recipe card

Let’s cook something up

recipe card

Brainstorming work, when properly prepared, is effective. These group discussions need careful preparation and are valuable when creating dynamic new programs, addressing concerns and issues, and strengthening groups. Brainstorming can be especially effective when working with groups consisting of individuals from different teams, departments and organizations. Over the years I’ve developed my own recipe for facilitating effective brainstorming discussions that have resulted in innovative and successful programs and services:

Assemble: Discussion leader, discussion contributors, note-taker with laptop with projector.

Prep time: Discussion leader should plan on at least 15 – 30 minutes of prep time prior to discussion

Cook time: no more than 45 – 60 minutes


1) Begin with the end.  The group clearly defines the project or service to be created or situation that needs to be addressed. (5 minutes)

2) Idea time. Contributors offer ideas.  All ideas are typed out in a notes document that is projected on the wall.  Discussion takes place in next steps.  Please note: if possible, use laptop and projector.  Not only is this faster and less awkward than flip charts, but it’s easier for all contributors to read the projected notes and provides a neutral visual focus point.  (10 minutes – group decides if less or more time is needed, but don’t over mix.)

3) Blend: group identifies shared qualities or characteristics of shared ideas.  Mix together similar ideas. (5 minutes)

4) Season: group identifies and discusses the ideas that are best for this project or situation.  This is where questions are asked or identification of potential problems are addressed. (10 minutes – group decides if less or more time is needed, but don’t over mix.)

5) Build: ideas and steps toward accomplishing the goal are identified, often based on a combination of suggestions offered in Step 2.  This step provides for additional questioning and decision making.  (5 minutes)

6) Clean-up: the group determines the next steps, what needs to be done, and who is going to do it. Deadlines are set.  If work groups need to be formed participants are identified and everyone identifies specific roles, a deadline and how records of work will be reported back to the group. (5 minutes)

Notes for discussion leader: Preparation for the discussion is essential.  Understand that each group has its own personality and that every contributor has distinct skills, experiences and characteristics.  Set a professional tone, listen to what is being said rather than who is saying it, and determine clear goals, project timeline and expectations.

The term brainstorm has taken on negative connotations.  Does this word conjure memories of participating in brainstorming sessions that were inadequately led with undefined goals, where one participant held the group hostage or where action didn’t occur after the discussion?  Sessions in which transitions were indicated by the gentle ringing of temple chimes?  (OK, I admit, I considered this.  But it was 1997 and I was really into yoga that fall.) Perhaps it is time to create a new word or phrase for this shared activity.  I think that I’m going to replace the word “brainstorming” with the phrase “let’s cook something up” and send it through the test kitchen.

photo credit: sonson via photopin cc

Unusual Brainstorm Activity

photo credit: sonson via photopin cc

photo credit: sonson via photopin cc

I hate brainstorming.  That probably sounds strange coming from someone who thrives on innovation.  The thought of spitting out ideas without any discussion drives me crazy.  I will admit that brainstorming gives staff the forum to share ideas without feeling open to criticism, but I have always suspected that the lack of criticism is detrimental to the process.  New ideas can spin off from the unformed things people throw against the wall.

When I formed an Innovation Team at KPL, I stressed that traditional brainstorming is out.  Instead we all agreed to give each other permission to debate ideas.  This prevented spending too much time spewing possibilities and allowed us to focus on real good ideas.  This tactic has definitely paid off.  Since the group trusts one another, and does not take any critique personally, we have crafted some pretty great innovations.

Recently I discovered an article that addressed this very idea of how criticism aides in brainstorming.  The researchers studied brainstorming groups that played by rules and groups that allowed for criticism.  What they discovered is that embraced the debate conditions “outperformed the rest, producing an average of 25 percent more ideas.”  The conclusion was that, “findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.”

Leaders wanting to cultivate a quality list of ideas instead of a long list of simple possibilities need to encourage debate.  This idea is difficult in a profession in which being “nice” is accepted more than being “challenging.”  Be warned that the debate needs to come from a place of trust and respect.  Nothing good will come from a “Battle Royal” of brainstorming in which personal attacks slam great innovation.  The challenge is to assemble a team that is so comfortable and trusting of one another that a free forum of ideas creates the next big thing.  How do we do that exactly?  Well, let’s brainstorm some ideas….


Paper, Scissors, Rock On

Last week I had the rare pleasure of watching 81 well-caffeinated library staff members battle for supremacy in an elaborate Paper Scissors Rock tournament.

The bracket-style elimination competition was the warm-up exercise for  our staff retreat. Because our division within the library spans multiple locations and shift times, we hardly ever get the opportunity to gather in one place and put faces to email addresses. The focus for the staff retreat wasn’t elaborate problem-solving or strategic planning; rather, we just needed to get acquainted.

photo of a stone marble rock

Rock is a winning strategy

The challenge for the retreat was to create structured, pleasant, and productive opportunities for a very large group of staff to mingle and get to know one another. We created table teams of staff from different departments, plied them with breakfast refreshments and coffee, then pitted the teams against one another to create instant team spirit within the groups.

