Lessons in Innovation and Problem Solving

This video inspires me.  For 7 minutes 43 seconds, I am transfixed:

  • How is this possible?
  • How did he come to be able to do this?
  • Where does this level of focus and determination come from? 
  • How many times did he fail yet get back up and keep going (despite the fact that failure must have been so painful)? 
  • What process does he go through to prepare? 
  • How does he look at the obstacles in front of him and see possibilities not obstacles?

Stop Being Boring – Three ways to liven up break out group reports

Why does reporting out the results the work done in break out groups sometimes result complete buzz kill?

I have heard it said that reports from break out groups should be abolished since they are so often boring and do not provide enough depth to really benefit the work of the broad group. I agree wholeheartedly if:

The report out doesn’t fit the situation.  Though report outs are incredibly important, they are not required in all circumstances.  For example, if the small group work is supporting team building or is setting the stage for deeper work to come, there is not real need to report out the results.  Or, if the small groups are developing input that will be reported out under a larger process – such as a public consultation report – there is no real place for report outs so their value is lost and unnecessary.

The objectives of the report out are not clear or the process is unstructured and poorly managed.

The report out process is dull and does not advance the group’s work or contribute to the achieving the outcomes the meetings is supposed to be achieving.  How many times have you sat through a table by table report out that consists of either a catalog of everything the group discussed so that nothing anyone contributed is left out; or, the recitation of the personal views or experience of the group leader that does not bare much resemblance to what the group discussed.

Here are three dynamic techniques that avoid boredom and give report outs the chance to strengthen group learning and meeting outcomes:

1. The Gallery Walk

What it is:  Tables create a poster or flip chart that represents the main points of their discussion and how it relates to the key question under consideration.  These posters are put up on a wall and participants stroll past and consider the findings & conclusions.

During their stroll, they engage with others in discussion about what they are seeing, what common themes or threads do they observe, how does the work of other groups complement or diverge from what was heard in other groups.  When participants return to their seats, the whole group discussion focuses on identifying the common themes, what was surprising, what the overall conclusions appear to be and finally, what action steps would advance the work to the next stage.

What it does:  Instead of listening to lengthy verbal reports from a static position, participants get up and move.  They break from one type of activity to another – this allows the mind to shift gears and enables individuals to take the time they need to revive themselves and remain productive and creative.  Focus is placed on the inter-connections and significance of the group results to the larger question under exploration and facilitates solution development.

2.  Shift and Share

What it is:  At the end of group work, each team leaves one person behind as a table host.  All other participants move to another table of their choosing (as long as there is a chair available for them).

The table host provides a 5-minute overview of the work of the group and their results.  Then the “guests” have 5 minutes to discuss what they heard and provide feedback, critiques, and enhancements to what they heard.  It is best if the “host” focuses on listing and recording the discussion rather than have actively engaging or challenging the feedback.

After 2 – 3 rounds of presentations and feedback, everyone returns to their home table to hear the feedback and make revisions and modifications to their conclusions.  Since most will have had a chance to hear and contribute to a variety of discussions, the final large group discussion can focus on highlights.

This approach works very well when each group is discussing a different topic or aspect of an issue – its great for generating strategies and actions around individual strategic plan goals for example.

What it does:  This method generates a lot of alignment between ideas even where everyone does not have the chance to hear or comment on each topic area.  It also allows individuals to select the topics they are most interested in critiquing or where they have the most to contribute – thereby maintaining a high degree of engagement in the exercise.  Finally, the report out becomes an active dialogue and co-creation exercise rather than a static lecture of results.

3.  Rank and Relate

What it is:  Groups put a “star” or some form of symbol beside their top three ideas – however they chose to define that.  All ideas are listed but this enables a clear identification of the most important points in relation to the topic under discussion.

Once this is done, groups are asked to create an image, picture or symbol that captures the essence of their discussion, how their top points relate to the broader issue under discussion, or, they are invited to answer a next level question such as “What would the implications be if your conclusions were put into practice?”  Once this is complete, groups then report out on their top ideas, the meaning of their pictures or the implications of their conclusions.

What it does:  Table report out becomes much shorter and focused on tangible outcomes and concrete conclusions rather than recitations of the points discussed.  The method re-energizes the groups by shifting from left-brain to right brain activities – there is also usually a lot of laughter and fun to be had.

Did you know that STRESSED is just DESSERTS spelled backwards?

I took some time on the weekend to de-clutter and organize my office.  Such a luxury – the messy build up was starting to add to my general feeling of stress and frenzy.  It was ironic that I stumbled across an envelope with leftover handouts about stress management from a team meeting I lead about 4 years ago.

