September 21, 2012

Facilitation Friday #37: 7 Tips for Facilitating Fresh Thinking


What is required for a facilitated session 
to produce bold thinking and fresh ideas? 

As more organizations focus on innovation, this is a question that every facilitator must be prepared to answer.  We have to increase our understanding of the relationship between creativity and innovation, become more familiar with the discipline of design thinking and its applications, and build our capacity and competence to design and facilitate ideation and rapid prototyping sessions that help individuals and groups move through the creative, critical, and constructive thinking stages.

This week I want to share some of the lessons I have learned related to the creative thinking stage of this process, the one in which people come together to try and generate fresh thinking and new ideas. Here are seven I find fundamental to my innovation facilitation:
  1. Let's remember Kurt Lewin's adage that behavior is a function of people interacting with the environment.  Your session needs to take place in an environment that is conducive to expansive thinking.  You want a room with ample space, flexible configurations, windows, lots of whiteboards and walls for posting ideas, comfortable and varied furniture.  In short, you want a space that you are unlikely to find in a typical hotel.  Conference centers sometimes are better, but you may have more success choosing a non-traditional venue: an art gallery or museum, an ad agency's meeting space, an open room in an artists' warehouse, a grade school (hey, it's where we last played with unbridled creativity).
  2. The environment is important, but let's not forget the other key ingredient in Lewin's formula: the people.  Research shows a correlation between a group's diversity of perspectives and innovative results. Who can be included in the session that will expand the natural thinking and viewpoints present? Who are good thinkers outside the team being convened who should be included, both from other areas within the team's organization, as well as individuals outside the organization itself?  Who are wild cards ... the unusual suspects ... who could shake up the conversation if present?
  3. As Steven Johnson notes in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, "Good ideas often result from the collision between smaller hunches so that they form something bigger than themselves." Your facilitation needs to more intentionally help participants make their hunches public so that they can collide with others' thinking and perhaps lead to a bigger and better idea.  This requires both creating the safe climate for people to share partially-formed thoughts, as well as using more visual facilitation tools and techniques to archive ideas expressed.  Two tactical tips: (1) instead of you capturing others' ideas, stock the room with sheets of paper, notecards, jumbo post-its, and a variety of pens and markers and ask participants to note their own ideas and post them appropriately; and (2) set a challenging goal for the # of ideas to be generated.  Having a quantified target often enables participants to more freely share half-baked notions that they otherwise would have self-censored.
  4. Even when you diversify the participants, further stimulate the thinking that will take place through the pre-work that participants complete.  Share diverse pre-readings to broaden participants' perspectives; on Twitter, have them follow interesting individuals, scan Tweets related to particular hashtags, and/or participate in an appropriate Twitter chat; assign them a thought leader to interview and report on at the actual meeting; and expose them to data that may interrupt their biases or pre-conceived notions.  As Johnson also noted in his book, "chance favors the connected mind."  Use pre-work to diversify and expand the connections the session participants will bring to the conversation.
  5. Engage participants in field research.  If we accept that innovation yields a new dimension of performance or value as Peter Drucker asserted, we must also accept that the enhanced value is in the eyes of the customer, member, or end user.  Whenever possible, involve participants in actual pre-work that includes observation of the target audience in action to see what patterns of behavior they notice, frustrations that the end user works around, aspirations they may not be expressing.  As Gary Hamel has noted, "innovation often results from insight into the unarticulated need."  Acting as anthropologists, participants can use observational research to help unearth those unarticulated needs.
  6. Use provocations or disruptive hypotheses to stimulate fresh thinking.  This approach engages participants in exploring lines of thought that seem unreasonable given present reality, but ones that often yield the ideas that dramatically escalate the value of a product, program, or service.  until someone asked, how could we make it possible for people to carry their entire music library with them (leading to the invention of the mp3 player), we were forced to select with dozen or so CDs we want to put into the music wallet to take with us on vacation.
  7. Draw on a variety of techniques and activities to engage participants in different thinking.  In the creative thinking stages of the innovation process, I find it beneficial to churn the group process more, to use more varied exercises and activities to remix and recombine participants and their thinking.  Three of my favorite resources for doing so are IDEO's method cards, the exerises in Dan Pink's book A Whole New Mind (full disclosure, I authored some of them), and  the Stanford d•school Boot Camp bootleg for methods and activities.
What else have you found helpful in convening and/or facilitation sessions designed to produce fresh thinking and ideas? 


Every Friday in 2012, I post information and insights about effective facilitation, sharing some of the content and thinking I provide in the one-day and half-day facilitation workshops that groups often engage me to present.  You can find previous posts by searching for the tag: facilitationfriday.

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