My evil twin brother Matt is running some interesting posts on brainstorming. I’m a bit sceptical about most of the luggage that goes with brainstorms and said so. Matt rightly challenged me to be a bit more helpful so I posted this comment. I think it just about bears repetition here.
If you put a gun to my head and asked for a formula, I’d probably talk about the power of invitation. Set everything up as voluntary; avoid insisting people attend, frame it all as an invitation. So if I ever do a warm up game, I always say one way to play is just to sit out and observe (funnily enough, it seems that then more people are willing to join in).
Generally, it seems more fun to work with volunteers and I’m not particularly big on the idea that certain stakeholders “must” be there. If the invitation is right, they’d want to be. And if they don’t want to be there, I’m happy to make what progress I can with those who do.
Then as you slip off the safety lock, I’d probably splutter about Harrison Owen’s motto of “one less thing” if you’re facilitating. See how little you need to do to guide the group, organise less, and practice sitting with “awkward silences”. We tend to associate creativity with adrenalin and inspiration with stimulation. In one of the most satisfying groups I worked with recently, we had lots of natural pauses for reflection, as well as long breaks. Those pauses are often punctuated by someone with something really interesting to say – usually much better than any facilitatory effort I might make.
As I hear your finger twitching on the trigger, I’d say it’s good to pulsate between whole group work and smaller groups – and also risk suggesting some time for working alone (eg on a sunny day, go for a walk alone to reflect). In a brainstorming context, if there’s time, maybe get people to do writing activity alone. I think introverts tend to get excluded by loud, frantic workstyles and if we give them a more reflective approach, it’s more inclusive.
Just before that little red flag pops out saying “BANG”, I’d probably invoke the improv principle of Yes, And. I try to Yes, And as much as I can when facilitating. Most “disruptions” can be welcomed.
My default response in difficult situations is “Can you say more about that?” Not infallible, but very nearly. Genuine curiosity works wonders, especially when applied instead of eg “That’s not relevant to this discussion!”
Finally, I suppose I’d invoke Gandhi on being the change you want to see in the world, and being aware and present to what the group is doing, reflecting some of that awareness back to the group; tending to avoid setting myself up as the deliverer of outcomes so the group shares responsibility for what happens.
(Associated to that, I almost never make myself the person who writes down ideas. In fact, I think the ritual of writing every idea on a flip chart is a bit tiresome and misleading. If someone hits on an actionable idea, they’ll probably take responsibility for recording it. I might set up a space for people to do that and if stays empty, it stays empty.)
Chances are, I’d go the whole hog and suggest an Open Space which embodies most of this stuff anyway.