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Generating and Refining Ideas for Improvement

This lesson is a part of an audio course Facilitating High Performing Meetings by Ross Maynard

In this lesson, I would like to cover three of my favourite techniques to use in a meeting to engage the participants in generating ideas for improvement. They are:

  • Brainstorming.

  • Bright Spots Analysis.

  • Perceptual positions.

I have covered these three techniques in detail in my course on creative problem solving, and I will summarise them here.

Firstly brainstorming. We all know brainstorming. It is a free-form group activity with the aim of generating lots of ideas. Brainstorming is fun, and it is a good way to get ideas, good and bad, out into the open.

There are five rules for a successful brainstorming session:

  1. The problem must be clearly defined and understood by the group.

  2. Criticism of ideas put forward is not allowed. It is a relaxed free-association activity, and participants should avoid passing judgment on any of the ideas put forward. The point is any idea, no matter how daft it seems at first, might turn out to contain the nugget of a solution.

  3. The group should aim to produce as wide a range of ideas as possible. This includes unusual or left-field ideas. The purpose of this rule is to encourage creative "outside the box" thinking free from the constraints of the work environment.

  4. Quantity breeds quality. The greater the volume of ideas, the greater the likelihood of useful ideas. The group should be encouraged to come up with as many ideas as possible – no matter how "weak" or tenuous they seem.

  5. Once the initial "splurge" of ideas subsides, the facilitator should work with the group to combine and improve ideas. Participants should be encouraged to improve each other's ideas and deliberately try to combine each other's ideas in interesting and surprising ways. This will create further identification of ideas, and these ideas are often stronger than the first set.

Second, we have Bright Spots analysis. The core question behind Bright Spots Analysis is "what practices are working well, and how can we apply them elsewhere?" As a facilitator, you must help the group identify and learn from examples of successful practice in the business; and then apply that learning to less well-performing areas.

Facilitate the group to identify and analyse examples of good performance that are relevant to the group: what makes each example work? What makes the difference? What are the characteristics and features of good performance in this case?

It is also useful to analysis any weaknesses in each example so that these can be avoided in the future.

When the group has finished reviewing all the "bright spots," combine the learning points from all of the examples to create a "profile of excellent performance." Action plans for improvement can then be devised using this profile of excellence as a template.

Thirdly we have perceptual positions. This involves thinking about an issue or problem from other points of view.

Ask the participants in your meeting to consider the issue or problem you are discussing from the point of view of others. Ask them to imagine they are a customer, or someone working in the process; or a supplier; or any other stakeholder; and get them to consider how they would perceive the issue. The following questions can be useful:

As this stakeholder:

  • How would you feel about the problem?

  • What do you think might be the causes of the problem?

  • How do you think the group should go about resolving the problem?

  • What would solving this problem mean for you?

Perceptual Positions can be a fun and energising exercise. It really does work to give the group insight into what other people might think about an issue and how that might affect their behaviour or performance. This improves understanding of the issue and can lead to ideas on how to resolve the problem

Refining the Improvement Ideas

There are several ways to refine a long list of ideas into a shortlist. We'll stick with the simplest here:

  1. Group and combine the ideas into categories.

  2. Discuss and list the "pros" and "cons" of each compound idea with the group.

  3. Get the team to review how the "pros" can be strengthened and the "cons" mitigated. This might lead to further combining and refining of ideas.

  4. Consider how easy or hard each idea would be to implement and how expensive it would be to implement. Focus the group's attention on those ideas which are relatively easy and cheap to implement. Those ideas should definitely go forward into your action plan.

  5. Ask the group to score each idea or group of ideas. A simple "hands-up" approach works fine, but you can also ask each member of the group to score each idea out of ten.

  6. Review the votes cast with the group. If there is consensus for a small number of ideas, then the decision is made. If the voting is spread, or there are clearly differing views, then, as a facilitator, you will have to go through a further process of reviewing the competing ideas with the group to gain consensus.

If you have done your job as facilitator well, the group should be working together well and, in most cases, consensus on the best ideas to implement should be fairly easy. If there really are strong views among the group preferring different approaches, which cannot be combined in some way, then it may be best to adjourn the session and reconvene after a few days to allow time for reflection (and to allow the facilitator to hold some one-to-one discussions to work towards consensus).

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In our next lesson, we discuss how to create an action plan with the group.

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Written by

Ross Maynard