Divergent Thoughts

How to take what you know and share it…

Using the Fish Bowl for Quiet Groups

Fishbowl_2The Fish Bowl is a spontaneous conversation among a small group of knowledgeable people, within a larger group setting. Adapted from the Socratic Circle, the Fish Bowl enables people to articulate ideas and share experiences off the cuff, without any preparation. It is in the assumption that the answers are within the group. (The methodology is described in a previous post, please click here to read more.)

Having used it in various situations, I’m amazed by the versatility of the tool. In this outing, we used the Fish Bowl in a government panel session which included ministerial representatives with extensive knowledge and experiences. They were a group of approximately 20 people from 15 countries who followed the workshop proceedings over several days.

The government group sat in a circle while other participants stood just outside and observed the exchange. We added two chairs within this circle for any observer who would have liked to share their views at any point. With the guidance of a skilled moderator, the group was coaxed into sharing their views on some of topics discussed in the workshop. In the outer circle, it was pin drop silence as people listened attentively, the energy especially high as they were privy to their conversations.

Some observations:

  • This was a group that had been fairly quiet in the workshop, so we asked someone to moderate the discussions and help them get comfortable with chatting informally. The moderator set the tone with a lively exchange, asked probing questions when there was a lull and generally kept the conversations going.
  • People were genuinely interested to share what they knew. The circle appeared to have created a safe sharing space.
  • The outer circle of participants listened actively. They had the opportunity to contribute as needed. Two empty chairs were allocated for this purpose.
  • Rapporteurs sat close by and captured the highlights from the session
  • In multi-lingual workshops, it is a good idea to have translators sitting next to or behind participants who don’t speak English.

Fishbowl_1Why use Fish Bowl?

It’s really a great way to get people who aren’t comfortable sharing in large groups to open up. By placing the group in a circle, and creating a closed setting, the space begins to feel safe and conducive for sharing.

It is also a pleasant alternative to lengthy panel discussions on stage which could take a toll on the audience and panelists alike. Similarly, a group of people actively listening in on a closed “Fish Bowl” conversation makes for a more interesting session than sitting in a theatre-style auditorium listening to someone with a 30-slide PowerPoint presentation.


Four Quadrants: icebreaker for large groups

Facilitated a workshop on Communication for Development* in Dhaka a week ago and came away with new insights on tried and tested facilitation methods. I’ll be sharing them here over the next few weeks.

A common thread in this type of workshop is the diversity of participants in terms of culture, ethnicity, organizational ethics and hierarchical levels.

When facilitating sessions such as these, I’m always ready to level the playing field, although I have learnt, it takes baby steps. A good litmus test is in the use of an icebreaker early in the workshop. Icebreakers have often been misunderstood as frivolous, playful getting-to-know-you sessions that have no real bearing in a proper conference. However, that perception is changing and I’m glad I don’t hear too many objections to them these days.

Icebreakers are there for a reason. When people are thrown together in a workshop, it is hard to expect them to collaborate like a well-oiled machine without some effort to bind them first. A good icebreaker can put people at ease, set the tone for informal collaboration and improve group dynamics quickly.

So how do you pick one that’s right for the occasion?

Think about the number of participants, their diverse backgrounds and fitness levels. These all determine the success of the icebreaker. The fun component comes in when people are happy to get to know each other and this is what should be foremost in your mind when choosing your icebreaker.

For this workshop, I used Four Quadrants, a great tool for large groups (anywhere from 30 – 100) that can be conducted in 30 minutes with minimal preparation.

In a Nutshell:

  • Paste four corners of a large empty room with these qualifiers: Passion / Like / Tolerate / Dislike
  • Ask participants to crowd around the middle of the room and using a microphone, ask them what they think of a specific activity. E.g., listening to classical music?
  • Tell them to move to a corner (quadrant) that best reflects how they feel about the activity.
  • Once people have settled in specific quadrants, look around for the quadrant with the least number of people (the minority) and ask a volunteer to tell you why she stands there. Get several viewpoints from the other quadrants.
  • Repeat a few times with other questions: travelling on a train; watching movies etc.

Why use Four Quadrants?

