Three key levers of Brainstorm Design

The nine levers of conversation design in the Conversation OS Canvas

In this series of videos and articles, I’m working through some essential ideas on how you as a facilitator need to think through the challenge of bringing people together. When the stakes are high, when the salaries in the room stack up, it’s worth making sure that the time a group spends in a room is spent well. I think groupthink is a crime and that helping people really *think together* is a rare and special opportunity. If you’re a facilitator, it’s your job to make sure no one’s time is wasted…and what’s more, people get to extraordinary results! No pressure, right?

If you like watching videos, you can skip all the tiresome reading and just lean back and listen to me talk about these tips and tricks for the next ten minutes! The video post is linked below. The whole series so far is here👇, with write ups and videos if you want to dig in and get more.

Brainstorms are too important to be spontaneous

I’m a big fan of improv, but it works best when a troupe has some familiarity with the rules and forms of improv as well as some familiarity with each other. A lot of companies I coach on creativity and communication are straight up using vintage brainstorming methods. Alex Osborn coined the term back in the 40s and it hasn’t changed much. I feel like most critiques of collaboration, innovation and design thinking can all be traced back to antique skillsets and poor professional practice, not the concepts themselves. It’s time for a refresh, people!

also, I hope to watch this movie someday…

Three Key Levers of Brainstorm Design: The Big Picture

Brainstorms are just a special case of group conversations. Or, I suppose you could say that all conversations are brainstorms? 🤔

I’ve spent the last year interviewing people on my podcast, The Conversation Factory digging into what makes a truly creative conversation at work and in life.

The Conversation OS Canvas, V3, can be downloaded here (it’s a pay-what-you-wish download, as all my PDFs are)

I’ve identified nine key levers so far, but in this video I go into detail on 3 key levers that are the most easy to work with and apply more leverage in day-to-day collaboration.

1. Shift The Interface for the Conversation

The normal interface for conversation is just thin air. And when the meeting is over, the air has no memory. That’s why people love visual facilitation — one person who will write it all down for us! I love it when we break up the job and make it everyone’s responsibility to capture the conversation.

3 X 3 Stickies are amazing

We innovation people love sticky notes, because they can only hold one idea. And that allows conversations to be broken up into little chunks and moved around! But certain facilitators prefer certain physical interfaces for their own reasons.

The Design Sprint people love 3 X 5 stickies…they can fit slightly more information on them. I’ve seen an innovation consultant who works exclusively in 1-inch mini stickies. Not even kidding!

Recently a coachee of mine swore by those static electricity notes:

What’s your go-to-Grid? 4-Up, 6-Up, 8-Up?

Size and shape of paper can have an outsized effect on dialouge. Jake Knapp and the AJ and Smart crew love the 8-up. It’s easy to fold and breaks up a sheet into a less-intimidating set of little boxes for a round of crazy eights.

Grids become templates

But a 4-Up is great for sketching personas or simple idea boards: In each area write WHO/HOW/WHY/WHEN (for example) and ask a group to summarize an idea that have with: Who is the idea for? How does it work? Why is it important? When can we make it happen? The grid contains the conversation, organizes it, simplifies it. If you doubt the power of the grid/template, google “business model canvas” or read my article on experience inventories!

Digital Interfaces? The Medium is the Message

Digital interfaces are great. They have their advantages and challenges. Mural is popular for good reason…it works well. It’s not as “fat” of a pipe as in person interactions, though. Body language, facial expressions are lost in digital interactions.

The interface effects the conversation. Just ask whoever was asked to be married via skywriting…vs text message, perhaps?

2. Shift Turn Taking

This idea of thinking alone, shifting into thinking together, is a the heart of this series. Who talks first matters! Whoever talks first can shift the whole brainstorm. Which is why many facilitators enforce silent ideation *before* group brainstorming. There are a lot of ways to shift turn-taking. I talk about Popcorning at meetings and a few better options earlier in this series here:

I write about sketchstorming in detail below. The core of this method is that turn-taking is removed from the process completely! That, and the interface of the conversation is a sheet of paper. 👍

Another way to shift turn-taking with a splash of gridded-interfacing is the 6–3–5 Brainwriting method, which is kinda old school, but can be effective if you have a very extroverted or very introverted group.

I’ve also written about Gender as a feature in turn-taking. I’ve considered Power/Gender as a separate lever on the Conversation OS canvas. Gender *shouldn’t* be a factor in conversations, but often has outsized impact, with men being the worst offendors in US/EU cultures. Last year I sat down with Claire Wasserman of Ladies Get Paid for an episode and had an eye-opening conversation about how to potentially involve men in a woman-centered conversation!

3. Shift the Thread of the conversation

When I first heard about the idea of threading in conversation, it seemed rather esoteric. I now conflate threading with narrative. Stories have threads and so do conversations.

I write about narrative threads in detail here👆, but I wanted to highlight two: The Open/Explore/Close linear narrative and the Cyclical Seasons Model.

The Seasons model is awesome and I did a whole podcast episode on it.

Work is like a gas…ever expanding, becoming more and more diffuse. The Google Sprint is a leading narrative about how to focus and contain work…the seasons is another. Breaking our time up and respecting these important “energies” can shift your brainstorming significantly.

Open, Explore, Close: The Whole Room Agenda

I’d take a quick read here 👇if the above images don’t bring the point home for you.

Clearly dividing time between Opening (divergent) and Closing (convergent) modes of working are KEY to productive brainstorming. That, and leaving some space in the middle for some Exploring (emergence)!

Whew! That’s a lot. If you made it this far, you’re a peach. AND you might want to sign up for my newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people just like you! I share videos and frameworks and all sorts of goodies in process.

Host of and @gothamsmith co-founder. Often riding bikes to the ocean.