Leafing through the material brought back a lot of memories.  The team was facing yet another year of increased work and the specter of significantly reduced funding, again.  They had come together for two days to consider how to shift their work to be ready to meet the challenge.  It was a stressful meeting at the end of a stressful year focused on figuring out how to manage another one ahead.

In the afternoon of the second day, we let it all go and spent time laughing through a video presentation by Loretta Laroche a renown humorist, motivational speaker and stress expert.  We ate popcorn and reflected on how to lighten the load and personally deal with the challenges to come.

While a lot of the advice is so simple, it is so easy to forget in the swirl of everyday. It made me smile all over again so I thought I would share some of it with you:

Loretta’s Eight Steps to EnLIGHTenment:

  1. Lighten Up.  Find humor in everyday situations (especially in yourself)
  2. Light the Way.  Smile at Yourself and Other.  Be fully present.
  3. Step Lightly.  Twirl, Stand on One Leg, Walk Backwards!
  4. Discover your Inner Light.  Mediate, Pray, Count Your Blessings!  Find the Bless in the Mess.
  5. Delight Yourself.  Pleasure Yourself with Food, Art, Nature and Music.
  6. Lighten Your Load.  Give up doing everything.  Call in WELL!
  7. Speak Lightly.  Go beyond Okay, Fine, Not Bad, Yell – Whoopee! Weeh! TaDah!
  8. Become a Beacon of Light.  Be a compassionate witness to your behaviour and to other Humans.  Become your own Hero.  Lead your Life with Grace, Glory, Merriment and Mirth.

I checked in with the meeting sponsor a week or so after the meeting – she reported that she had caught sight of someone doing a little twirl as they walked down the hall.

The Secret to Innovation… Find Your Marshmallow

I have started working with a group that is exploring ways to innovate within a complex, multi-party, multi-pronged social service delivery system.

As I pondered how to continue to add value to the work of the group, I began musing about innovation itself. What is it exactly and how do you help groups produce it?  At its most basic, innovation is something new.   But, a new idea remains just an idea until it is offered to a broader group – no matter how limited that group might be.  The ideas of one person become so much more when they are expanded on by a larger group through collaboration.

Enter the Marshmallow Challenge – a deceptively simple game that has groups of 4 build the tallest structure they can in 18 minutes using 20 pieces of spaghetti, a yard of tape, one yard of string and a marshmallow – the marshmallow has to end up on top of the structure.

This challenge has been extended to many, many groups and has revealed some key lessons about how groups collaborate to produce innovative ideas. The most successful teams are those that:

  • are egalitarian – e.g. no one seeks to be in charge of the outcome;
  • do not seek one “right” plan to execute; but rather,
  • follow an iterative process that provides instant feedback on what works and what doesn’t.

The inspiring lesson here is that the underlying assumptions in any innovation exercise must be identified early and need frequent testing through prototyping.  Doing this creates effective innovation – innovation that could actually result in something new, different, better.

Spending a bit of time on a fun exercise like the Marshmallow Challenge seems like a great way to reinforce that innovation is “a contact sport” and could help groups realize that it is okay to slow down, do a little prototyping and testing so that it achieves more “TA DA!” moments than “Oh-Oh” results.



The Merits of Habit


One of my favourite places in town is Habit Coffee.  I can ride there on my bike (admittedly I do this more during the summer) and meet my husband for a mid morning break.  Not only does it have great coffee – it also has a feel that I find energizing – cool periodicals, great music, vegan goodies…

My husband flipped me this photo one morning when I couldn’t join him.  Even without being there it made me smile and feel good.  Is this daily ritual a good thing or, is it turning into a bad habit?  As my mother might say, “Coffee is like the new smoking – just think how much money you are spending every day not to mention the time you are wasting!”

I was understandably happy to find an article in the Globe and Mail that suggested that in fact coffee breaks are good for productivity.  Not only that, it states that studies have found that the social interaction associated with taking coffee breaks is especially important for knowledge workers (or consultants) who frequently work in isolation from their peers. 

Getting out there in the world and connecting with people is critical for boosting the ability to remain creative and productive.  So remember that next time you head to your favourite spot for a break – think of it as a productivity boost rather than a work break – an investment in your creativity quotient.

Where do you most like to hang out for a break?  What makes you feel energized and ready to tackle that next tough task?

How do you get 25 people to draft one question in one hour and live to tell the tale?

This was the challenge I faced recently when I was asked to design and deliver a 2-day workshop that would be the starting point for a 2-year policy initiative.  Undertaking what is essentially a drafting exercise with 25 people had the potential to get pretty ugly and really bogged down. 

As I mulled over how to structure an exercise to get the group where it needed to go, I kept stumbling up against how to encourage creativity, keep people engaged and avoid the natural tendency for some voices to dominate the discussion.  Further, what could I do to make it fun and dynamic?  How could I get people out of their seats without causing chaos in a small room?

