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How to Facilitate Epiphanies

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!


Design Thinking Phases

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:

  1. lit_match_by_blackhiveA 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.
  2. 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.
  3. diagramImagery 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.



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4 Tips for a Capotastic Halloween

Happy Halloween! It’s time for the creativity junkies to come out and glory in giant messy projects!

Halloween is always an intensely nostalgic time for me. For one thing, we grew up in Sleepy Hollow, as in The Legend of. Every year we would anticipate the town’s elaborate Halloween events, especially the ridiculously fun Haunted Hayride. We would pile onto the itchy haystacks in the back of a trailer and bump along through the famed cemetery in silence. Ahead, we could hear yells and ghoulish sounds coming from the woods where, once we entered, we were taunted with haunted spectacles and the obligatory appearance of the Headless Horseman.

Nearer and dearer to my heart are the Halloween traditions my family developed. Our house always became an explosion of creativity during the Halloween season, and thanks to the genius of my uninhibited mother, our house was the best house in the whole neighborhood for trick-or-treating. Not only were our costumes always awesome and homemade, and our pumpkin carving ambitious and impressive, but we would rig our front door with stunts every year to entertain the kiddos. Favorite pumpkin memories include the political caricatures of Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and Arnold Schwartzeneger, among others. Favorite door stunts include the spider that flew out from the stairwell, the witch that flew down from the tree on the side of the house, and the Phantom of the Opera that inflated out of a flower pot.

As I think back on a wonderful childhood full of fun, creative memories, I think about the deep impact these traditions have on the way I see the world. For instance, my future children will never be allowed to carve a normal jack-o-lantern. They will be taught, as I was, to seize the opportunity for going above and beyond and being as creative as they can be. I am extremely proud of my family’s zany projects–all of which were before Pinterest, mind you. Likewise, I want to encourage you readers to be as creative as you can be with Halloween, because it is a terrific excuse, assuming you need one, to stretch your creativity muscle. To this end, here are some Creative Halloween tips learned from years of Capo Family goofiness. Enjoy!

  1. The best costumes are sometimes just pieces of fabric.
    A few years ago my dad was getting rid of junk in an effort to sell the house. When he got to the costume bin, all three of us kids intervened. The contents of that bin had proved far too useful over the years for them to be discarded. The funny thing is that there were actually very few complete costumes in there. Most of it was just strips of different colored fabric. We knew from much practice that a few safety pins was all it took to make extraordinary costumes ranging from Lord of the Rings Elves to Egyptian Pharaohs to Renaissance courtiers.
  2. Pumpkins: How to go the extra mile
    You know those pumpkin carving kits that come with those little books of designs? You don’t need those. Just draw or print out whatever you want to carve, tape it to your de-gunked pumpkin, and with a poker tool trace the image with dots to transfer the picture onto the surface of your pumpkin. Decide which parts you want light and dark, then hack away. With this technique you can celebrate the year’s biggest blockbuster or mock the politicians up for election.

    From the 2008 Election

  3. These are a little cutesier than the bugs my mom made, but you get the idea. Unfortunately, the photos of our originals are in storage.

    Eat Bugs.
    My mom was one of those class moms that made all the other class moms jealous. She would come into to class and demonstrate elaborate science experiments or bring homemade comic valentines or, at Halloween, impress the kids with bug sculptures made of candy. She developed a whole system for these bugs. The flies were the most impressive because she would cut out wings from wafer cookies and attach them with icing. Again, she figured this out without Pinterest. Today, as we all know, the internet is full of ideas for this kind of thing, but I encourage you not to be a copycat. Use your creativity and, like my pioneering mother, experiment with your own Halloween themed snacks.

  4. Get Interactive.
    There is nothing quite like the joy of opening up a door to a gaggle of little trick-or-treaters and surprising them with a little trick of your own. I don’t remember how this idea came into my mother’s head, but the original trick we set up involved opening our double doors with fishing twine and having a spider swing out at the trick-or-treaters. I think there was music too. We made the spider out of an old T Shirt and socks stuffed with crumpled-up plastic bags. We rigged it with fishing twine through some i-hooks in the ceiling and pulled it back into the stairwell where it sat, poised, ready to be released for the next victims.

    A few years ago we pulled our last stunt at the house where I grew up. It was our most interactive one yet. Here is the video. Enjoy.

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Why No One Understands You: an epiphany in good communication.