  • It is a fairly simple tool that does not ask too much of participants in terms of activity or movement, but engages them enough to have interesting, stimulating conversations.
  • It is a great way for participants to quickly identify with others, despite their obvious differences.
  • You can introduce questions on the workshop theme and gauge their perceptions on it. Keep this to a minimum though as some participants may not be comfortable sharing their views on a work-related issue.

 Photos: Before….and After!


The questions are key to getting people comfortable, nothing too serious or obtuse, stick to general questions that elicit strong reactions from people in a fun way. I asked my 70-80 participants what they thought of sci-fi movies, and that generated very diverse quadrants with surprising responses. In 30 minutes, what had begun as a serious meeting introduction became a lively gathering of people, smiling and having fun. No stuffy coats to be seen anywhere!

*Hosted by UNICEF and BRAC International, the strategic planning workshop sought to strengthen Communication for Development support to improve education access in 15 countries across Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

Trainer? Facilitator? Both?

What is the biggest difference between a trainer and a facilitator? IMHO, a trainer provides specific information transfer to a group of people who want to learn something; it is often a one-way process. The trainer may even go further to share her know-how and provide a set of guides: the ‘how-to’ or ‘FAQ’. While these are useful, rarely does it strike a chord with people unless they experience the process. What does that mean?

Here’s where a facilitator comes in. A facilitator is a mediator of knowledge, setting the scene, taking information and piecing it creatively into content for participants to learn, experience and appreciate. When people are no longer subjected to hour-long powerpoint presentations, which has its place in the office setting, but not often, they tend to do one of two things:

  • they re-adjust their expectations and start thinking about the training content more actively – they engage and start asking questions, they see themselves involved in the process. To them, the training session becomes a journey of discovery, much the way we used to learn in childhood (outside of the traditional school setting, I must add).


  • they become very uncomfortable with the need to think pro-actively, and slowly withdraw (or angrily protest) -these are some ‘situations’ I have encountered in people in my past dealings with experiential learning sessions. These people are few and far in between though, and the reason for their discomfort, I believe, is perhaps their dominant learning style is markedly different. I hasten to add, these are merely my observations, and not a scientific-based analysis.

One thing is clear though, unless you are training IT professionals, a training programme or workshop brings together people of various education backgrounds with different learning styles and needs. Gone are the days of having a trainer stand up before a crowd and say “I’m the expert, do as I say”. While this may still be relevant in some traditional asian settings, this is slowly heading towards oblivion.

Trainers now need to think like facilitators. Step away from the role of teacher, and be more of a facilitator. Set the scene for learning, be creative, expect the worst and plan for contingencies. Be aware of the different learning styles of people, determine the best way to share what you know. David Kolb’s model provides a simplified look at the four learning styles and stresses the need for people to move between styles to make the most of their learning experience.   

To organise and plan a training programme or knowledge sharing workshop as I like to call it, several considerations need to be in place:

  • Who is the target audience?
  • What is the content/ knowledge to be transferred or rather, shared?
  • How will it be shared?

Being creative is key. Expect that people will find it hard to wean themselves away from the classroom style training, where someone talks while showing hundreds of Powerpoint slides. Some participants listen and some don’t, but it doesn’t matter because at the end of the day, they’re still getting hard copies of the slides to take home. Again, nothing against slides, I have seen powerful examples on TED talks. However, there needs to be a variety of styles incorporated into the sharing of know-how in training programmes (as seen in the Kolb Model above). There needs to be time built-in for reflection and experience.

Comprehensive facilitation skills in a trainer is a winning combination. These are skills that can be learnt over time. When I first started, there were very few facilitation programmes that were able to give me the confidence I needed, save one, VIPP*. I attended a VIPP workshop a long time ago and it opened my eyes. It challenged all my pre-held notions on sharing knowledge. I have never looked at workshops in quite the same way again.


*Visualization in Participatory Programmes or VIPP was conceptualised 20 years in Germany and Bangladesh when international development staff needed a more creative approach to working with communities through UNICEF. The VIPP team is conducting their Advanced Training of Trainers programme in Penang, Malaysia  for the Asian region this March.Asian_TOT_2012


Start conversations with a Fish Bowl

Here’s a creative technique for idea exchange that works well in large groups of 30 people or less – the Fish Bowl.  If you are faced with a diverse group of people who need to work on solutions to a particular issue, the Fish Bowl functions well to get a dialogue going, and also helps break the ice. 


