If I asked you to imagine a team discussion or meeting where the purpose was to generate new ideas you might have in your head an image with the following elements:
- One person at a flip chart with a pen
- Several people shouting out their ideas
- The paper being filled with lots of ideas
- A pause when no one says anything and then someone asks “is that is everything?” Everyone agrees it is and then the group decides which idea to take forward
- At a large-scale event this might then be followed by a plenary session where all the different groups take several minutes for their spokesperson to describe what they have talked about and to share their best ideas.
For some of you this sounds all so normal and acceptable and even enjoyable. Other people reading this will be shuddering at the thought of having to take part in these brainstorming/workshop rituals. It does not have to be like this! Whilst some people are really comfortable in sharing their thinking out loud with a group of strangers, and some may even thrive on it, others quickly lose their energy and cannot make any creative contributions. The dangers can easily be that a solution is agreed by the group which only represents the views of a few people, a form of Groupthink that is well described by Dr Pete Stebbins in his article.
Techniques that Help
When I work with a group of people I am always consciously thinking about ways to make sure that the voice of many does not get squashed by the voice of the few very vocal people
Give people some personal time before a group activity. It need only be 2-3 minutes, but this provides enough time for people to take stock individually and to write down initial ideas.
Provide a process for sharing the ideas in groups – for example by setting an expectation that each person will share one idea each and only when all these ideas have been shared and grouped do you go round the group again.
Instead of speed networking offer more structured activities that will enable people to have more purposeful conversations. We used a highly structured “crowd sourcing” interview method and for social events our “dinner dialogue” cards work well.
Moving groups and space
Build in time in longer programmes for people to take some time out by going for a walk and talk break outside of the main group. Mix the groups up so that different people who may dominate in certain groups are able to work in a variety of settings and hear so many views it can help them to moderate some of their views.
Abandon the Traditional Plenary
In the traditional plenary feedback most of the group are silent. Consider what the purpose of the plenary is. If you want cross-fertilization of ideas using different techniques where you mix the groups up or just walk around the room looking at the outputs can be just as effective.
Some of these techniques I work on intuitively, sometimes it is based on my own preferences for coming up with ideas. I recently ran a programme for PhD students Industrial Focused Mathematical Modelling Programme. Our programme was about how to encourage creative thinking and we started the process with an experiential activity from which the group developed a hypothesis of what was needed for effective creative group work. They listed lots of useful tips initially. What they added at the end was the tip “take time to think things through individually first, so that your ideas have time to develop independently before the group activity” which was based on the activities and methods we had experienced over the programme. In their summary comments this was one of their biggest learning insights and one which I know they will be taking into their work.