Are you getting enough from your brainstorm?

Do you love a good brainstorm?

I do.

It’s a great way to collect a plethora of ideas together in one place, whether thoughts from a super creative and overflowing mind or the result of collective input from a group. It’s a common enough technique, and simple to do.

Idea

 

But there are most definitely things that you can do to make sure you get the most out of your brainstorm, and to make it more effective, at least in the group sense. Let’s leave aside for a moment the lone brainstorm. I am partial to “brainstorming myself”, and use it to:

  • Offload a myriad of thoughts floating around my head that need to be captured and contained somewhere, usually on a piece of flipchart paper.
  • Organise that information in a way that I might be able to make use of it effectively. Once it’s recorded then I can start to reflect and decide how to act upon the content.
  • Perhaps generate some more ideas to clarify, modify or add to the ones that I have just “stormed”.

That’s more or less what a brainstorm is – eliciting information from inside the complex systems that are our minds. Doing it alone can be tricky. Doing it in a group is far more effective, but not without its pitfalls.

So how can we make a group brainstorm work well?

Brain

The first thing to pay attention to is WHY you are doing the brainstorm in the first place.

Obviously you are asking people for ideas, thoughts and suggestions, but sometimes a brainstorm is used primarily as a discussion starter. In this sense you might be less worried about the answers people give, and more interested in the discussion itself. A brainstorm used in this way may be most effective at the start of a workshop where you are teaching people something new; a training session. Before giving your participants the “right answers” you are opening up, stimulating ideas and helping people engage with the topic.

You may however really need to find out and gather particular knowledge from the people in the room. For example if you are looking for ideas to save costs on a project, or answers to a specific problem, you are looking to the participants for some answers. While the brainstorm has the same function of stimulating discussion and engaging people, its main aim is to elicit the ideas from the people in the room. The ideas, knowledge and experience held by the participants are what you are really after. They can provide information on a certain topic which may then be built upon and investigated in more depth later on in the session. This is more common in a meeting or facilitated workshop where the main purpose is not to teach people new things, but to help them to share what they know.

Whatever the main thrust of your brainstorm, it is important to make sure you know exactly what you are asking of people and make your questions clear.

If you manage your brainstorm well, then you will get all sorts of ideas flowing. A good brainstorm will not only help people to share their insights and knowledge, but help ignite the sparks of new ideas and produce fantastic gems of information. This is when a brainstorm can become truly valuable. It moves beyond simply asking people to offer up an answer, or even stimulating a discussion. It is about really enriching that discussion, broadening it out and creating a result that is so much bigger that the individual ideas on their own.

WHAT you do with the information elicited very much depends on the aim of your brainstorm in the first place. But, the more in depth and targeted the process, the greater the flow of ideas and the more extensive the possibilities will be for your next steps.

A brainstorm is far more that a brain dump. It is far more than collecting and recording information. It is far more than finding out what people think. It can be the start of something quite exciting, a voyage of discovery. But as with many of the simplest things; the devil is in the detail, so make sure you think about what you need!

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Awareness in the Fast Lane

When I was growing up I used to do lot of swimming. It’s the only sport I’m really any good at. I don’t like running. Not at all! These days I can still hold my own in the pool even if my butterfly is limited to two lengths before I’m complete custard. And it’s generally the fast lane that I head for when I go to my local pool, along with a lot of other swimmers who clearly think, believe and know beyond a doubt that they are also fast.

swimming-78112_1280

The problem is, that having decided they’re fast, they absolutely need to be in that fast lane.  They have read the sign and that’s that. There’s not much that will move them from the fast lane. Even, it seems the fact that it is packed to the point where its nearly impossible to swim. They seem to be having these conversations with themselves:

“It says fast, so I must stay here.”

“Hmmm, but the medium lane is far less full.”

“But it tells me this is where the fast people need to be. I need to be with the fast people. Here is where I’m staying”.FAST2

I am however hot foot over to the medium lane, which I have checked out and can see is far less full. The “fast lane”label is actually rather defunct as no one is able to swim properly, it’s too packed. But somehow the congestion in the fast lane seems to be created by that word; “fast”. No one else seems to have cottoned on, they are so keen to be fast……..

And for me, this behaviour is all about awareness. Or lack of it. Which amounts basically to carrying on with what you are doing without really thinking about it. Determined to fulfil a goal, without monitoring your progress.