I have had great success leading groups to consensus using the Technology of Participation methods taught by ICA Associates.  I have used their index card technique to help groups develop vision statements, identify operational issues and decide on the elements of implementation plans.  I’d also been reading Gamestorming – a Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers and Changemakers.  The authors of this great resource book see anything movable, like cards, as great “mobile artifacts” – something that carries meaning and can be moved around easily to introduce randomness; randomness is important because it drives creativity by tricking the mind into looking for new and different patterns.

All that got me thinking – I figured that using cards would increase the chances for everyone to participate and would create ideas that could be shuffled, regrouped, and leveraged to drive to consensus in 60 minutes.  Here’s what I did:

Step 1:  In small groups of 4-5 participants, individuals reflected on information that was presented earlier in the day and then shared their ideas about the common themes or essential elements of the policy challenge at hand.

Step 2:  After a short discussion, each table created their first cut at a question to describe the end state they wanted to create through their policy work.  The question had to begin with:  “How can we…”  Groups were encouraged to do this quickly and NOT to seek perfection.

Step 3:  Once happy with what they had developed, they put boxes around the main elements or blocks of meaning in the draft question eliminating the conjunctions, pronouns, prepositions and articles.

Step 4Each element block was then placed on one or two coloured index cards and placed on a blank mural posted on a wall. 

These 4 steps took about 20 minutes to complete and produced 4 rough outlines of the draft question.

Step 5:  Silently, participants looked at each question, and its elements, and thought about their different meanings.  When ready, anyone could step forward and take elements from each question to begin creating one new question.  As each element was moved and placed, the person moving the card explained their rationale to the group.  If others disagreed, they could make a counter move and explain why. 

Step 6:  The draft question was reviewed and confirmed.  Times up – done in 60 minutes or so.

We came back to this initial question several times over the course of the 2-day workshop and continued to make adjustments as our understanding of the issues deepened.  The draft question was left on cards so that the group was able to add new cards and shuffle ideas around to clarify its meaning and focus

By the end of the workshop, the group had a strong question to take forward that everyone in the group felt they owned.

Immigrating to the World of Social Media


When I started working for government in late 1989, I had never experienced email, or worked much with PCs.  Word-processing in university was via the mainframe.  Yet, within three years – by around 1993 – everyone had a PC; and email had evolved to a much easier platform than the complicated system on dumb terminals that I started with.

I wholeheartedly embraced this revolution – quickly becoming the “go-to-gal” for any number of software related tasks and questions.  I created complex macro-driven spreadsheets and gorgeous slide presentations for my bosses – that were, incidentally, put onto overhead transparencies!

So, I have been quite perplexed with the internal resistance I have felt as I have begun to adopt various social media tools for my business and watched as my pre-teen daughters sign up for any number of chat sites. 

Though I am not quite prepared to brand social media as the “rock’n’roll” of my generation, I definitely feel a strong generational gap.  An “a-ha” moment came when I raced out to get a book to teach me how to Twitter!  While it was a good read, I quickly saw the irony in this approach – type “learn to use Twitter” into your search engine and you get over 1 billion hits!

My oh so savvy advisors at Copeland Communications, explained it this way – those of my generation are, to some extent, technology immigrants whereas our children are technology natives.  Even better is the now classic quote from Douglas Adams.  Writing way, way back in 1999, Adams said this about our ability to adapt to technological change:

“1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.”

Looked at from this perspective, it is much easier cut myself some slack and accept that learning the ways of this new world will take time, patience, persistence and curiosity.

What has your experience been bringing social media into your life?

Blogging is Like Sharing a Piece of Pie

It seemed eerie that last night, on the eve of launching my new website and blog, I should stumble upon the following passage in William Gibson’s, Pattern Recognition:

“Musicians, today…put new compositions out on the web, like pies set to cool on a window ledge, and wait for other people to anonymously rework them.  Ten will be all wrong, but the eleventh will be genius.  And free.  It’s as though the creative process is no longer contained within an individual skull, if indeed it ever was.  Everything, today, is to some extent the reflection of something else.”

The free exchange of ideas and knowledge on the web has expanded my ability to find the best sources of information and has greatly enriched what I am able to offer my clients.  I’m excited to be entering this global collaboration and to put my “compositions” on the window ledge for your thoughts, reflections and reworkings.

Facilitation is like flying passengers through fog

When I work with groups, I am always struck by the faith they place in me to get them where they need to go.  They put themselves in my hands for an hour, a day or sometimes several days.  Often they are required to work through complex exercises to address business challenges with ambiguous or limited information.  I have wondered what that must feel like?  How are they able to remain confident that we will get to our destination regardless of the difficulties we may face or the detours we may need to take?

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