Brainwriting: A Go-To Idea Generating Tool

  • By Kimberly Douglas
  • 14 Oct, 2015

We’ve explored using toys to loosen up a meeting, and we’ve discussed ways to loosen up your team, creatively speaking. The first method, which we discussed in our previous post, was Mind Mapping. The second idea-generating tool that I use is Brainwriting.

This process is ideally suited for allowing each person to view the problem from their own unique perspective, and then to encourage them to build on and improve the ideas of others. It can also be very effective when there is a concern that one or more people might dominate the problem-solving session, or that some may be fearful of sharing their ideas in a large group brainstorming session. The anonymity of the ideas and the emphasis on stretching the ideas further and further increases the odds of coming up with . . . well, odd–and potentially very novel–solutions.

Let’s go through how this exercise works:

  1. The problem-solving team–ideally, four to six people–is seated around a table, and each receives a blank sheet of paper.
  2. Everyone writes the agreed-upon problem statement at the top of the paper, and then draws three columns on it. If a team gets stuck on how to write a good specific problem statement, they can use sentence prompts like, “How can we improve…?” or “How do we ensure that…?”
  3. Give the team two minutes to legibly write three ideas–one per column–for addressing the problem. Someone needs to be accountable for setting the timer.
  4. At the end of two minutes, the timekeeper asks everyone to draw a line under their ideas across the whole page, and then pass the paper to the person on their left.
  5. They then set the timer for three minutes this time, giving each team member the chance to read through the ideas and piggyback on the original solutions by writing new ones under the original suggestions.
  6. This process of writing in ideas continues for as many times as there are people around the table, with each instance allowing a little more time (a maximum of five to six minutes per round) since the addition of ideas makes it progressively harder to come up with new solutions. If need be, people can enter a completely new idea instead of building upon one, if they truly are stuck, but this should be a last resort versus a first choice.
  7. There are several choices for next steps at this point. One is to pass the paper one more time (so people aren.t evaluating their own ideas that they just wrote down). Then have everyone read through the entire list of suggestions and select the best ones based on some previously agreed-upon criteria. Another option is to read all of the suggestions aloud, record them on a flip chart, and discuss them openly. While this might be the most equitable approach, ensuring that no ideas are improperly screened out by just one person, it could prove to be a very laborious process to actually have to get through. A third possibility is to post the sheets on the wall or pass them around the table such that each person can read all of the ideas and write in their initials beside the ones they think are most likely to solve the original problem statement.

Let team members try to combine ideas from one or more pages to come up with an exponentially better idea. Avoid the tyranny of the “either/or”, searching instead for solutions that incorporate”both/and”. It may be a good idea to hang on to these sheets for a while after the session. You never can tell when someone might get an inspiration overnight or in the shower. They might need a reminder of the idea they saw that prompted their creative thinking.

Now, how do you evaluate all of these ideas and select the ones that you want to action plan? You need a way to pull all that creativity together and make it actionable. In our next post, we’ll discuss two great tools for making this happen: the Impact versus Effort Grid and the Decision Matrix.

In the meantime, let’s talk! Reach me by email or phone: 770-989-7030.

FireFly Facilitation Blog

By Kimberly Douglas 31 Aug, 2016

The Grammy-award winning Orpheus Chamber Orchestra wows crowds around the world with virtuoso performances of Stravinsky, Mendelssohn, and Mozart. Garnering prestigious awards (a Grammy in 2001) and accolades (Musical America’s “Ensemble of the Year” in 1998), the New York based orchestra fills the world’s finest concert halls with adoring audiences and the some of the sweetest sounds on earth.

Astonishingly, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has no conductor! Its 28 members alternate roles and share responsibilities. From guiding rehearsals to interpreting selections, leadership of the group rotates among its musicians.

Thinking about the unusual structure of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra sparked ideas in my mind about the nature of leading teams.

1) Being a leader doesn’t mean that we always have to pick the tune, set the pace, and assign the parts.