It’s very much like carrying on regaling someone with a tale without realising that they are bored to tears. We all do this sometimes and if you spend any length of time observing people having conversations then you will see what I mean, particularly in groups when there are a lot of different people taking part. It is usually just a few people that find it harder to take on board their surroundings, but in doing so they do show this kind of “plough on anyway” behaviour – I’ve started so I’ll finish as Magnus Magnusson used to say.

This often manifests itself as not listening. But its not just about listening. It’s about paying attention to all sorts of different things going on; it’s the body language, the frequency of exchanges, the types of conversations being had and the level of language used. It’s about hearing responses and connecting them to what you are talking about. Particularly in a group there is always a danger that we just do what everyone else does, what we think is expected of us without actually checking first.

And if you are determined to be in the fast lane regardless you are quite possibly focusing on the wrong thing. You are not seeing that there are other ways to get what you want, to speak to people, to have a conversation. There are other ways to ask questions, tell a story or discuss a problem. If you want to stay fixed to your goal without thinking about the other people around, then you might actually end up achieving it slower. You need to have the buy in of other people into your conversation or it’s not really a conversation, but one way traffic.

So next time you have that “fast lane feeling”, maybe stop and collect yourself a bit. We are all guilty of this trait on one level or another and we don’t always employ our best awareness tactics. I know, really that telling my daughter to put her shoes on in the morning 5 times in a row isn’t effective. Yet I still do it. Maybe if I gave her the chance to finish what she is doing first, we might get better results but somehow my fast lane feeling can sometimes become the default setting when under pressure, when in a rush.

We all sometimes miss the important signs, the subtle things, the less obvious. We are constantly distracted and diverted by our busy lives and our need to get things done. If we take a look at other approaches available to us once in a while and think about the alternatives to steaming on regardless there may be some surprising results.

 

The Wonders of Workshops

workshop group

To do a workshop, there’s a trick

Discovering how people tick.

You’ll want to be part of the group,

You need to feel you’re in the loop.

If you just stand there, blab and spout

And talk and talk around, about,

One direction information

With minimal participation.

Then you’re not making half the most

Of what you should be, as the host.

Your job’s to energise, excite

Get people buzzing left and right!

Involve the group that’s there with you

Create dynamics, include them too.

Engagement is the key you see,

It’s not just them, it’s us and we.

Discussions causing inspiration

Ideas abound and thought creation.

And questions about how to do,

And sharing a new point of view.

A good direction, know you aims

Include some decent fun and games.

Tools, techniques, activities,

A proper process if you please.

It’s not so hard you’ll get the knack

And once you’re on that workshop track,

You start to get the buzz, you’ll see

Just how much fun it really can be.

So let’s get started, find your groove,

Take a first step, bust a move.

You can devise a workshop too,

Don’t just sit there, get up and do!

 

To find out more about my workshops on how to do your own workshop, click here!

What do you consider when choosing a workshop venue?

I think I’ve mentioned before that the strangest place I have given a workshop was in a client’s kitchen. It was in an office, and an open plan office at that. So there was quiet a bit of space. The client was in the middle of moving into the office which is why we ended up there. Not ideal, but I like a challenge!

I have also given workshops in a church, a stately home, hotels, some state of the art training rooms, several community centres, classrooms, an entrance hall, a front room, and a whole variety of office spaces. Some of these were wonderful venues, some less so. Sometimes a venue might initially seem to be brilliant, but then turn out not to be. At the end of the day you can be in the finest venue in the land, and still have a duff workshop. But a good venue does help, it’s so much easier when your physical space is right.

Some of my more tricky experiences with venues have included:

  • Not being allowed to stick things on the wall even when I had said that I needed to be able to.
  • Ceiling fans blowing Post it notes off the walls (this was in the sweltering heat in Lumbini in Nepal and not a problem I have encountered since!)
  • Not being able to move the furniture around (very heavy)
  • Not being able to open windows (stuffy)
  • Bad acoustics (large echoey room)
  • Heating that can’t be turned off
  • Over zealous catering (hotel staff coming in and out of the workshop with immense frequency to top up water on tables, clear up coffee etc)
  • Geese making goose noises outside
  • Drilling going on in an office next door

Some of these things I would put down to “unforeseen circumstances”  – you can’t predict everything (no one told the geese there was a workshop!). In truth, even if you do ask the right questions and think you have covered everything, where you hold a workshop is not always completely under your control. Often it is the client that books a venue, or more commonly may want to use their own space. So a desire for clean clear walls that you can happily plaster in workshop ‘stuff’ is not always an option. If you are putting on an open workshop, you may have the freedom to choose, but much of the time you will also have a range of budget, time and availability constraints. So getting the venue right is not always that simple…..

