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Sparking Creative Approaches: How To Facilitate Ideation

Ideation—literally the formation of ideas—is at the core of Forum One’s approach to collaborative digital strategy. A digital strategy or product must meet the vision of our mission-driven partners. To meet that vision we need input, context, and ideas from those closest to the organization’s purpose. Our digital strategy expertise paired with their purpose is how we bring the vision to life. The first step is to facilitate ideation.

Workshops, ideation sessions, and other conversations with stakeholders are how we draw out, understand, systemize, and ultimately incorporate the heart and soul of any organization or effort into a strategy or tool.

Yet facilitating workshops, ideation sessions, or other conversations with the goal to encourage creativity and discourse can be challenging. I break out the planning into three phases: design, preparation, and facilitation. Explore and adapt this structure for your own internal or collaborative projects.  

Design

When designing an ideation session, it’s important to identify:

  1. Goals and Outcomes. Outline goals, but don’t be too prescriptive. This should look like “understand priority audiences’ current experience with the website, including pain points and strengths” rather than “uncover if audiences have trouble navigating the resources section of the website.”
  2. Participants. While the intention to include as many people as possible is well-meaning, it can often be counterproductive. There is such a thing as too big! Try to keep the number of participants between five to ten so no one feels singled out, yet each person feels empowered to contribute. Think about who needs to be involved versus who would be nice to have if there’s room, what perspectives each participant might provide, and whether you’ll need to plan around any dominant voices.
  3. Time. The length of the session will depend on the breadth or complicated nature of topics you need to cover and the amount of time participants can commit. If the session will be longer than 90 minutes, schedule breaks. Recognize that creativity takes a lot of brainpower! If you don’t feel you’ll get to all your topics in the time available to you, set aside time to introduce any “homework” or follow-up requests at the end of your session.
  4. Accessibility. It’s always important to be as inclusive as possible, but it becomes especially important when thinking about how to facilitate a creative session. Everyone processes information and contributes differently. You want to make the session as comfortable as possible and think ahead to create the most conducive environment for participants.

Preparation

Once you’ve designed the foundation of the session, you’ll prepare the structure and any activities. I always try to set aside five minutes at the start of a session to communicate the goals and norms of the session. To ensure participants feel comfortable, emphasize that there aren’t any right or wrong answers, they are welcome to take care of individual needs first (coffee, restroom, camera off if virtual), and that they can contribute in any way that feels best for them. This might look like typing their responses in the Zoom chat, writing them on paper, raising their hand, or just jumping in when an idea comes.

Next, I run a short icebreaker activity. Icebreakers can be awkward, but they’re very helpful to get participants’ creative juices flowing before moving on to the essential topics. Creative sessions will always be slow to start. Most people will be coming from a day full of meetings or other priorities. Plan for this and begin with the topic that is the lowest priority. The most important topic should begin after about 30 minutes or after participants have had a couple of lower-stakes opportunities to warm up. However, you don’t want to save it for last in case you run out of time.

Facilitation

It’s go time! When facilitating the session, keep your role in mind. The session will be most effective if participants trust you and feel that you can empathize with them. Don’t hold back on contributing your ideas (it may help to get the ball rolling), but be careful not to take up too much space in the conversation. When a participant shares their thoughts, practice the “yes and” method. Affirm what you heard, then add a comment, follow up with a question, or pose the thought to the larger group. Never ask “does anyone disagree?” Instead, ask “does anyone have a different experience?”

Keep a list of guiding questions handy in case the conversation stalls. Pose your questions, either to the group or to a specific individual. Only ask one at a time and lean into the silence you may receive in response. While it may feel uncomfortable, silence is a fantastic facilitation tool.

Try to involve a colleague in timekeeping and note-taking so you can remain fully engaged in the conversation. Allot a certain amount of time to each activity or topic but be flexible in the progression of the session. If you’re having a quality conversation around your priority topic, you may want to wait to move on. Conversely, you may be having a great conversation on a topic that isn’t a priority to you. Be confident in politely interrupting participants and explain that while the conversation is great, you will need to move on for the sake of time. Invite them to share their remaining thoughts in the chat or via email.

Wrapping Up

One of the most important elements is striking a balance between freedom and structure. You need to allow enough freedom for true creativity to take place, but you need a certain amount of structure in place to move the conversation along if people get stuck. Be ready with attentive follow-up to close or continue the session—some participants will have more to say than fits in a session, and making sure they feel heard afterward can be just as important. Incorporate what you’ve learned into the next session.

Facilitating these types of sessions can be daunting, but it doesn’t need to be. Put a structure in place so you cover your priorities, but stay flexible and see where the conversation leads. Above all, remember to have fun with it!

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