In a conductor-less organization, in which leadership and authority are dispersed throughout, creativity abounds. Each member has the freedom to contribute his or her unique talents for the benefit of all. On the contrary, the combined creativity of an organization is blocked when a single leader hoards authority.

2) In the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, no one has a back to the crowd.

Absent of the human barrier, the audience is invited into the midst of the orchestra and can share a more intimate connection with its music. Conversely, an organization with power concentrated too heavily at the top can easily lose sight of its customers. Generally, the most senior leaders have the least frontline interaction with customers. If we, as leaders, don’t make room for the instincts and input of people throughout our teams, then we’ll gradually blind ourselves to the needs of the clients we’re trying to serve.

By Kimberly Douglas 27 Jul, 2016

It’s been said, “Variety is the spice of life,” but for many managers the spiciness of diversity causes heartburn. Leading a team would be much easier if one size fit all. However, the reality for managers involves cleverly tailoring roles, reward structures, and recognition. In doing so, leaders have to balance unique treatment of dissimilar personalities with a uniform application of fairness.

Diversity in the workplace goes much deeper than race, gender, job title, or even daily responsibilities. Leaders have to discover how team members think, what drives them, where their strengths shine, and so on. Leaders light the way by making this kind of inquiry a priority, and by creating the tools and processes that allow people to see one another in a new light.

Here’s a practical application to illuminate diversity on your team and reap benefits from it.

At the close of a week, gather your team together. Give each person ten minutes to make two lists:

 

List #1 - Three work activities from the past week that felt draining or tedious.

 

List #2 - Three job activities from the past week that felt enjoyable and invigorating.

Do not discuss the lists as a group; simply collect them after the ten minutes are over. Repeat the exercise each week for a month.

 

At the month’s close, convene a team meeting. During the meeting, assign each person to share one recurring activity they enjoy and do well. Also, have them talk about one regular activity they dislike and find draining.

This simple exercise will bring awareness of the various strengths and weaknesses on your team. Over the course of the meeting you may want to reshuffle a few tasks or open avenues for team members to volunteer their strengths in new ways.

By Kimberly Douglas 13 Jul, 2016

When archers draw a bow, they’re far more accurate when they zero in on the bull’s-eye than when they broadly aim to hit the target.

 The same applies in golf. When players concentrate on landing the ball at a specific spot near the pin, their shots are more precise than when they target the green in general.

What’s true for archery and golf translates to strategic planning as well. The sharper your focus is, then the smaller your margin for error will be when you execute. Put simply, “Aim small; miss small.”

What can you do practically to shrink the scope of your goals so that you’re laser focused?

If everything is important…then nothing is. Identify the three strategic priorities for you team. Don’t get bogged down on specific verbiage, but make sure everyone agrees with and can articulate your strategic priorities.

Knowing what not to do   can be just as important as knowing where you’re going. What distractions will tempt you to veer from your strategic priorities? Dialog about them, and list them. Instill in your team that these activities are taboo.

Decide upon metrics. What is unmeasured goes undone. Set your criteria for success. Don’t feel constrained by numbers—qualitative goals have every bit as much merit as quantitative ones. However, make sure your metrics are simple and concrete.

Track performance together. Evaluating results as a team provides instant accountability—no one wants to look bad in front of peers. Also, talking through results helps you to decipher problems or opportunities buried beneath the facts and figures.

By Kimberly Douglas 04 Jul, 2016

Everyone has the ability to be creative—if you broaden your concept of what creativity means, and if you know how to tap into it. My experience with hundreds of groups leads me to be able to say, with confidence, that at their core, great teams are comprised of creative, committed individuals who are using their best efforts to reach a common goal.

In fact, teams that solve problems and tackle challenges together have a special bond that’s not often found in other groups. And they don’t see these challenges as drudgery or something outside the scope of their work; they view it as the excitement and fun of being a part of a team.

 Think of the members of the team of which you are currently a member or a leader. Would   creative   and   committed   be the words you would use to describe each one of them?