  The process in a nutshell:

  • Divide your large group into two equal-size groups and form two circles (an inner and outer rim).
  • Get the two circles to move in opposite directions, using music or counting to 10 to keep time.
  • When the music or counting stops, the circles stop moving, and people from the inner circle turn to face the the outer circle.
  • Brief people on the the topic in question, giving them a few minutes to share their thoughts with the person in front of them, and vice versa.
  • Resume the music or counting, signalling the circles to start moving again.
  • This activity can be repeated several times (3 -5 repetitions) to ensure a reasonable level of appreciation towards the topic under discussion.

Why use the Fish Bowl

This is a simple method that quickly organizes a large group of people into an active unit. 

  • The Fish Bowl gives people a chance to observe the various nuances of a topic, and lets one have a ‘feel’ for the energy in the room. People hear not one person, but anywhere from 3 -5 of their peers and they also get to share their opinions.
  • It is an easy technique to facilitate because it involves more involvement from people in the group. The facilitator however needs to give clear instructions and ensure people understand the purpose of the session.
  • It is an excellent ice- breaker, and is perfect for those slow afternoons, when attention is hard to maintain. The Fish Bowl technique gets people on the move, breaking monotony.

What I like about the Fish Bowl is the way it sets the tone for process. Use it as an introduction to further discussions on a specific topic. When used at the start of a workshop, it gets people talking and encourages the sharing of ideas, experiences. This can then be followed up with methods like Card Collection (a method to generate ideas from a group using 3 x 5 inch cards, more later). Simple yet creative, it takes navel-gazing to a more meaningful level.


River of Life – creative reflection

When teams get together for work planning or strategy development, they look back to get a sense of what worked and what didn’t, before they move forward. While there are many ways to reflect and set context, one creative method that I’ve used successfully is the River of Life. While it is originally used as a personal exercise for reflection, the River of Life can be easily adapted to a team setting.   

What is the River of Life?

It is a metaphorical way of introducing unknown aspects of yourself to others. By imagining you were a river, you can articulate, using the landscape, water, boats etc., the major events and milestones in your life. This is a creative tool that can be used as an icebreaker at workshops.

In a team setting however, the River of Life takes on new meaning. Depending on the purpose of the meeting, the river may represent a team, department or the organization itself.

The process in a nutshell:

  • Paste a few large flipchart papers on a wall to cover a few metres. You may need 2 -3 pieces placed side by side.
  • Get your group to stand or seat them in a semi circle around the wall with the flipchart papers.
  • Let’s take the example of a team work planning meeting. Ask the group how their team came about and who was in it. What major events transpired, what milestones were achieved, what were the setbacks and potholes encountered?
  • As the story begins to emerge, start drawing images to reflect this. Start at one end of the paper and move outwards. Use the paper freely. Use colourful marker pens to draw images and icons. Get a volunteer to help you.
  • Your river may contain boats, ships, boulders, fish, minefields, logs and such to illustrate the passage of time and events. This creative exercise should include all team-mates as they reflect on the past.
  • How much time is spent on the River of Life depends on how detailed you want the river to be. A decent exercise may run anywhere from 1 -3 hours.

Why use the River of Life?

When a team’s ‘River’ is visualized as a drawing, what becomes immediately noticeable is the big picture. Many times progress is noted clearly. Sometimes a ‘River’ may reveal patterns that prove useful for future planning. Yet often it gives a team the sense of pride. 

  • Because it has captured the milestones, successes and failures over the years, the River can be used much like a guide/ compass.
  • People begin to see where they fit in and how they can make a difference. 
  • Newcomers have a clearer understanding of their roles as they now see the whole story.

The River of Life is an excellent way to start a 2 -3 day workshop. The tool itself gets people excited and engaged, and eager to move towards a ‘planning’ mode.  The completed  ‘River’ ensures that everyone in the team is on the same page, paving the way forward for realistic, useable work plans.


Of Cynefin, failure, memory patterns and other stories

“A philosopher’s enjoyment of concepts and a physicist’s contempt for social sciences” is how Dave Snowden, leading knowledge management/ organizational development thinker and founder of Cognitive Edge, describes himself.    

