Without kooky ideas, workshops tend to rehash the conventional wisdom. Which, if you’re trying to design change projects, is worse than useless. I believe that change projects absolutely depend on left-field ideas that shake up people’s assumptions and stimulate creativity.
An example: brainstorming ideas for a backyard biodiversity program, one team member blurted out “garden party”. Afterwards she admitted she wasn’t being serious and didn’t expect anyone to take her seriously, but her team got excited and garden parties became their central tactic.
Another: Some years ago Newcastle City Council was running public workshops to develop community progress indicators. One workshop was on the verge of agreeing that GDP was a suitable indicator, when the Greeny down the back said something like “I think we should all learn to be poor together”. You can see the conventional thinkers in the room whacking their foreheads, thinking “Who let this guy in?” But it led to a discussion and the group recognised that disparity in wealth is a much better indicator of community wellbeing. Which, of course, it is.
But one thing I’ve noticed is how HAAARD it is for participants in planning sessions to liberate their inner kooks. It’s like extracting teeth. “Pllleeeeeaase,” I feel like saying, “Just give me just one wacky idea. You’re safe here. No one will bite you…” On the other hand, a minority of people seem to be comfortable with their inner kook. They relish upsetting the status quo. So here’s my thought: AIM TO HAVE AT LEAST ONE OPINIONATED ODD-BALL IN EVERY PLANNING SESSION. They may ruffle feathers, but that’s the whole point. People need to have their assumptions challenged.
On this subject I was stimulated by a superb article in ODE magazine “In Praise of Dissent” by Canadian journalist Jeremy Mercer. He looks at the scholarly research on the power of dissenting opinions, and explains why dissenters make groups produce better results. http://www.odemagazine.com/doc/71/in-praise-of-dissent
However it wasn’t until a landmark study conducted at the University of Virginia in the 1970s that dissent ceased being an ephemeral ideal and started becoming a tangible commodity that might be exploited. Researchers were analyzing the dynamics of jury deliberations, and after viewing hundreds of hours of videotape, they noticed a curious trend. When there was friction and fighting among jurors, the jury engaged in a better decision-making process than when it arrived smoothly at a unanimous verdict.
As a rule, the dissent resulted in more information heard at the trial being taken into consideration and a greater variety of perspectives voiced by jurors. There was, however, one small problem. The person who instigated this discord, the principle dissenter, tended to be ridiculed and ostracized by other jurors. The abuse was so blatant that when mock juries were held, the student assigned to play the dissenter actually requested “combat pay” because the role was so harrowing.
“Dissent makes the group as a whole smarter and leads to more divergent thinking, but the people who stand up with those sorts of opinions often get beaten up for it,” says Charlan Nemeth, the lead psychologist on those studies. “The results made a lot of us sit up and ask, ‘What exactly is going on here?’”
But basically most of us seem to be terrified of being different, so our kooky ideas can be fragile. Self-censorship is the enemy of good brainstorming. I came across this helpful advice on brainstorming from Jeffrey Baumgartner, author of Report 103. I give a version of it before every brainstorming session.
“Write down every idea that comes to mind. Even if the idea is ludicrous, stupid or fails to solve the challenge, write it down. Most people are their own worst critics and by squelching their own ideas, make themselves less creative. So write everything down. NO EXCEPTIONS!”
“[Because] other people are also involved, insure that no one criticises anyone else’s ideas in any way. This is called squelching, because even the tiniest amount of criticism can discourage everyone in the group for sharing their more creative ideas. Even a sigh or the rolling of eyes can be critical. Squelching must be avoided!”
People really need permission to walk on their wacky side. So far, as a facilitator, things I’ve found that work are:
1) begin with some kooky inspirations (remind people about the World Naked Bike Ride, bicycle fashion shows, a beer dispensing bicycle, a bicycle-powered music festival, bicycle polo*)
2) fearlessly model kooky thinking myself;
3) celebrate whatever kooky ideas that pop out.
It’s a slow process, but I know those kooky ideas are out there somewhere!
* All of which illustrate how creative ideas come from ramming seemingly unrelated ideas together.