Marlowe facilitates a brainstorming session followed by elaboration and grouping when he receives a message from his skunkworks client…

I was beat, spent and dead on my feet.  Actually I think my feet had expired a few hours ago, and the death rot had worked its way up from my feet, through my legs and was rapidly encroaching on my brain.  Keeping a brainstorming activity humming as a facilitator is an amazing task, and can be exceptionally fun and rewarding.  However it is as taxing as chopping wood all day, of which I can speak about from experience.  While I was tired, fortunately the day with Levantine had gone well.  Fortune rewards the prepared mind, and brainstorming rewards the prepared team.

We’d been in the room most of the day, kicking off promptly at 8:30 with an ice breaking exercise, something we use to get people out of their comfort zones and thinking in a very different way.  Our icebreaker was a combination of Pictionary and Charades, matching one half of the brainstorming team against another.  You really haven’t lived until you’ve seen a bunch of cube-bound desk jockeys trying to act out or draw The Unbearable Lightness of Being for their peers, or watched the nervous energy mixed with outright horror at the thought that one of the team still seated was going to have to go next. The participants weren’t sure what to make of this exercise, but after a few minutes the barriers seemed to break down and they got into the game.

We’d proceeded in a fairly typical brainstorm:  we’d reviewed the rules, talked about the problem statement and kicked off the brainstorm.  Marge had prepared a very compelling and very well documented problem statement that framed our brainstorming nicely.  I had done this a million times it seemed, and every time was the same and every time was different.  What was different, and lucky, in this instance was that Marge was in her own right a gifted facilitator and was playing the role of scribe.  We taught our brainstorming teams to start writing as soon as people started talking, even if what they were talking about wasn’t an idea or even relevant.  Simply getting something on the page seemed to break the ice, and her writing seemed less threatening.  Marge also didn’t question, didn’t judge, so the ideas flowed and she captured them effectively, stopping only occasionally to seek clarification or to elicit more information about the idea.

By lunch we had over 100 ideas documented.  I congratulated the team and sent them out to typical corporate hallway food – a boxed lunch of sandwiches consisting of dry bread with stale turkey and wilted lettuce, a bag of chips, a pickle in plastic and a cookie, with your choice of water, tea or soda.  The break came just in time as the hallway food vultures were already circling our lunch, waiting to see what would remain after our team had taken its share.  A few hours later the only food left on the table consisted of three pickles still in plastic wrap. Over lunch several of the team members ate with Marge and me in the room, while the rest scattered to answer email and voicemail.  Promptly at 1pm I sent Marge out to round up those who had left us, and right on time, well, fifteen minutes late, we resumed.

After lunch we performed some more brainstorming and then shifted into what we call “elaboration” – which allows us to review the ideas and gain any additional definition or insights, and “grouping” – which allows us to collapse or consolidate ideas that are duplicative or similar in nature.  We set the rules for ranking and turned the team loose, and we found 8 ideas that the majority of the team seemed to think were the best.  After that we spent an hour reviewing each idea and assigning the followup actions for the idea to a team member in the room, creating mini-project plans for deeper investigation.  Each member of the brainstorming team had one idea to take further and report back to the team his or her investigation and findings by the end of the month.  These follow up actions are always part of our efforts, to ensure there is follow up and action on the ideas we generate.

At this point I’d been on my feet all day, cajoling, facilitation, telling jokes, tamping down the more talkative and encouraging the reticent.  I often felt like a combination of therapist and game show host, but we’d made it through another very valuable session.  Marge and her team seemed pleased, which was ultimately how I judged our effectiveness.

I thanked the team for their time and Marge finished the wrapup.  While they had been dismissed, several hung around to talk about the experience, while most scurried off to try to answer the email that had piled up during the day.  Marge and I gathered the toys and put them back in the toolboxes.  We took photos of the sheets of ideas hanging on the wall and collected them in order.  We took down the brainstorming rules and I packed up my materials.

“Another great job today” she said.

I nodded.  “Working with you and your team is always great.  The folks in these meetings are always prepared, so we don’t spend time debating the problem to solve, or our purpose or scope.  That makes such a difference.”

“We didn’t take to your methodology at first, but once I saw how effective it could make these sessions, I’ve adopted it completely and never looked back.”

That was the case.  I had the distinct feeling that whatever Marge decided worked for her she adopted whole heartedly.

I collected all of my materials and headed for the door.  My feet were aching and I was at the saturation point.  I needed a good, stiff drink, a comfortable chair and a shiatsu massage for my feet.  What was waiting for me was a good stiff drink, a TV dinner and a barcalounger.

I made the mistake of calling the office on my drive home.  June was packing up, ready to leave.  I could hear it in her voice.

“You had several calls today.  The only one that seems important is from Susan Johansen at Accipiter.”

“What’s the message?”

“She wants you to call her as soon as possible.  The skunkworks idea is a no go, but other opportunities have opened up.”

Fine, I thought, we can back down off the plank and perhaps start a new discussion with Thompson.  Now, instead of unwinding from a successful day with Levantine I had to wonder what new tricks Bill Thompson had up his sleeve.

About the author:

Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is VP Marketing and a lead consultant for OVO Innovation. Jeffrey has led innovation projects for Fortune 5000 firms, academic institutions and not-for=profits based on OVO Innovation’s Innovate on Purpose™ methodology. The Innovate on Purpose methodology encourages organizations to consider innovation as a sustainable, repeatable business process, rather than a discrete project.

Jeffrey is the author of “Make Us More Innovative,” a book that encompasses much of the OVO Innovation methodology, and blogs about innovation at Innovate On Purpose. He is a sought after speaker and has presented to corporations, innovation oriented conferences, and at a number of universities. In 2010 he chaired the Innovate North Carolina conference and was a keynote speaker at Queen’s University, University of the Pacific, UNC and several other colleges and conferences. Jeffrey has an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin and an undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of Virginia.