Balance Brainstorming and Decision-Making with All Points of
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J a s o n H o l c o m b April 21, 2020
Do you ever go through a rut and can’t seem to come up with a fresh idea? I remember taking filmmaking classes in college, and it seemed like I could come up with a new idea every week, sometimes every day. Fast forward 15 years and I’m not sure I can come up with a new idea every month. Idea ruts are a real thing. Sometimes we call it writers block, brain fog, or “I haven’t had my coffee yet.” These idea ruts happen not only at an individual level, but also for groups, organizations, and communities. But we must consider, coming up with new ideas doesn’t have to be a singular act. In fact, a lot of new ideas come through the process of collaboration.
As we continue the shift from a primarily industrial economy to an increasingly knowledge-driven economy, it becomes ever more important that we come up with new ideas. One of the ways to do this is to build collaborative learning networks. In these types of horizontal networks, decision making is decentralized and nimble. For a learning network to be highly functional, it must be able to see in all directions. That means having a diversity of perspectives. What networks are represented in your group? Is your group seeing from all directions? Often when we are putting together a team, we think about the characteristics of the team members and try to build a diverse team. What we don’t always ask, is what networks are being represented by the people in this room? What populations in our community are not being represented by the folks in this room? And whose perspective is missing? One group that often gets overlooked is the youth. Think about how often we make decisions for our community without engaging the generations who will live with those decisions for the longest amount of time.
Lived experience is a big buzz phrase lately. We all bring our lived experience to every meeting we attend, whether we acknowledge it or not. It’s when we don’t acknowledge that we are bringing our own unique perspective that it goes into shadow – meaning it’s still there, but it’s hidden from our perspective. By owning our lived experience, it does two things. One, it helps to differentiate the different perspectives we each bring into the room – it’s possible, for example, to be a subject matter expert on mental health and also to have lived with a family member who has had mental illness. In fact, it’s often our lived experience that drives us to become subject matter experts in certain areas. Secondly, by identifying the lived experience we each bring, it helps us to do a better environmental scan because now we understand what perspectives are not in the room. If we are doing an initiative about public transportation, and we don’t have anyone in the room who rides the bus, we probably don’t have all the perspective we need to generate new ideas. So next time you are forming a new group to solve a problem in our community, consider asking everyone to acknowledge the lived experience they bring to the table and make sure to invite folks who have lived or are living the experience of the problem you are trying to solve.
Another great way to generate new ideas is to get a bunch of people in a room all at once and brainstorm. Two different ways to do this are through community conversations and network forums. Community conversations are generally open to anyone to attend. To maximize attendance, it’s generally a good idea to host more than one with offerings in different parts of town, on different days of the week, and at different times of day. Another good idea is to piggyback an event that is already happening where there will already be a large number of residents. Community conversations are a great place to generate new ideas by asking community members to help identify strengths and gaps in the current system and to envision solutions.
Network forums can be conducted similarly to community conversations but are targeted toward working professionals and subject matter experts. Even within organizations, there are often different types of working experience – administration vs. front-line staff, for example. Network forums will provide the most ideation when there is a good mix of administrative and front-line staff.
Levels of Engagement
Often times, we avoid engaging because we are not sure where people fit. We are worried that if we get a bunch of people to show up and they are interested in being part of what we are doing, we won’t have capacity to engage everyone. No one wants to have a board or steering committee with 75 people. That is impossible to manage, no less share ideas. Rather than think of engagement as an either/or proposition, think about engagement at different levels. By engaging at different levels, more people can participate in the process spurring new ideas.
Measure & Benchmark
Brainstorming has a way of leading us to aspirational goals. Top 25 by 2025! That’s sounds so inspiring, until it becomes overwhelming. When it’s not clear how we are going to measure our goal, it can feel like we aren’t making progress which can make us lose hope and shutdown creativity. In order to re-open the flow of ideas, it can be really helpful to define how we will measure the goal. In the case of top 25, that meant ranking ourselves against other communities. So, for starters, we had to define our peer group to whom we were comparing ourselves. Once we did this, we were able to find how top 25 communities perform in various metrics that we can compare ourselves to. Narrowing aspirational goals into measurable goals can help spur new ideas about how to achieve results.
Heuristic is one of my favorite words. It means helping others to discover something for themselves. At Transform Rockford, a lot of what we do is heuristic in nature. Sometimes it’s a tool, sometimes it’s a process, and other times it’s building a network. As you are building your own heuristic tool box, consider some of the processes and tools above to help unlock the flow of new ideas and empower those around you to re-discover Rockford.