During the lunch hour on June 28th, Justin Wright of Habitus Incorporated and Lauren Valle of Nu Ecological Engineering and Design presented a fun Food 4 Thought workshop at Impact Hub Boston on how to conduct a productive brainstorming session. I was waiting eagerly to attend this workshop because for the past few months, I had been collecting ideas after ideas for my research and had planned to do a brainstorming session to narrow the scope of my project.
Brainstorming Done Not-So-Right
Now, brainstorming traditionally means pulling together all different thoughts – good and bad – in a group setting and generating a collection of ideas. There are no critiques and the quantity of ideas takes priority over the quality. The group then chooses one particular idea to pursue. The workshop started off by discussing attendees’ understanding of the traditional method of brainstorming and then debunking it to show why it is not a good model to follow.
Brainstorming Done (W)right
The purpose of the workshop was to present an innovative process for group decision-making by focusing on creating effective and productive group conversations. The premise is that a brainstorming session produces better results when conversations are focused on interests and goals rather than individual positions. This somewhat abstract theory was made concrete when we started an activity that involved wearing colorful hats.
When we first entered the room, there were six hats spread randomly around the desk and the first six people to arrive got to choose a seat in front of their favorite colored hat. I chose the red hat because I liked its shape much better than that of the blue, even though blue is my favorite color.
As we began the activity, Justin explained that each color represented a different aspect of the decision-making process, according to the following scheme:
White: Data and objective input
Red: Emotions, experiences and reactions
Green: Generation of new ideas
Black: Critiquing of the idea to understand where it may fail
Yellow: Critiquing of the idea to understand why it is great
Blue: Process of implementation
A topic of discussion was sourced from the group – Biking in Boston. As most in the room had an opinion on this matter, the attendees were enthusiastic to share their ideas. In the first portion of the activity, only those in black, yellow, and red hats could offer their opinions and ideas, while the blue and green hats were asked not to speak. The discussion quickly declined into emotional speeches from one side versus the other with no resolution in sight. When asked by one of the presenters, Lauren, what it felt like to go through the process, the participants described the decision-making process to be draining, competitive, and lacking in creativity.
Justin described that the reason for this demoralizing experience was that discussion of ideas was based on emotions and personal positions rather than goals and interests of the meeting. He brought the conversation back to focus by asking the participants to put on either green, yellow, or black hats. The green hats generated new ideas and the yellow hats provided positive feedback while the black hats described why they disagreed. Going through this iterative process allowed for the bad ideas to be thrown out while the good ones were brought to the forefront for further discussion.
Brainstorming Outside the Hat
Justin and Lauren described that brainstorming works well when there are collisions within the system – that is, new ideas are generated and critiqued again and again in an iterative process. The success of this method lies in the fact that it creates a safe environment, encouraging participants to approach each idea with an open mind and empathy while at the same time allowing equal airtime for all participants. Here, the generation of ideas and positive and negative feedback are the engine of the decision making process, while data, experience, and the process provide the context within which it can happen.
Advice #1: Decision-makers should speak in terms of interests and goals rather than individual opinions. The easiest way to convert a position to an interest is by addressing the WHY component.
Advice #2: When meetings get tense, ask all participants to put on the same-colored hat to generate ideas together and then to find positive aspects together, and then the negative aspects together, or vice versa. The key point here is that participants are working from the same perspective and not creating an environment that breeds competing attitudes and viewpoints. This can be an iterative process as shown below with the result being a well thought out decision.
How did it work for me? I started by doing a brain-writing exercise during which I wrote down many different ideas I had identified during my research in the past few months. Then, I went through the decision-making process based on the top criteria for me – feasibility, ease of implementation, expertise, unmet need, and my own excitement to work on that idea. Critiquing each idea based on these criteria was an important component of the process, as was getting feedback from others to whom I pitched the ideas.
So, next time, you have a tough decision-making meeting, try out this process and see how it goes. Let us know how it went in the comments section below!