Hearing that starting statement at IFAD two weeks ago, I knew we were going to be in for quite a treat!

Dave Snowden took us through several major concepts he had been working on, including his baby, the Cynefin Framework that makes sense of situations so that we can make better decisions. He noted that traditional linear decision-making models do not work in changing, unpredictable group settings. Recognizing these group domains by whether they are simple, complicated, complex or chaotic helps us understand how things happen and manage outcomes more effectively.

“We now have a better understanding of how the brain makes decisions, and it contradicts most decision theory put forth in the last 10-15 years.”

He described how people learn, make decisions, pass information and knowledge along and how we, as knowledge managers, tend to try and fit everything into fixed models, scenarios and limits. Especially in a complex domain, we need to bear in mind when planning our projects that results are determined by culture, relationships, networks, trust etc. (Click here for more on the Cynefin Framework)  

Here are some thoughts I found interesting :

  • Failure has more learning potential than success. He argues that best practices, i.e. documented success stories only work in ‘simple’ domains where 2 + 2 = 4. Complex human systems cannot duplicate best practices effectively because they are unpredictable and do not match patterns stored in our memory. When there is too much structure, e.g. as in best practices, it is not adaptive. Stories of failure on the other hand opens up big possibilities.
  • Patterns form in our memory in several ways, i.e. genetically imprinted, experiential learning and micro-narratives. He cautions that the first 2 are powerful but dangerous when making decisions, which makes sense, because we hold on to ideas based on our experiences – good or bad. What’s inherited through our genes, well, that is unpredictable and I believe, reliant on the environment we grow up in. These patterns are what is used when we deal with a problem/ issue. According to Snowden, we scan about 5% of what’s in front of us, and try to match it against hundreds of patterns in the brain, and call up the most frequently used ones as our first response.
  • Micro-narratives are short written stories, photographs or audio recordings that capture the essence of the moment. As the story is recorded as it unfolds, as fragments, they are not reflective and therefore un-embellished. Narratives are powerful in that they are snippets of information/ know-how that capture the human element succinctly – and extremely useful when dealing with complex domains where one model does not fit all. To illustrate this further, Snowden asks, “When faced with a difficult problem, do you go to a best practice note or listen to the stories of 8 experienced people?”
  • He suggests that an effective evidence-based approach to impact assessment would be to use narratives, as back up to statistics. You may have heard the saying – numbers don’t lie – but I’m sure we’ve seen attempts at skewing or explaining away anomalies that do not ‘fit’. Snowden stresses that micro- narratives are hard to ignore or explain away when statistical figures look odd (i.e. unexpected).     

 What struck me most though, was what Dave Snowden said about the computer being unable to replace the human mind, that it can only augment the mind.

“Knowledge management should take account of how humans hold knowledge, and not how computers hold knowledge – we are not computers!”

How right he is, puts things in perspective…

He had something more to say about communities of practice that nearly made me fall off my chair, but I’ll save that post for later 😉 . You can catch his IFAD lecture here


Topsy-turvy: upside down and inside out

You know the saying when you hit rock bottom there’s nowhere to go but up…well if we were to stretch it a little, this next facilitation method comes closest. Called Topsy-turvy by VIPP practitioners*, this method gets groups to approach problem-solving in a roundabout way. But first…

Definition of Topsy-turvyin utter confusion or disorder; with the top or head downward; upside down

It’s always a good idea to check if people know a word, especially if the entire method revolves around it. I remember introducing topsy-turvy at many workshops, only to get a blank look from some people. It happens. Should you decide to use topsy turvy to gather ideas, best to check if everyone knows what the word means. Or better still, call it by a name that’s familiar to them (might be useful to find out the equivalent of topsy turvy in the local language).

As the definition suggests, the method is crazy , looking at issues from a negative perspective and eventually turning it upside down to get to fresh, positive solutions. This is great for planning events such as workshops and is also suitable for problem-solving.

