Over the weekend my friend and I facilitated two, back-to-back, day-long design workshops (yes, I am still recovering, thanks). We worked with two nonprofits, one on Saturday and the other Sunday, and coached them through their respective complex design challenges using Design Thinking methodology. As grueling as it was to push through the mental blocks and exhaustion that comes with day-long brainstorming sessions, both groups came away jazzed and thinking totally differently about their respective problems than when they walked in that morning. So, SUCCESS!
So what went right? We’ve been trying to figure it out. Replicating an epiphany-inducing process would be awesome, but were we just lucky? Not sure yet, but I can say that both days we saw a confluence of factors that led to brainwave breakthroughs:
- A Controlled Flare. At the beginning of each day, I made sure to emphasize that when Design Thinkers say, “Trust the Process,” what they want is to let the ideas flow, no matter how erratic, tangential, or numerous. If you look at the Design Thinking diagram above, you can see that some stages flare while others focus. The flare portion can make people nervous, especially people who like control and orderly meeting styles. But the trick is to welcome ideas, however radical or impractical. Only when you have a complete collection of all of the factors at play or all of the ideas in peoples’ heads can you make educated decisions about the best direction to pursue. For the facilitator in this process, think of a controlled forest fire; firemen stand by to ensure that the burning process does what it needs to do in order to cultivate the healthiest results.
- Creative Boundaries Make the Difference. Each sprint generated dozens and dozens of post-it note ideas. With each new wave of post-it tsunamis, we asked group members to categorize the post-its, summarize their categories, and prioritize their top ideas. It was fascinating as a facilitator to step back and watch brains work. Every time we asked this, the group would fall silent in extreme focus, and begin rearranging the post-its in trance-like movements. Within minutes they would generate categories out of chaos and, what’s more, could explain their new world order with confidence. By what power did they achieve this? I believe it has to do with setting creative boundaries. They say that limitations are the essence of art, and broadening this to any creative task, boundaries are the essence of creative work. The alternative, like saying “Anything is Possible,” can often leave us feeling paralyzed by the options. But just as rules make a game, boundaries work on our brains to shape our ideas into something real. As a facilitator, therefore, crafting questions that set creative boundaries becomes one of the most important tasks you have.
- Imagery and Metaphors Bring Cohesion. One of our groups was having trouble. They had so much they wanted to accomplish and had identified half a dozen audiences they wanted to help. At the same time, the collective gut feeling in the room was that their goals, as different as they appeared on paper, had something in common. Suddenly, someone suggested that what we wanted to provide was the “connective tissue” between the disparate audiences, like ligaments between muscles, and the group burst into smiles. We finally had an image to work from, and you could feel the tension in the room relax into pleasant excitement. We drew a couple of quick diagrams, and it sealed cohesion among the group members. As a facilitator, then, it is critical to try to help these images take shape. The whole process will benefit with better visuals.