Generally, the reason we bring a group together is to accomplish things we can’t accomplish on our own. Leveraging the inherent diversity of expertise, of experience, and of perspectives in the group will get you to your most innovative ideas in an ideation session.

I don’t think we appreciate the true diversity of the groups we live and work in. Each of our cultural backgrounds informs where we focus our attention, our perceptions of the cause and effect of problems, and our approach to solving problems, to name a few. Our expertise and training inform the way we create new knowledge and our processes for validating it (an idea that forms the basis for the study of the philosophy of science). We’re all made up of the collection of experiences we’ve had until now, giving us unique perspectives, unique wells of ideas and experiences to draw from, and unique insights to add to group work.

It’s pretty incredible, when you think about it.

It’s really easy to set a norm for what’s considered a valuable contribution to a group discussion or to group work, intentionally or otherwise. When we do this, at best we miss out on the potential creativity resulting from that diversity, and at worst we reinforce the marginalization of certain ideas and identities. Below you’ll find just one process that we use at Overlap to facilitate an inclusive ideation process.

Start Solo

Starting solo is absolutely key. Dedicate the first 5-10 minutes of your ideation time with your group to jotting down thoughts individually. Give people the mental space to capture their own ideas, reflecting their unique perspectives before moving on to discuss in a wider group.

Write everything down and Defer Judgment

After starting solo, the group can begin discussing ideas at length and drill deeper into the topic at hand. Knowing that each person in the small group has a number of their thoughts freshly captured in front of them makes it okay to call on each other in the group for new ideas without making people too nervous. It also reminds us that everyone has something to contribute, so we shouldn’t get stuck on one idea for the whole discussion.

As thoughts or ideas are raised, write them down on sticky notes. The small size of a sticky note forces groups to really articulate and understand the core of each idea. Even if the thought or idea seems irrelevant to the current discussion, write it down and table it for later. Since you’re not judging what’s worth writing down and what’s not—you’re capturing everything—you’re naturally defering judgment and including all of the ideas surfacing throughout the ideation exercise.

Post ideas on a vertical surface

Reviewing and sharing the ideas you came up with by posting the sticky notes on a vertical surface and reading them aloud is a great way to give a focused overview of what the group came up with as a whole. Putting the ideas up on a vertical surface draws visual attention to each idea, generally in an equal way.

Catch the big fish

How do I catch a big fish?”
“Catch a lot of fish, and throw the little ones back.”
– Dr. Linda Carson, Chief, Interdisciplinary Collaboration and Creativity

It can be helpful to “throw the little ones back” by collectively deciding on the group’s best five or ten ideas at this point, and putting the others to the side. The fact that you’ve already captured each idea has prevented the group from dismissing any of them from the get-go. Giving everyone the opportunity during this period to explain their ideas and perspectives on others’ ideas as you narrow down the list will work against some of your implicit biases and keep the group mindset fairly open.

Depending on the purpose of your ideation exercise, you might choose to converge a on a few themes or high level ideas instead of on individual ideas. This is where clustering is helpful. Grouping ideas that are similar, or ideas that are complementary is another way to facilitate that process of convergence, and in this case, again, you’re giving attention to all of the ideas you started with, even the outliers.

An ideation exercise shouldn’t consist of a group getting together and “talking about ideas”. When we do that, we limit individual group members’ abilities to contribute, we often end up with one or two people dominating conversation, and at the end of the day, we don’t come up with the best ideas. These are just a few strategies we use at Overlap to amplify each individual voice to facilitate a process of coming up with our best ideas as a group. What kinds of strategies have you found benefit your group ideation exercises most? How do you ensure all voices and ideas are heard? 

 This is one of a series of posts published by Overlappers about Overlap tools and processes.