In our company, not everyone who participates in brainstorming sessions is a creative type. Everyone from product managers to executives to IT and development folks works with us. In fact, working with a multidisciplinary team is the way most UX design gets done. The domain knowledge and buy-in of all stakeholders is essential to conceiving and delivering a successful UX design solution. Everyone wants to participate and come up with a good solution, yet many struggle to find a way into the mind exercises that help the creative group to develop a conceptual framework of ideas.
I’ve also seen conversations about design ideas either quickly disintegrate into petty and foolish arguments over whose idea is “right” or drag on interminably, because the participants don’t realize they are actually talking about the same thing—that is, are in violent agreement with one another. The reality is that about half the time both sides are talking about the same thing, but don’t realize they are when they are just talking—using words alone. Some people just can’t articulate their creative ideas strongly enough, and sometimes people just use different semantics—especially people working in different disciplines. Whatever the cause, such conversations have unproductive outcomes and leave everyone with a bad feeling. You’ve all experienced this kind of frustration, right?
For a while now, I’ve been thinking about how we can successfully bring these various folks together—finding a way for everyone to participate, so the entire group’s knowledge and insights get incorporated into the results? In his blog post on greatness and uniqueness, the writer Howard Mann says, “Greatness exists in us all. And a person who doesn’t believe that shouldn’t be in business.” We want to take advantage of the greatness in each and every member of our multidisciplinary teams to come up with innovative and relevant designs that solve some problem for users.
Easing Participants in—Without the High Stakes
We can’t all be in-the-moment actors like my friend who grabbed my leg in our final improv piece. Over the years, I’ve found people within corporate environments are even less likely to be so creatively fearless. Because of this, starting by getting participants warmed up should be a routine part of the brainstorming process. For example, engaging in a simple group storytelling exercise can help people begin to understand the process of brainstorming and get them comfortable with the process, without their having to jump into the high-stakes situation of a real brainstorming session, in which they must come up with actual ideas and concepts. In an article on the uses of Forum Theatre in business, Nigel Higgs asked, “Was it Confucius who said, ‘I hear, I forget; I see, I remember; I do, I understand’?”
What kind of warmup you should try can depend on the group you are working with and the vibe you are getting from them. It’s always good to have a couple of different ideas in your back pocket you could try. A combination of storytelling and physical movement seems to work well with most groups, getting them stimulated and their minds moving in the right direction. The simple game of telling a story, one word at a time, while passing an imaginary energy ball, can be an effective way of loosening people up.
Always make sure you try to get a read on your group first. Groups that seem lethargic or disconnected may need a more energetic approach. Groups that express fear, reluctance, and confusion over what to expect may need more help understanding what’s going to happen. For a very lethargic group, I once tried an exercise that focused too much on energy, but also required a good amount of storytelling. While the participants became more engaged, which was fantastic to see and helped, they were still hesitant about participating in the actual brainstorming activity.
So, now that you’ve eased your participants into the brainstorming experience, what can you do to make your actual brainstorming session a more productive, useful, and enjoyable experience—one in which everyone feels like they have actively participated and contributed? Lately, I’ve been toying with the notion that the foundations of Forum Theatre might provide some insights into new ways of thinking about the brainstorming process.
Theorist Augusto Boal developed Forum Theatre as a theatrical exercise that is a small part of his methodology called Theatre of the Oppressed. He intended both actors and non-actors to use the overall process of the Theater of the Oppressed and the Forum Theatre exercise. Boal strongly believed, as I do, that everyone is inherently an actor and capable of acting. One of his books is even titled Games for Actors and Non-Actors.
In Forum Theatre, a group of actors enacts a situation, representing a real and true problem one of the actors is trying to solve. First, they describe a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The story’s characters include a protagonist—the person whose story it is—an antagonist, and allies. A small group of actors embodies the story through an improvisation, running through the scene for the larger group. Then the actors run through the scene again, and the audience members—or spect-actors, as Boal calls them, because they are not merely a passive audience—can stop the action by yelling Stop! and jump in with whatever ideas they have for potentially solving the problem or changing its outcome. The spect-actor then gets to replace a character and finish out the scene. The group continues running through the scene as long as there are spect-actors who want to jump in and work through their ideas.
The point of Forum Theatre is not to tell the actor trying to solve a problem what to do, but to provide a broad range of ideas or suggestions he can use as part of a solution. Since every story has a protagonist and an antagonist, it also allows the collective group mind to consider the opposing sides of an argument and come to a conclusion together. The group can collaboratively develop concepts—possible ways of addressing the problem.