Graham Birkenhead, April 9 2019

One Rule and one Tool

For having more productive discussions ...

I was an observer at a workshop and conference recently. As happens at these events, people were split into various groups to consider specific subjects. Lots of interesting discussion was generated and many good ideas came out of it. By the looks on their faces, the participants felt like they had made good solid contributions to the overall topic and really helped move things along. You’ve been to those types of event haven’t you?

But as I moved from one session to the next, it became obvious that the participants hadn’t spent much time understanding the problem, and they had generated a lot of really good solutions to problems they didn't collectively understand. With a little more consideration of the process, much more useful information could have been gleaned.  

Use of a simple rule and a simple tool would have significantly improved the quality, richness and usefulness of the information that came out of the day.

The Rule   

Really understand the problem before you try to solve it.  Spend time making sure that all participants see it the same way.  Ask lots of clarifying questions. 

 Example: “We must significantly improve our output over the next period to enable us to hit our growth targets”.   So, can you generate at least 10 things that need clarification in that sentence?  What exactly are our growth targets? Who is us – is that the same as we? Is ‘our’ growth completely dependent on ‘our’ output (are we being held accountable for someone else’s responsibility). What does improve mean - from what to what?   What does ‘must’ mean – what is the consequence of not achieving - what are the stakes, and, who says?  How long is a period?   What does ‘enable’ mean – is everything riding on this, or is this one contributing element?   And, what is our output?   I could go on .....

To be effective you must get this out of the way upfront - and be explicit about it. This discussion gets participants alignment and buy-in. Otherwise you end up with unhelpful arguments occurring during the main brainstorming discussion, or worse still, people shut down and opt out of the discussion when they realise that they are not sure what the heck everyone is talking about.

The Tool


The Know / Don’t Know Matrix.   Whenever you are brainstorming, it is a good idea to be aware of all four boxes in the matrix and structure your conversations to address all four.  Left to our own devices, we spend most of our time in the Open box. We maybe will drift in and out of the Blind Spot and Hidden boxes; more trying to avoid them rather than embracing them. We remain completely oblivious to the Unknown.

And there is a bonus: Using this Rule and Tool will not add extra time to achieving your objectives – in fact, they will save time and provide a better outcome.  

And now you have read this – you know that you know the rule and the tool - it even has a catchy title so it will stick in your mind.

Are you getting the most out of your brainstorming sessions?   If you want to discuss, please get in touch with me.


Written by

Graham Birkenhead

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