The process in a nutshell:

  • Take the activity you’re planning and give it a negative spin. Ask a question like: How can we mess up this 3-day workshop? If it is an issue or problem, you can formulate the question like this: How can we aggravate this situation further? What can we do to make sure we use up all our funding resources? 
  •  Ask them to share their destructive ideas. This may be disturbing for some, but that’s exactly what you need to do to get the best of this method. Remind them that this is just a creative process.
  • Write down these ideas on a flipchart.  
  • Now turn this negative list topsy turvy by taking each idea and rewriting it in a positive way (mirror opposite). Use a new flipchart paper. (The question now is: How can we ensure a successful workshop? or What can we do to make sure we conserve our resources?)
  • Voila –  you now have a new list of positive ideas to run a successful workshop or interesting suggestions to solve a problem.

While the method may start with some sense of confusion, within minutes, you’ll find that as people get bolder,  so do their ideas. Once the ideas run out, get the group to flip them around. You’ll be amazed by the results.  You may decide to keep all the ideas or to prioritize further, you could ask the group to vote on their favourite 2 or 3 ideas individually with dots. 

Topsy turvy is a short cut method that takes you from scary destructive scenarios to interesting workable solutions.

By getting people to think about all the things that can go wrong, you’re giving them the opportunity to explore negative aspects which are usually ignored, for fear of appearing pessimistic. In turn, people look at the issue with renewed interest and this  encourages them to steer away from stale, uninspired solutions.

*Visualisation in Participatory Programmes, UNICEF Bangladesh


Turn on the dazzling lights! (a.k.a. brainstorming)

When I first started working, it was for a multinational corporation. Meetings and profit margins were the order of the day. It was exciting times, save for one confusion. Whenever there was an issue or a problem , someone would say “Alright, let’s brainstorm about this!”

And the group would get together…and have a meeting. No different from a financial meeting, product review meeting, team meeting…you get the picture. Where was the brain ‘storm’  in all of this?

I know better now.

Dazzle them with blinding ideas

The idea behind brainstorming is quite literal – it involves hijacking the brain from working the way it normally does when confronted with a problem. What’s normal, you ask? It’s how we think about a problem, how we sift through information and form logical links, discard improbable ideas, and come to obvious conclusions. This happens quickly and often unconsciously.  

The normal way of thinking works just fine most of the time, but there are some occasions when having an edge really makes the difference from being  adequate to extraordinary. And that’s where brainstorming is useful. When you’re looking for  unique, unconventional, over-the-top solutions or ideas.

The process in a nutshell:

  • Write out your question, issue or theme on a board or flipchart paper. It’s important to be clear- keep it simple, one issue only.
  • Get a group together, no more than 8 people. (Tip: for diversity in ideas, try having a mix of people with different outlooks, from different departments or teams)
  • Ask the group to think about the problem, give them a minute or two only. Time restrictions force people to say what they’re thinking without applying internal censors or logic.
  • Brainstorm for 25 – 30 minutes only. Do not exhaust the issue by prolonging the exercise.
  • Write down what people say on the board/ flipchart. Make sure the notes are visible to all. (You might want to use a mind map)
  • No criticism or censorship.  

Brainstorming is the act of forcing thoughts and ideas out without too much internal processing. For this to happen, we need to create conditions that ‘allow’ it:

  • Start the session with an unrelated exercise. Show the group a paper clip, a stapler or a pair of scissors (anything ordinary), and ask them to think of its possible uses. Let them know you’re looking for crazy ideas, push them to suspend logic. Accept all ideas- the crazier, the better.  Set the tone for the brainstorm by encouraging an anarchic way of thinking. (It can be quite liberating for the group!)
  • One important aspect in facilitation is the role of the room setting. We don’t always have the luxury of space or furniture. For brainstorming, you don’t need much to create an environment that inspires closeness and trust. You can achieve this by creating a cozy setting with chairs arranged in a semi circle around a board or flipchart stand. You’re now in a tight circle that appears to be almost conspiratory.
  • Depending on resources, if possible, introduce a change of scenery. Take the group out of the office, for the brainstorm. This signals to the group, that you’re looking for solutions that are different (not obvious ones). This is good for teams that already work closely together, who need fresh perspective on old problems. It may be under a tree at the car park, a park or a beach (if you’re so lucky!).

Brainstorming can be a rewarding exercise, if it is taken for what it is – a method to get wild ideas that challenge the status quo.  I say that because when you start brainstorming, you are now exposing the group to an ‘anything goes’ mode. Some of the ideas generated may challenge the way the team usually works. It’s important to ensure that all the ideas be included at first, so as not to disrupt the process. 