Venue, workshop room

So what do you need to think about? Here are some of my top things to think about:

1) Walls. There is no doubt about it, I get very excited when I see lots of empty wall space in a workshop venue. For me this means I can stick up pieces of flip chart paper, cards, bits of paper, post it notes and all sorts of other workshop “stuff” all over the walls. I am never more pleased that when I see all of our work plastering the walls.

TOP TIP: Check you are actually allowed to stick things up with blue tac or whatever your chosen sticky stuff is. If you can’t, you might want to check out something like magic whiteboard.

2) Space to move around. I am very keen on movement in my workshops. Even a little bit is good. Even if it just to go and write something down on a flip chart, or to swap places with someone. If there is space for break out groups, and to get people mixing up and moving around then I am very happy.

TOP TIP: Most venues will have a maximum capacity for the room ie the number of people they will allow in that room. However that number may only be possible with a given room layout (the way the tables and chairs are arranged). Always ask about this.

3) Furniture. This follows on from 2. I like to be able to be creative with the space I am using and it’s much better if the tables aren’t bolted down (or more likely bolted to each other), too heavy to move or not the right quantity for what I need (too many is as bad as too few). Chairs tend to be less problematic but equally it’s much better if they are not too heavy to move, too comfy (remember I like movement!) or in fact just too many. I have done many workshops sitting on cushions on the floor – there is nothing that says you have to have chairs and tables!

Sitting on the floor workshop

TOP TIP: Check how many tables and chairs are available and what type they are and ask for them to be set up the way you want them prior to the workshop.

4) Acoustics. While it is not always possible to block out external distractions such as traffic (or geese) it really helps if the acoustics inside the room are good. If you are delivering a participatory and engaging workshop (the best kind!) with movement, hopefully a lot of discussion and potentially even some laughter, a room with a lot of echo can really make your ears ring.

TOP TIP: Visit the venue beforehand and make some noise to see what it sounds like. 

5) Lighting. Good natural light is brilliant for workshops, strip lights or poor lighting in general is not. Especially when you are writing things down, and reading things from a distance, bad light can be a real headache (literally).

TOP TIP: Check the lights actually work!

workshop lighting

6) Accessibility. There is no real excuse these days for us not to think about this. If you have someone will additional physical needs attending your workshop they need to be able to comfortably get into the building and the room you are in. If they can’t then you will look stupid to say the least.

TOP TIP: Ask the venue about accessibility and what help is available if needed. Remember accessibility does not just stop at physical needs…..

7) Parking. This will be an important question for all your participants – is there somewhere to park? Even if this is only on street parking, make sure you have thought about where people can go. You don’t want participants to be late because they have spent hours trying to park.

TOP TIP: Check the nearest cycle racks, bus stops and train stations too – not everyone will come by car.

8) Those little extras. Sometimes a venue may have brilliant facilities and a wonderful light airy room with fabulous walls. But it might still look a bit dull. You can always take some things to brighten things up, for example flowers for the tables, table cloths or pictures for the walls.

TOP TIP: If you are bringing extra things into the venue, see if you can make use of them in some way within your workshop, even if they are just a talking point.

flowers

Choosing the right venue can be time consuming, but it is important to dedicate some energy to thinking about it. You don’t want too many surprises, you want things to run as smoothly as possible. You want your physical space to be appropriate both for both you and your participants. Good planning and preparation are vital for a good workshop and finding a good venue is a part of that.

My next workshop will be at Bristol Spaceworks, The Easton Business Centre so please join me and we can talk more about workshops (and venues!). And if you have a favourite workshop venue I’d love to hear about it.

If you’d like a copy of my venue checklist then please sign up below:  

 

Much Maligned and Misunderstood – the Humble Flipchart

How do you feel about flip charts? An odd question, I know…….

