Wednesday, December 9, 2015

In a Meeting What is Best for Creative Problem Solving? Total Freedom or Well Defined Process?

Problem solving meetings should harness the energy and creativity of those who participate. 

Many people think that innovation and creativity are better expressed by allowing people to work without constraint or boundaries.  That works well in isolation, but if you want to harness the creativity of a group, you need a little structure.

For example, let's say on a Friday you task a brilliant person to come up with a great idea. He or she goes away for the weekend inspired and then come back on Monday with an outstanding solution.

Interestingly, this can be a double edged sword.  The solution can be suitable for a single solution or maybe even the enterprise, but it can also lack the necessary input to make it the best cross domain solution or perhaps be somewhat insufficient for a broader range of applications.  Other times, it can lack the buy-in from strategic stakeholders who might be behind it except for the fact that they didn’t get to walk through the process of understanding the trade-offs or “trade study” that went into the decision process. 

This is where a well structured Better Meeting Magic engagement can get you buy-in and collaboration and also bring the decision processes to closure relatively quickly.

In my previous article, “Change Your Meetings and Change Your Life,” I introduced Better Meeting Magic, a way to change the culture and productivity of a team, department, division or company that embodies the spirit of collaboration, inclusiveness and focus.

The box around “Agenda/Activity Cycle” reflects that this part of Better Meeting Magic is an iterative process that may be repeated many times during the course of a meeting. In some meetings, especially very long or multi-day meetings, you may have several decisions to make and you’ll need to run through the “Agenda/Activity Cycle” multiple times for each specific agenda item.  

BRAINSTORMING is the very heart of the “Agenda/Activity Cycle”.  Harnessing the flow of creative and collaborative thinking is the goal for the entire meeting, and BRAINSTORMING is the process of funneling the creativity into a specific thrust.  It’s super easy to be creative by yourself.  It’s also easy to be collaborative.  It’s harder to be collaborative and creative because people bring Bias into their decisions.  It’s extremely hard to be collaborative, creative, unbiased and deliver a good solution with time constraints.  The Better Meeting Magic “Agenda/Activity Cycle” can produced the desired result.

For any meeting where you need to get results quickly and come to a decision, you will need to formulate a game plan.  The game plan could be a simple 1 pass through the Agenda/Activity Cycle such as, “Brainstorm with sticky and select the top 3 ideas.”  Or the meeting could be a multi-day engagement where you have 10-20 iterations of the Agenda/Activity Cycle for multiple different topics. 

In either case, the facilitator of the meeting must plan in advance what activities that will be best suit for meeting goal.  In a recent meeting with a couple teams at my company we needed to re-work some of the network infrastructure.  Before the meeting I collected all the major network nodes and printed the names of each one on 8x10.  I brought the stack of printouts to the meeting and instructed to team to layout the network on the wall by taping each sheet of paper in the appropriate location using blue painters tape.  After they completed this initial activity, we began to restructure the network.

There are infinite ways to approach the brainstorming part of a meeting, and you can let your creative juices flow. But as the facilitator must come to the meeting with a plan for the activities.

Tip #1: Brainstorm with Sticky Notes

Using a physical piece of material (e.g. sticky note and fat markers) for capturing brainstorming is so powerful. 

First there is the cognitive aspect of the writing things down.  
Second there is the small amount of space that forces people to focus.
Third there is the capability to easily move and categorize.

Tip #2: Always have people write down their own thoughts

In some meetings, there is a person at the whiteboard who is capturing thoughts.  I think there is value is this type of facilitation, but I do not recommend it for most BRAINSTORMING activities.

I recommend that the facilitator of the meeting plan enough time for people to write their own sticky notes and then personally walk up to the board or wall and post them.   This has a couple great effects:

  • The act of writing down your own thoughts gives ownership to the ideas and content.  If you summarize someone else’s thoughts in your own short hand, the words will likely be slightly off in meaning and tone.  That’s not always true, but it’s best to let the author of the idea carve their own art work.
  • The act of physically getting out of the chair is sometime uncomfortable for people. Maybe even awkward in some environments where sitting, staring at each and talking is the norm.  However, in meetings where people move around, there is much more energy and engagement. I usually insist that people get up and post their own notes keep the meeting lively. If you want people engaged, make them get their whole body in motion.

Tip #3: Create activities that engage both quiet and the talkative

It’s important that you engage both ends of quiet/loud spectrum in your meetings.  By default, meetings where people sit around and talk will be dominated by out spoken people.   Collaboration toward the best idea requires engaging all the stakeholders.  If a quiet stakeholder doesn’t speak out during the meeting, he or she may be holding the keys to a golden egg and never express the idea. Or he or she may be a position of having key knowledge and possibly power to veto the idea following the meeting.  Here is an examples of how to engage people on the loud and quiet spectrum.

‘At Least One Sticky’ Exercise

  • Instruct participants to write at least one sticky related to the current discussion
  • Instruct participants to walk up to the whiteboard or wall and post their idea
  • Either during the act of walking up or after everyone has posted, have each individual briefly describe their sticky 
Extracting at least one sticky forces engagement for everyone.  In my previous posts I talked about OPENING the meeting and having meeting rules.  I usually post the rules ‘Everyone Participates in Activities’.  In the event I have people who are resistant to be involved in activities, I re-iterate the rules from our opening.

When people talking through their sticky this enables the more verbal oriented people the capability to express themselves.  Since people want to both figurative and literally be heard, this part of the activity drives engagement.

Break out your sticky notes and create a super engaging meeting for your participants.

Go try this in your next meeting where you need to make a decision.  Please leave a comment on how it went…either good or bad or ugly.

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