By Kimberly Douglas 20 Jun, 2016

Vision without execution is hallucination.”     Thomas Edison

Did you know that one of the reasons the population of fireflies appears to be diminishing is because of ambient light or “light pollution”? There are too many distractions. All these other bright lights keep fireflies from performing at their best. How similar and true for the people on our own teams, if we don’t have a common vision of success to focus our time, attention, and resources.

Scarcity of resources—both human and financial—demands that we focus our efforts. If you’re scheduling an annual planning meeting in the coming weeks, you’re probably aware that the value of strategic planning is not only deciding what you   will   do, but also deciding what you will   not   do. When done well, strategic   focusing   can be one of the most exciting and effective team development tools available to a leader.

There is a well-known saying: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”     I have found that the most effective teams are exceptionally clear on two things—where they are going and how they must work together to get there. In taking hundreds of teams through the strategic focusing process, I have found this metaphor to resonate with people:

 

The road we are on is our   mission .     If this organization ceased to exist, what would the world lose?  

  • The mountain in the distance is our   vision for success . Three years into the future, how will we know if we have been successful in living up to our mission?

Mile markers are the   key milestones . How will we measure our progress against the vision and course-correct if needed?

  • The guard rails are our   guiding principles . How will we commit to work with each other to reach that mountain?

Next post...the top 5 ways my approach to strategic planning has changed over the last 10 years.

By Kimberly Douglas 06 Jun, 2016

While it's true you might not be able to compose like Mozart or paint like Monet, don't you think you have a little bit of creativity within you?

What about that time you moved into a new role and had to develop a process to address a particular business challenge?  And what if you customize a process you created at another company – but apply it differently at your new company? Doesn’t that fit our more expansive definition of creativity?

When I work with teams to discover their untapped creative potential, I often ask them to remember back to a time in their youth. For me, I showed early signs of my love of facilitation when I was 8. I loved directing plays in our garage with all the neighborhood kids (at least those that were younger and shorter than I was). It was fun bringing together a diverse group of kids, convincing then to play together nicely, and having a successful outcome (a play that we could perform for our parents).   I didn't need to be the star of the play - it was more fun for me to be behind the scenes, making things happen.

And so now I will ask you...when you were younger, what came easily to you? Maybe you even got a nickname for it. What is your own unique brand of creativity? How could you apply that natural talent to some personal or professional challenge facing you today?

By Kimberly Douglas 24 May, 2016

Innovation….when you hear this word, what comes to mind? When I pose this question to a group, I often hear "Apple", "Something new", or similar response.

If you look it up in a standard dictionary, like Websters or American Heritage, the definition is simple and straightforward: "the introduction of something new." If, however, you look it up in Business Dictionary.com, you get a very different result: "The process by which an idea or invention is translated into a good or service for which people will pay.  To be called an innovation, an idea must be replicable at an economical cost and must satisfy a specific need."

The "regular" person’s definition is so much better and more freeing than the business minded one. I call this the difference between innovation with a little “i” – innovation for everyone – and innovation with a big “I” that stands up to the very tough scrutiny of the business world.   We wonder why we see innovation as a slogan by top execs instead of something that actually gets done. How do you know if something is going to make money unless you give it a chance? In many companies we cut new ideas off at the knees because we can’t see right off how it can possibly be profitable.

Let me tell you the story of Alexander Fleming. It's 1928 and apparently Dr. Fleming is a pretty messy scientist. One day he's cleaning out the petri dishes he had been using to grow bacteria.  Something catches his eye. Something had contaminated one of the staph cultures – in fact it had killed the bacteria.

Do you know what he had discovered – penicillin --- by accident! "When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn't plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world's first antibiotic, or bacteria killer," Fleming would later say, "But I guess that was exactly what I did."

A huge success, right? Wrong! There were so many difficulties associated with producing penicillin in mass quantities, it would be another 12 years before the world realized what he had created. We need the broader definition of innovation...so that we can celebrate the learning…not just the end result.