I’ve noticed there is a bit of a divide – the pro and anti flip chart camps, people that either love ’em or hate ’em. There are people who express a distaste for this humble piece of equipment. And then there are those that swear by them.

Someone asked me just the other day whether I was “flip chart” or “not flip chart”. Do I use one or not in my workshops?

The answer is of course, but not always. More often than not when I use a flip chart, I use a lot of other materials too. A flip chart is a tool, a piece of equipment to use when the occasion fits. It is not a centre piece.

Jewell Facilitation Workshop024

My own flip chart is frequently used for writing down all sorts of ideas, scribbles, drawings, the odd mind map or large list. I like be able to see the big picture (literally!). It is a fabulous tool, and one of several pieces of equipment that I use regularly.

In a workshop I use it:

  • To “park” ideas
  • As a way to record the results of a brainstorm
  • To note down the main points in a conversation when needed
  • To show a diagram or do a quick drawing to illustrate a point
  • To show the aims of the workshop
  • To write up some ground rules if needed
  • To note down important questions

There is nothing special or clever about it. It doesn’t have a particular air of cool. It’s not a spendidly exciting  thing, but then it doesn’t need to be. I can see where the dislike comes from, you can get it wrong (yes, really). But in defence of this uninspiring looking piece of equipment, I would suggest that it is not about whether it should be used or not used, but about whether you can make it work well for your needs.

Is there a way to use a flipchart properly?

Well actually yes there is, or rather there are ways to use it badly that are probably what spur on the idea that they are not to be encouraged.

There is such a thing as “death by flipchart”. It’s the lo-tech version of “death by powerpoint”. They both mean the same thing. They refer to a tool used badly, the impact of which is to make you feel talked at, slide after slide (or sheet of paper after sheet of paper) with little or no regard for the audience or group of people listening, watching or reading. Most of us have been in the audience and experienced this at some time or other. It’s boring and so rather than risk being in this position, perhaps people prefer to avoid them.

Powerpoint, or perhaps Prezzie or Sway are all valid ways of presenting information. It is not the tool that is to blame but the way it is used. You can include them very well in a workshop, but they are not THE workshop.

flipchart

And the humble flip chart is the same. When I worked in Nepal many years ago, we used a flip chart with “newsprint” the hand made and comparatively expensive paper to write on. We used it sparingly and didn’t write down endless tracts of information. This was so long ago that in fact the then high tech version of presenting information was on an overhead projector. I digress…

A flip chart is a valuable tool, but only if you use it well. My top tips for using one are as follows:

  • Do not write pages and pages of information out and flip through them.
  • If you are preparing information in advance, make sure it is in sequence and that perhaps you mark your pages so you don’t get in a muddle.
  • Write clearly and choose good pens. I really can’t emphasise enough the good pens.
  • Green and red markers are often hard for some people to read, particularly at a distance- I tend to avoid them.
  • Using all colours of the rainbow to write in may seem appealing from where you are standing, but remember people do need to read what you have written.
  • Make sure you write big enough for your participants to actually see.
  • A flip chart is something to support your information on. It is not something you are glued to, it is not a comfort blanket. You can move away from it and use other materials (something I highly recommend in fact).
  • If you are writing things down as you go, remember your audience, don’t just talk to the flip chart.
  • We are not all lucky enough to have primary school teacher neat and tidy writing, and we are not all good at writing on a board in straight lines (I’m not, and I’ve been doing it for years!). But equally scrawling all over the paper in millions of different directions is not helpful.
  • Summarise, paraphrase or use short hand where appropriate if you are writing as you go along. Most of the time you don’t need to get every word, for example if you are doing a brainstorm. Your participants won’t want to be reading great long sentences and you will take a lot of valuable discussion time doing so, not to mention a lot of paper!
  • If you are taking notes, recording a brainstorm or taking down ideas it’s a good idea to take the pieces of paper off the flipchart as you go along and stick them up on the wall somehow. That way you can see all the information. If possible, think in advance where you are going to out these pieces of paper and whether you have space to display them.

And there I rest my case. It is a simple piece of kit, not to be overused and I would say generally doesn’t work well as a solitary thing. By which I mean you will need some other activities to go with it.

If you want to see me and my flip chart in action, it plays a minor but important supporting role in my next workshop and will be there together with a large variety of other pieces of equipment and materials.

Do you have a favourite piece of equipment in your workshops?