[OSList] brainstorming and open space
hhowen at verizon.net
Sun Feb 5 06:58:04 PST 2012
Kas -- Who knows whether you are at the beginning, middle or end? But you
are here, and it is nice to see you online! The discussion actually started
with a note from me about an article in The New Yorker (See "Space,
Wonderful Space!") - and although brainstorming was the starting point of
the article (the author was quite critical), his major emphasis dealt with
the nutrient powers of creative space. My phrase, but I loved what he had to
And - your remarks about brainstorming got me thinking about that one too. I
do confess that 35 years ago I was quite the brainstorming fan. At the time
I was CEO of a healthcare infrastructure development program which gave out
some grant money and supported programs aimed at making life healthier on
Long Island, NY. The key to the whole thing was not so much about the money
or the programs, but rather the conversations that were initiated between
the multiple facets of the Health Care System. "System" is used with caution
- if only because the central issue was that folks did not talk to each
other, at least about anything that was substantive. Docs talked to Docs,
Public Heath lived in its own corner, etc. Pretty much the same thing is
true today! So how to have some good substantive conversations? To get
things started we put multiple millions (of $$'s) on the table and invited
the folks to identify projects that really needed doing, organize same, and
then get on with the business. But behind it all was the total necessity for
really good conversations. Which was actually the most important part.
In the beginning, the conversations were sterile and basically useless.
Just the normal "Board room" stuff. I felt there had to be a better way and
one day I ran into brainstorming. Not a doubt about it. Really created a
buzz! But (as you noted) once you got all those brain spasms out on the
table, where did you go from there? Since we were very much a part of the
scientific and medical community - things had to look like "science" which
meant "prioritization and refinement" all done in a logical fashion.
Brainstorming was fun, but it surely didn't meet those criteria. The next
act came from the West Coast (Brainstorming was a Mad Ave phe-nom) - with
the auspicious title, Nominal Group Process or "The Delphi Technique" - the
gift of one Andrew Delbecq.
The Delphi technique starts out pretty much like brainstorming - throw out
the issues with no critique! The next step was to prioritize, and Andrew
came up with a very neat way of weighted voting that did the job, produced
real numbers, and even bar graphs! My "science friends" just loved it. Lots
of issues, real number, pictures, and Priority Order! But of what? And What
We tried a lot of things - mostly in the "small group discussion" mode. But
at the end of the day, stuff happened in the way it had always happened - at
the margins, in the coffee breaks. So we always kept the coffee pots full,
and on occasion added some "bar time" to our gatherings. This was a little
difficult to do since we were a federally funded program, but fortunately we
had some "local" funding and an understanding auditor. So for the difficult
times, the Bar was open and deals got done.
What I came to realize was that folks really didn't understand what they
were talking about until they started to talk. So it was true, we had all
the issues in a lovely ranked, priority order, but truthfully nobody really
understood what they were involved with until they seriously became involved
- in conversation. And there was absolutely no way to "program all that." It
happened when it happened and as it happened. Good things did occur (issues
addressed, innovative programs initiated) but frankly I didn't have a clue
how or why all that occurred. But clearly it had nothing to do (little to
do) with brainstorming, The Delphi Technique, least of all my skill as an
executive/facilitator. Although, of course, I would never admit all that. J
That was the situation for the next 10-15 years through a variety of
programs in and out of the Federal Government.
And then along came Open Space. As you have undoubtedly heard, Open Space
Technology was NOT a carefully planned, researched approach. Two Martinis is
about right! But it happened. And as things became a little clearer, and the
dust settled it became apparent that essentially everything that happened
(was supposed to happen) in brainstorming and/or The Delphi Technique,
happened equally in Open Space. Issues were placed on the table - without
judgment or critique - but once things got started, people with the passion
and the responsibility clarified what they were talking about (and/or came
to understand that it was a non-issue) - and then got deeply into the
substance. There was/is a superficial linearity about the whole thing - but
basically everything was happening all at once, everywhere and at the same
time - well more or less. Confusing for sure (to the outsiders) but it
seemed to make perfect sense to all involved. But most important, the
conversations were real, intense, and substantive - and when feasible -
I still have a warm spot in my heart for good old brainstorming as well as
the gift of Andrew Delbecq. At the time, they were serious breakthroughs and
clearly head and shoulders above alternative approaches - which were largely
top-down, senior management commanding a subservient gang. But when it comes
down to simple efficiency and effectiveness neither can hold a candle to
Open Space. By the time the brain was storming and the oracle (of Delphi)
had spoken, a typical Open Space gathering is deeply involved in useful
conversation and usually well on the way to functional solutions. Or so I
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From: oslist-bounces at lists.openspacetech.org
[mailto:oslist-bounces at lists.openspacetech.org] On Behalf Of Kas Neteler
Sent: Saturday, February 04, 2012 12:02 PM
To: World wide Open Space Technology email list
Subject: Re: [OSList] brainstorming and open space
I'm not sure if this is a start of a thread or if I am missing some critical
info. I want to offer you a different perspective.
I have seen and heard of too many badly designed brainstorm sessions that
end just as you have described: a group of people not ready to take
responsibility for what they "created". What I often see is that the process
butchered -- leaving the group without the proper tools to create and
implement strategy. Crucial steps are missing to take a group from
brainstorming to strategy to implementation. I suggest you are missing
valuable steps between brainstorming and voting.
Before you bring brainstorming out of the tool kit -- ask, why are we doing
this? If the WHY is that you need divergent thinking then we can move
forward. This is similar to selecting Open Space as a technique -- first ask
WHY are we doing this and if its the proper fit move forward.
WHAT is brainstorming but idea generation of raw data around a specific
goal. That's it... it's opening a space, stating your goal, and allowing a
flood of ideas to come forward (no one should feel they need to take
responsibility at this time -- you want to avoid barriers to innovation).
It's best accomplished with a diverse set of stakeholders. Like OS where the
right people will attend (and invitation is key!!!) -- this takes similar
effort to make sure the different perspectives of the group are in the room
AND if not, that role playing helps to bring those ideas forward.
I will hold back on describing actual brainstorm techniques -- this is
something I can seriously geek out over (feel free to contact me directly)
and really depends on creating the appropriate method for each group.
No matter what version of brainstorming happens the end result is raw data.
The next steps are super critical: stepping back looking for emerging
patterns and organizing to see what the picture is once you take into
account the group's resources vs. the impact. Taking time to reflect and
synthesize -- going back if anything is missing. Like OS -- finding those in
the room who are passionate enough to champion ideas. Now you have enough
info to sketch out the group's strategy and formulate an actionable plan.
I am drawn to both brainstorming and Open Space for their similar qualities:
getting folks together to be free to discuss, ask questions, be heard,
listen intently, reflect ... and ultimately come away with a sense of
connection to the project at hand and more importantly each other.
Best of luck with your endeavors.
On Thu, Feb 2, 2012 at 4:03 PM, Kerry Napuk <knapuk at gmail.com> wrote:
For me brainstorming is a waste of time, because nobody takes ownership or
responsibility for what they blurt out. In Open Futures we used a giant
mind map and then voted on priorities of items proposed by up to 60
Open Space runs on passion and responsibility, two vital things I would
never accuse brainstormers of.
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