What "discoveries" - no matter how small and seemingly insignificant - have you made recently? What can you find to celebrate – not just the end result but what you learned from it – and how you can apply those learnings?

By Kimberly Douglas 05 May, 2016

We’ve been discussing conflict, and how to reframe it to use creative abrasion to achieve true synergy. It’s up to the leader to make this happen, and sometimes this requires making some difficult decisions. This often includes making some cuts to your team, to allow for the rest of the team to function with greater efficiency.

Some of the hardest team members to eliminate are those who are getting great results for the business, but are doing so in ways that hinder or limit the team’s overall level of trust and capability.

You may not know why these particular members of the team would do things that damage trust on the team, but it is the leader’s job—with the team’s support—to ensure clarity about what behaviors will and will not be accepted. Building a culture of trust demands that everyone accept this as a team value, and not in words only. It must be accompanied by actions.

There are three other ways that I consistently encounter with teams in which trust is damaged or limited, and unproductive conflict emerges. These are:

  1. The individual who won’t share personal information
  2. Sarcasm disguised as humor
  3. One or more disengaged members of the team

Sometimes, there’s a team member who may have trouble fitting in and is reluctant to share anything personal, believing that work life is work life, and personal life is personal. Not wanting to mix the two, this type of person will not discuss his or her personal life with co-workers. Often, this causes failure for the team, but sometimes the team can overcome it, especially with a leader who is a great role model. A team can work very hard to build the trust level for the members of the entire team, incorporating personal information sharing into their staff meetings and seeking out opportunities to collaborate on projects. It is not an easy process, but it can work. If trust is built on a strong foundation, it will be able to sustain the natural human errors that we all make.

For that to happen, though, it must be a priority for both the leader and the team. Is there someone on your team who is holding back; someone with whom others cannot seem to connect? If there is, your team needs to deal with this, because even one closed-off member can distract a team from its primary focus: to use trust to do great work together. The entire team needs to convey the importance of opening up to each other as humans, and make it clear that everyone is expected to work together in this way. It’s important to create a safe environment in which this can begin to happen.

A problem also occurs when one or more members of a team erode trust through their sense of humor. Words matter, and a constant negative exchange can keep a wall between people. This often happens on teams that have been together a long time and haven’t had many members join or leave. They know each other’s weak spots, and they’re used to poking so-called fun at each other. They’ve come to habitually deal with issues covertly through public humiliation versus overtly through direct private conversation.

If this is happening on your team, try to assess how much of a problem it actually is. Watch the faces and body language after a verbal dagger has been thrown, and if you can see the energy being sapped from that person, intervene.

Take a moment and think about it—does this joking make the team stronger? Or, might it keep people from truly opening up to each other? Do you recognize this happening anywhere on your team? Let’s talk! Reach me by email  or phone: 770-989-7030.

 

By Kimberly Douglas 18 Apr, 2016

We’ve been talking about conflict and its impact on teamwork, specifically whether it’s creative abrasion or the type of conflict that diminishes the team. We’ve discussed team members who are unable to share, and the use of humor as a weapon against each other. In this post, we’ll address the thread of disengagement.

Disengagement by one or more members of the team can be another significant barrier to trust within the team , and a tremendous source of conflict. When I was young in my career, only at my second job out of college, I was the director of Human Resources for a large, entrepreneurial, fast-food franchise. I started taking on other areas of the company to manage facilities and administrative services. Unfortunately, I learned something about myself: I liked the exciting project work of creating new programs a lot more than I liked maintaining them. I came to really dislike the work, and it showed. I was becoming toxic, and poisoning everyone around me about the work, my boss, and my co-workers.

I will always be grateful to my boss for what she did:  She first counseled me, pointing out my negative behaviors and the impact they were having, and then encouraged me to turn things around. I tried to have a more positive outlook; I really did. But I was stuck in a sour mindset and no amount of effort on my part or hers could change that. Mind you, I was not grateful then, but I can now look back on it and say that it was a gift to give me 60 days to begin to look for other work.