What do we do with the crazy ideas?

This is a question that needs to be answered, based on the needs of the organization, team or individual with the problem. What’s needed is a plan. Here are some suggestions:

  • Vote with the group who came up with the ideas. Give each person two votes, and go with the popular choices.
  • Prioritize. Go through each idea with the group. Remind them of organizational limits and ask if the ideas fit in with the workplace. Eliminate as you go down the list. (not the most democratic, but it is inclusive)
  • Analyze the ideas, prioritize and ask small working groups to build on the ideas in a separate activity.

Brainstorming is fresh and invigorating. Yet not everyone will appreciate this method, no surprise really. We all have our preferred work habits. If introduced in small doses as a part of a larger activity, even the harshest critic should be able to see the benefits of a good brainstorm.


Shake things up with group mind mapping

Mind maps are a great way to capture your thoughts on paper. What makes the mind map special is that it engages the brain actively. Popularized by Tony Buzan in the 90s, mind maps gathered a huge following, especially among students looking to get the most out of note-taking.

 This style of note-taking which incorporates graphic images, symbols and colours, frees the brain from conditions and limits. It works by creating associations and linking ideas in a free-flowing manner. A non-linear activity, mind mapping requires the use of both spatial visualization and logical, analytical thinking, or as people say, using the left and right brain.

The act of using both sides of the brain simultaneously is thought to result in greater learning, while tapping into the latent creativity we all have….

Which is why the mind map is an excellent creative tool, which can be easily adapted for the workplace.

When groups comes together to discuss issues and solve problems, a common complaint is that the solutions are uninspiring or they’re ‘the same old thing’. If your team is losing its creative edge and you’re expecting innovative solutions, a group mind map may be just what you need to shake things up.

What is a mind map?

A thinking tool that reflects outwardly what goes on in your head, a mind map can be used to organize thoughts, classify ideas and visualize problems. Taking the focus away from long bullet point lists, the mind map radiates out from a middle point. A finished map looks like a seed with little roots stretching out on all sides, except that the ends have keywords or images and use colour freely. (see right)

The process in a nutshell:

  • Start by using a large piece of working paper (flipchart paper) or a white board. A good size would be 3 by 5 feet – large enough for people to see what you write
  • At the centre of the paper, write down the problem or issue – the trick here is to use only one or 2 words maximum. This becomes the topic.
  • Now ask the group (anywhere from 3 to 8 people) to say what comes to mind when they see that word in the middle of the paper.
  • Draw lines out from the word and write down what people say, do not censor, keep the verbal flow going. Use wide-tipped marker pens.
  • Remember to use keywords and images to describe associations between ideas.
  • Be bold, use colours to emphasize links and important issues.

 Thinking on your toes

As the facilitator, you will be on your toes as you capture the group’s ideas on the topic. Prompt the group, ask for clarification before you write, get them to be actively involved in the map. Some of these ideas may be linked, and that needs to be clarified before being written on the map.

 As you see the links and associations forming, let the drawings reflect what’s coming from the group. As ideas surface, sometimes the group may choose to explore one specific idea in detail. Allow it. The flow should be organic and free. By adding new lines that radiate out of this new idea, you create another level in the mind map. 

Occasionally, you may be presented with a reserved group. One way to get them to speak, is to ask them what they think of the topic – use one word to describe it. Or get them to think about the: who, what, why, when, where and how.

 Why a group mind map?

I facilitated a group mind mapping exercise recently, just to show how the mind map works. It was a first for everyone in the room. As the mind map grew based on the collective input from the group of 15, people were impressed by the diversity of ideas generated. Observing the quality of ideas obtained in less than 30minutes and the level of detail they could get into with the mind map, they began to understand its potential for unlocking creativity.

  • The process is liberating. By using only one word as the topic, we create freedom around that word. There are no qualifying words to limit the topic’s scope. Ideas can flow in any direction.
  • Using keywords, images and symbols allows ideas to be visualized quickly, there’s no need for lengthy sentences. You don’t lose your train of thought – and also your IDEAS!
  • Putting your ideas down in colour and images make it easy to recollect because your brain was actively involved in the creation of the mind map.