“No one cares about your feelings,” the professors told us on the first day of class. “If you have come to write about your feelings you can get out now. We are not kidding.” This class, unofficially dubbed the Fascist School of Writing, was the most wonderful class I ever took in my life and, incidentally, this jarring banishment of emotional baggage led to the most valuable lesson of communication I ever heard.

Whether you are a writer, filmmaker, politician, nonprofit guru, or entrepreneur, if you’ve ever tried to ‘improve your impact’ or ‘extend your reach,’ I expect you regularly hear platitudes like

  • “Produce audience-driven communication”
  • “Always answer the question, ‘Why should I care?'”
  • and “Start with Why.”

Each of these true directives points to two implications: first, that we tend to be terrible communicators, and second, that good communication has something to do with understanding our audience.

As to the first dour implication, I recently read on the blog The Creativity Post this passage about our communication handicap:

“Schools don’t teach communication. They teach math, (not very well), some science, history and give rote instructions about rigid grammatical rules, but give very little guidance on how to express ideas clearly. When we enter professional life, we immerse ourselves in the jargon and principles of our chosen field and obediently follow precepts laid out by our respective priesthoods. Yet we rarely put serious effort toward expressing ourselves in a language that can be understood by those outside our tribe. Then we wonder why our ideas never get very far.”

 As the post describes, our dysfunctional communication skills inhibit our ability to connect with others and realize our potential for innovation. It’s one thing to have ideas to share, but if no one can understand us, we limit the value of our ideas. Therefore, we have a deep incentive to pay attention not just to what we communicate, but how we communicate.

This passage also points to the second implication, the idea that communicators need to pay more attention to those with whom they communicate. Who are they? What is their context? What matters to them? Is it similar or different to the communicator’s context? Good communication demands that these questions be addressed.

Even if the communicator asks these questions, though, it does not guarantee that the answers will be applied. This is where the Fascist School of Writing drops its epiphanic bomb. The reason our feelings were not wanted in that classroom was because feelings were not going to persuade anybody. Feelings are one-directional and un-directable; they come out from us and land wherever they land. When we share our feelings, we are getting something off our chest. In other words, it is all about us. When we share ideas, by contrast, we want those ideas to germinate in the minds of others. If we seek to disperse our ideas well, we need to take control over how they get disseminated and understand more about where they take root.

On the first day of my writing course the professors explained that readers think differently from writers. Writers are obsessed with things–stuff that needs to be organized into a logical flow. Stuff is made of nouns. Writers love to arrange sentences around nouns. The problem is that readers look for actions. They want to know what’s happening, where things are going, the movement from A to B. They look for the verbs. Acknowledging this distinction confronts the writer with a critical decision: Will she depend on the readers to figure out her noun sequence and risk losing their interest and/or comprehension? Or will she adjust her approach to make it more reader-friendly, i.e. action-oriented? The answer is obvious in terms of what she should do, but as many readers know, few writers reorient themselves enough to make it easier for the reader to read, let alone more pleasant.

The big takeaway from this lesson is not only that readers and writers think differently, but that the burden of communication (i.e. getting ideas across successfully and comprehensively) lies on the writers, NOT the readers. Communicators need to reorient their whole message to begin from the audiences’ context and communicate in ways our audiences think. Why? Because we can’t afford to delude ourselves that our audience will stick around if we bore or confuse them. We also shouldn’t fall prey to the temptation of thinking they are too stupid to understand us. They are not stupid, but neither are they patient. The responsibility lies with us to escort them through our argument, beginning with something that our audience believes to be important. If we want to move someone’s point of view from point A to Point B, then we have to start at Point A. This might sound simplistic, but reflect for a moment on how many times you’ve read an article or watched a presentation in which the writer or the speaker assumed you agreed with him from the beginning, or used jargon without defining it, or spent your valuable time in the weeds of irrelevant details. Annoying, isn’t it? Learn from such instances. After all, no one is useless; as the saying goes, everyone can serve as a bad example. Do what these communicators failed to do: respect your audience.

Good communication, therefore, is about taking responsibility for your message and stewarding/manipulating/reshaping it in ways your audience can appreciate. This means making it easier for your audience to receive and comprehend your ideas, instead of making them do backflips. This involves starting where they are starting. It involves getting out of your own head and into theirs’. It is about carrying them along step by step. Oh, and heaven forbid you make the path enjoyable for them.

Communicators, take to heart the words of Lady Galadriel: This task was appointed to you. If you do not find a way, no one will.


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