To this day, I keep this personal experience in the back of my mind when I coach leaders to do what was done to me.   If you have an employee that you think has some potential for success, then you have a responsibility to do what you can to help them change, or regain, their effectiveness.   Put forth your best effort to help the problem employee who is no longer engaged or performing up to standard to turn the situation around, and make it clear what behaviors and results need to change. Then, if the employee is not able to deliver, and you honestly say that you have done your best as a leader and coach to help them succeed, it is time for that person to move on. The most critical point here is to let them leave with dignity, for their own sake, and so that you don’t alienate the other members of the team. This sends a clear message to the people who are left behind that you value and expect results, but you will treat with respect those who cannot meet these standards.

Sometimes disengagement is not limited to just one person. Occasionally, real or virtual distance keeps members from building the bond of trust, and I am often there to facilitate a session to bring this very lack of engagement to light.  Let’s talk! Reach me by email or phone: 770-989-7030.


By Kimberly Douglas 15 Apr, 2016

In prior posts, we’ve been discussing accountability, and how it can greatly improve a team’s overall effectiveness. Now we’ll talk more about how to make fixing problems the responsibility of the entire team. We’ll also offer some questions to help you determine your team’s level of accountability.

In addition to holding themselves accountable for improving decisions and their execution, teams should also hold themselves accountable for improving their overall meeting effectiveness. This can be as simple as conducting a five minute plus/delta evaluation—what worked well in this meeting versus what can be improved upon for the next one. Pick a few of the most critical items to work on for the next meeting; these will be the ones for which people feel a little bit of improvement will have the greatest impact. You can conduct a more formal assessment in which to track changes over a period of time (if your team is really into data). Doing this in real time gives everyone a chance to offer suggestions for how to improve the next time; therefore it is not just the team leader’s responsibility to fix it, it is everyone’s.

So, how would you describe the accountability level for your team? How successful are your team members at upholding their commitments? Do individuals realize and own up to how they may be contributing to the problem? I recommend that as the leader, you share with the team the significance of holding oneself and each other accountable.

Assure them that you.ve established a safe environment in which everyone can comfortably share their honest opinions on this subject, and be sure to stay true to your word. Then, conduct this accountability assessment: ask team members to write down where they would rank their team on accountability—Above Average, Average, or Below Average— and why.

Go around the table and ask each person to share what they wrote down. Be sure to reveal your own thoughts last, so as not to influence others’ responses. If you.re not sure if people will be truly candid, then give them a three-by-five card and a black pen and ask them to submit their evaluation and comments that way.

Once you’ve had a chance to analyze their responses, try to pinpoint some common themes for why the team received the rating it did. If it was low, explore the barriers and challenges— both personally and organizationally— which keep us from being models of personal responsibility and hinder our ability to hold our team accountable for our actions.

Use the information you’ve gleaned to decide on the top three areas where you want to make improvements, and conduct a brainstorming session for how to improve in each area. Reach consensus on what you will actually do, and specifically assign tasks for each team member to carry out over the next 30 days to improve accountability. And while you.re at it, determine how the team will hold itself accountable for actually completing these chosen assignments and course correct as needed.

So there you have it: a framework and process for driving accountability at all levels—personal, leader, and team. What do you think are the positive outcomes of greater accountability in all of these areas? Perhaps the most rewarding is a sense of direction and empowerment—no more victim mentality or feeling that we are controlled by the external circumstances and actions of the outside world. Everyone is called to step up to the plate and perform at a higher level. There is a renewed sense of collaboration and commitment to keeping your word to your teammates, and the leader reinforces this behavior at every opportunity. The team’s standards are high, and everyone knows what it takes to be a true contributor to the team’s success. The words you say are not nearly as important as the actions you take. Your team becomes a role model for what a high standard of accountability looks like, and takes advantage of the tremendously powerful impact this can have on business relationships… and results.

In the meantime, let’s talk! Reach me by email or phone: 770-989-7030.

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