 Here are some ideas for using mind maps at the workplace

  1. Presentations: instead of the usual PowerPoint slides, a mind map can clearly articulate ideas and problems. These maps are easy to recall and are also easily understood by others.
  2. Group meetings: to get collective viewpoints on a subject matter. It can be used to record meeting activities and outcomes. 
  3. Brainstorming meetings: generate ideas for project proposals and analytical work. Notes are captured using a mind map as described in the process above.
  4. Workshop planning: useful for designing workshops since the mind map allows for the big picture view.
  5. Workshop activity: the mind map can be used in conjunction with other methods and tools in a workshop.

Being such a flexible tool, it’s no surprise that there are now software products that can help you create mind maps online – FreeMind, MindMeister and iMindmap are just 3 from a long list. I will discuss these in another post.

Recognizing that the left and right parts of the brain govern different types of activities, we often find ourselves using one part of the brain more dominantly than the other. Some studies suggest that this is due to our affinity to specific thought patterns i.e. using logic, analysis and deductive reasoning or using spatial visualization and creative exploration. These studies have found that the creative experience  is greatly enhanced when we combine logical thinking with spatial thinking, e.g. as we do with mind maps. 

Paving the way for innovation, mind mapping encourages you to step away from your comfort zone, from the usual way of working. Will you?


Brain writing your way into the creative zone

Brain writing is an excellent way to get creative juices flowing in a group with individuals who tend to be introspective in their thinking. A time-saving method to obtain solutions for several questions at one-go, brain writing enables people to share their ideas in a quiet, conducive environment.   

I facilitated a session on brain writing recently with the aim of showing how the tool could be used to share knowledge in a calm, structured way (as opposed to brainstorming, its anarchic cousin!).

The process in a nutshell:

  • Participants sit in groups of 5 or 6
  • Each person writes out their individual problem question on A4 paper provided. (Note: how the question is worded determines the quality of the ideas received)
  • Each person then passes their A4 paper to the person sitting next to her, who in turn reads the question and writes a suggestion or an idea to solve the problem.
  • Like passing parcels, each A4 paper moves from one participant to the next every few minutes, with suggestions being added by each person.  

 The point here is to build on the suggestions being written on the A4 paper. So in effect, after the first suggestion is written, subsequent participants will now be able to see both the question and suggestions. This person now has the choice of either developing on the suggestions written by an earlier colleague or writing out a completely new idea.   

How is this different from brainstorming?

Often, brainstorming is the method people turn to when they want creative solutions to problems, and that’s fine. However in a brainstorming exercise, several scenarios are possible:  

  • People who enjoy speaking, who have louder voices tend to drown out the quieter ones. Of course, one may argue that a good facilitator should be able to manage such individuals. But what about the introspective thinkers who articulate better on paper?
  • When ideas are verbalized by someone, there is an unconscious tendency for people in the room to censor themselves and rethink their ideas or worse, refrain from sharing their points altogether.

 Why consider brain writing for your meetings?

  • Stimulate creativity by giving a person quiet time to consider a question and respond to it without any censorship. There are no verbal cues to skew a person’s flow of thought and so, the answers and suggestions provided are varied and interesting.
  • Fast idea generation. Several questions are put afloat at the same time by the individuals in the group. Each individual comes away with at least 5 -6 possible solutions for their problem.
  • Get answers for several questions at one time. It’s perfect for group meetings where everyone has their own unique question but stand to benefit from the group’s diversity. With brain writing, there is more freedom in the choice of questions as they don’t have to be related. (This is not possible with brainstorming)
  • Useful to overcome conflict within a group. Being a non-verbal session, each individual sees only the question before them, and not the person.
  • Build trust in new groups. In newly formed teams, there is a ‘teething period’ when people are unsure of the individuals in the group. Brain writing helps keep the calm and allows all voices to be heard, without anyone feeling left out.

 Being such a simple method, it’s easy to over-use it. I’d suggest use it sparingly and in groups of no more than 8 to maintain creativity. Any more, and you risk exhausting the participants.

Have you any experience with brain writing? Or some variation of it? Your thoughts are welcome here.

Resource: Click on the KS Toolkit for more information on brain writing.