flip charts so that two scribes are alternately capturing the input so that you can keep up with the flow and avoid a bottleneck. 

The trick with brainstorms is knowing when to pull the plug. If you drag it out too long, you dissipate the popcorn energy; if you end it too early you can miss the second wave of ideas, which is often where the most valuable ore is mined. (In the first wave the ideas that surface are 95% comprised of the obvious, because the creative, free-associating juices typically don't get fully flowing until the second wave.)

But let's suppose you get all of that right, and the brainstorm was both exciting and productive. Now what? If you stop there, it's not easy knowing what to do with what you've collected. The raw dough needs kneading to be develop its potential.

Essentially, you have a gob of raw data, unsorted and untested. Here's a serviceable sequence for getting this stuff whipped into shape and ready for prime time:

1. Sorting
It's generally a good idea (and relatively quick and painless) to sort the brainstorm output into like ideas. Interestingly, one of the quickest ways to accomplish this is to cut up the flip chart pages such that there is one idea per piece of paper, place them randomly in the middle of the floor, and ask the group to clump things that belong together—then stand back and get out of the way. In most cases a group can get this done in about five minutes. 

Once the flurry subsides the facilitator can step back in and walk through each clump to make sure the group is satisfied, adjusting as appropriate. Often it's helpful to ask the group to come up with a name for each clump.

2. Vetting
The next step is to visit each labeled clump and ask if the group feels OK with accepting each suggestion as worthy of group consideration. Sometimes there are ideas that have been offered up more for their humor value than because of their brilliancy, or perhaps some contributions are more a representation of personal preferences than something aligned with group values. As such, this is an opportunity to prune what's inappropriate. 

If a group has been fairly disciplined during the brainstorm there may be nothing that falls away. Nonetheless, this is an important step that establishes buy-in with the vetted list.

3. Prioritizing
Next it's a good idea to ask the group if there are some considerations that trump others, or are all ideas to be given equal weight?

If there are some factors coming out of the brainstorm that members agree are more crucial, then it guides the group in building a more stable foundation for its response to the issue under consideration.
• • •
At this point the group has organized, evaluated, and made a preliminary assessment of what relative weight should be assigned to each brainstormed idea. As a result, the group should be well-positioned to begin problem solving in earnest. This sequence demonstrates a pathway by which a group can start with an open-ended, creative brainstorm, and turn it into clear guidance for how to screen potential solutions. 

It doesn't have to be that hard.

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