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February 16, 2018

How to design workshops that are worth our time!

Since I got the idea of comparing brainstorms with parties, I tested this statement in a few conversations and faced similar reactions each time: A confederate smile implying memories of failed innovation meetings. Such meetings usually start with best intentions and end with walls covered by post-it notes and great confusion about next steps and accountabilities. From my experience, brainstorming-meetings have a massive potential for creating innovative and feasible solutions in a group context if we plan and execute them wisely. In this post, I suggest learning from parties on how to organise brainstorms that are worth our time. 

“Brainstorms are like parties: the following day, everyone remembers something different, and nobody wants to clean up the mess.”

Myriam Hadnes

Improv taught me that by asking questions without sharing my own point of view, I leave my partner in the dark. Uncertainty and fear of judgement may arise or just a blank because he or she has never thought about that question and simply doesn’t know how to answer. Instead, I can put the subject into a context and share a story behind it, my own experiences or point of view. Thereby, I provide my partner with the material they can build on.
For example, I could ask: Why did you quit your job? But, I could also refer to an article I read or a related anecdote I have in mind while asking the question. I would then say: “I recently read an article about career shifting and learned about the benefits of a second career. This makes me curious: Why did you quit your job?” Instantly, the question turns away from the “why” and put emphasis on the “you”.
This is also when ‘taking space’ becomes an art: You don’t want to make the conversation about you or the article. By taking space, you want to offer your partner a structure and signal that you really care for them and their own answer.
From my experience as a podcaster who interviews experts about their facilitation techniques, I learned that this form of asking questions by taking space not only works on stage but also applies to real life conversations. [3]

The plan

Until today Elsa Maxwell remains one of the most legendary party hosts in history because she invented themes through which guests could live their creativity. She chose her guests for whom they were. In fact, in 1927, she invited to a “come as you were” party, sending out invitations at random day and night times. Guests arrived in pyjamas and elegant costumes, one man arrived with shaving cream in his face. Elsa would turn her guests into allies the moment they entered the venue so that they could quickly open up and authentically share a meaningful time.  
Team brainstormings could be as successful if we prepared them as careful as Elsa prepared her parties. Every guest shall not only have a distinct role in the event; they must all know that they have been invited because of what they have to contribute. Once they are aware that this is true for them as well as for all the other guests, they will instantly find a sense of belonging and develop curiosity towards their peers.[1]  
Curious meeting guests, in turn, will be better listeners so that they can build ideas on each other – a prerequisite for innovation. Interestingly though, curiosity develops inside the gap between the known and unknown. If the difference becomes too large, confusion arises; if the gap is too small, boredom takes over. We will find the balance by explaining the purpose and expected outcomes while leaving space for imagination during execution.  


While a party host can use the “magic” of alcohol and music to keep the guests entertained, a brainstorm host applies creativity to avoid bored guests who zoom out of the meeting and into their phones. The art of an inspiring meeting is the equilibrium between predictability and surprise. While the unexpected sparks creativity, uncertainty causes stress. Clarifying the agenda and expected results will avoid uncertainty; asking thought-provoking questions will create the unexpected.  

“The best you can offer your guests is the unexpected”

Elsa Maxwell

My favourite exercise for generating relevant ideas in a group context is brainstorm on failures. As most exercises ask for solutions, the twist creates a moment of curiosity because participants wonder how this will work. Asking for ideas on how to fail works because our brains are wired to think of problems rather than solutions. Remind yourself of the multiple times you created worst-case scenarios regarding your holidays, job interviews or first dates! Driven by the same instinct, the exercise further stimulates the participants’ brains to find creative actions to avoid these failures – a reasonable follow-up exercise. [2] 

Keep it simple

In my experience, meetings that aim to spark innovation often derail because of vague problem statements. Vague questions lead to vague answers. To assure a tangible outcome, decompose the problem into sub-problems that the group can address in a sequence of simple exercises. If the explanation takes longer than the task itself, something is wrong, and you risk frustration that will block creativity.
Simplicity is vital when it comes to the final stage: execution. The beauty of a decomposed problem lies in the decomposable solution. Break down the solution into actionable tasks that can be completed within a few hours each. The trick of doing is to make it so simple that we cannot find excuses not to do it. Assuring continuous progress will further drive satisfaction and hence, motivation to continue with the execution. 

The nutshell to take home

Brainstorms are like parties: a well-selected guest list, clear purpose and simple execution can almost always guarantee success by turning the event into a meaningful experience. Although group brainstorming has suffered from a bad reputation, we can make it worth our time if we gave it the same attention we would pay to the preparation of a party.
So, next time you organise a brainstorming event that you want to be successful, imagine you would throw a party: Invite guests for whom they are and for what they can contribute, make them feel it, prepare well and surprise them with thought-provoking questions.

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[1] In fact, research shows that individuals develop a sense of group identity even if they were allocated to a group based on their preferences for one painting over another. Evidence shows that group identity impacts individual behaviour and social preferences.  

[2] My standard sequence of group brainstorming exercises asks four major questions:

  • Why are we solving this problem?
  • What (open) questions do we need to answer to unveil blind spots?
  • What would make us fail for sue?
  • What can we do to avoid that?