The game: Paper Scissors Rock. The house rules: 1, 2, 3, throw. The twist: team-based play.

Each team had ten seconds to consult about what move to make next. They faced off against other teams, and everyone on the team made the same play simultaneously. The team with the best out of three plays went on to the next round. In about 20 minutes, we winnowed down from 14 teams of 6 people to the ultimate group of champions.

Some may observe that this tournament was a little silly and didn’t apply to our everyday jobs. True facts! The real value of the exercise was in banding together with 5 colleagues, working strategically with them, and, admittedly, getting a little silly.

We’ve all been subject to icebreaker games at the beginning of events. Rock Paper Scissors was easy to roll out, didn’t put anyone on the spot alone, and pumped up the camaraderie right away. What offbeat exercises have you employed in the name of team building?

Team Building for Everyone

team workI’ll be honest: when I hear the phrase “team building exercises” I absolutely cringe.  For some reason, I picture trust falls and corny games. Probably because that’s all I’ve ever been exposed to. Also, I’m an introvert. I agree that functioning as a team is important, and that team building exercises can be valuable. As a library leader in my organization, I’ve been asked to come up with team building exercises, and I tried to be sensitive to the kinds of things that some people find fun (role playing, for example) and the kinds of things that  others find horrifying (role playing, for example!). This post will give suggestions for team building exercises that won’t fill people like me with dread. That’s not to say that some of these ideas won’t require a little compromise – which I am always willing to do and I believe that all staff members should also be willing to do to some degree. That said, people have their limits and should not be forced to do things they’re not comfortable doing, or made to feel bad for not trying things! Those people should be asked to suggest the compromise. What are they willing to do? What are their deal breakers?

Have a Book Discussion
Nothing out of the ordinary here. The team reads a book and discusses. Please, no skits or charades. I’d rather…not. But I’ll be happy to submit discussion questions, weigh in on book themes, and post book reviews on a staff blog.  Along these lines, you can also have a movie discussion or a library current events discussion (I’d avoid general current events so things don’t get political, but library current events are relevant.  What’s in the library literature lately?). It’s a way to get to know people and their views, share ideas, and sometimes even agree to disagree.

Survival Scenarios
You’re deserted on an island. What ten items does your small group want? Write your items on a flip chart. The group facilitator will do the “reporting” to the larger group by reading your list to everyone and pointing out similarities/differences from group to group.  Everyone participates in the discussion, no one is singled out, no one has to perform, everyone has to agree on ten items.

Puzzles and Brain Teasers
Form teams, solve a puzzle. Easy peasy.  Communication is important in the group, problem solving is performed, and no one has to look the fool.

Build Something
Maker spaces are all the rage in libraries.  Groups can be given random tools and resources and be told to “build something.” They get to be creative, work as a team, communicate, problem solve…all good things.

Go to an Event
A concert, a sporting event, a play, an arcade, or even a high school musical are all places that a team can be together, but there is something to focus on other than strictly each other.  Be a part of the group and enjoy the event without being the center of attention: perfect!

Form a team/Have a tournament
A bowling night, a volleyball game, a golf scramble, a softball game, a bridge or euchre tournament…these are all activities that require team work, and where introverts can still excel.  Now, some introverts are just not “joiners.” For me, a team event is great because again – the focus is not on me exclusively and I can still participate. Those not into actually playing sports and games can be score keepers, in charge of refreshments, venue contacts, or clean-up crew.

Flash mob
As long as the introvert can be part of the crowd, they *might* be willing to go for this one. I would, but my introversion is more a communication and reflection style than being “shy.”  I’m ok with blending into a crowd doing something weird; I just don’t want to be singled out doing something weird.  Those who are just not comfortable with participating can be the ones who design what the flash  mob is going to do.

Cooking Competition
This isn’t so much about team work, but still builds an atmosphere of fun in the work place, making people all-around happier to be at work together.  Have a chili cook off or judge the best cookies – or whatever else you come up with.  People like to be fed, they like to show off their best recipes and cooking prowess, and it changes up an otherwise ordinary day.

The other thing I’m not fond of is “ice breakers.”  I once showed up late to a workshop on purpose because the first item on the agenda said “ice breakers.” The horror! Ice breakers are always some corny game where you have to do something foolish or think of something clever.  It’s not fun, it’s pressure!  I’m happy to say my name and where I’m from, but then let’s move on. For some people, that’s even going to be a stretch.  Introducing yourself to the people around you is polite and friendly, but making me feel weird and goofy in the name of “fun”…well, it’s just not fun.

When planning team building exercises and ice breakers, leaders should consider different personality types and styles.  What is fun and enlightening to some will make others very uncomfortable and actually backfire, isolating them from the team.  There are lots of activities that are fun and stimulating for everyone.

Book recommendation:

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
by Susan Cain