It turns out one of the most important strategies for our time is the ability to effectively generate, exchange, and adopt new ways of doing things. Whether you’re part of a nonprofit, a dynamic team, or an individual on a mission, having a well-defined strategy for quickly creating and sharing fresh ideas is a must-have in our times. Do you have one in place?
“Every change, every burst of creativity, begins with the identification of a problem or opportunity that somebody finds meaningful. As soon as people become interested in an issue, their creativity is instantly engaged. If we want people to be innovative, we must discover what is important to them, and we must engage them in meaningful issues.”
Uncertain times call for certain strategies
The pandemic underscored the importance of innovation during times of uncertainty. The nonprofits that thrived were those that embraced adaptability, creativity, and quick thinking. They didn’t shy away from challenges; they offered stakeholders meaningful ways to engage with the swiftly evolving issues of the day.
Even before the pandemic the world was in a time of rapid digital revolution, making the old “business as usual” approach outdated. In life you’re either growing or dying. Or you’re stuck. Maintaining the status quo might seem comfortable, but it’s a recipe for stagnation.
To stay healthy, nonprofits must continually generate and share new ideas. This might sound easy, but sharing an idea with your board, boss, or team can be tricky, even nerve-wracking. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Strategies for effective and collaborative idea generation
How can you ensure that your ideas not only get heard, but also gain traction within a brainstorming group? Let’s begin with some practical strategies, including ground rules, defined roles, supplies, and tools.
1. Ground Rules
“It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one.”
— Alex Osborn, How to Think Up, 1942 seminal book on concept off brainstorming
The process of getting a group to generate and build on others’ ideas depends on how you facilitate openness in the group. Even if your team has experience with brainstorming, make sure everyone understands the ground rules for this current session:
- Brainstorming is about generating ideas, not solving problems or making decisions.
- Create a judgment-free zone.
- Banish assumptions and criticisms.
- No personal attacks ad hominem comments.
- Give everybody a turn.
- Define roles for each participant.
- Today, Claire will be the facilitator. In this role she will…
- Today, Cynthia will be the recorder. In this role she will…
- Today, everyone else will be an idea generator and sharer.
- Set clear objectives and timeframes.
- This is the problem we’ve agreed to focus on today.
- We’ll have 20 minutes for idea generation.
- We’ll follow with 10 minutes to group ideas around common themes.
- We’ll conclude with 10 minutes to vote on our top 3 – 5 ideas.
- We’ll finish with 10 minutes to evaluate the brainstorming session, get clarity on points of agreement and disagreement, and discuss next steps.
Ask if anyone has any questions. Now… you’re ready to begin!
Well, almost. Be sure you’ve done the prep work to establish roles and responsibilities, prepare supplies, and bring in tools to facilitate your brainstorming session.
Taking a few minutes to establish these rules ensures a productive and respectful environment..
2. Roles and Responsibilities
Assigning roles is vital for effective brainstorming. The primary roles are idea generators and facilitators.
Everyone should participate as an idea generator, while the facilitator guides the process, maintains order, and ensures equal participation. It’s important that everyone feels a responsibility to contribute, and an ability to do so comfortably in a safe space.
The facilitator can call on people individually or, when multiple voices chime in simultaneously, create a structured queue, saying for example, “Let’s hear from Amy, then Cynthia, and then Brad.” When the facilitator notices that some people aren’t contributing, they can proactively ask them for their ideas. This inclusivity is important, because relying only on extroverts’ input risks getting everyone onboard.
To ensure a fair and balanced process, consider rotating the facilitator role among team members. This approach creates a perception of objectivity and avoids the appearance of undue influence, which can happen when only the boss takes on this role. In this way, you can create an environment where everyone feels energized by the brainstorming process, excited about the next steps, and more or less on the same page.
It’s also helpful to have a dedicated recorder who captures all ideas, making sure none are overlooked. This frees up the facilitator to focus on keeping the discussion flowing.
When either the facilitator or recorder want to contribute an idea, they should temporarily switch roles and request permission from the group. This avoids the perception they’re favoring their own ideas, or taking up too much air space.
People remember ideas better when they are tangible—capable of being seen, heard, touched or otherwise sensed. That’s why most brainstorming sessions use easels, whiteboards, markers, and post-it notes to make ideas visible.
Use a lot of imagery. If you’re meeting in person, try to draw simple pictures. They don’t have to be fine art. If you’re meeting virtually, build a collection of images you like to use. People think, and dream, visually—not with words. Even using charts and graphs can help a lot. Luckily, many online tools now support virtual brainstorming with features like video conferencing, screen sharing, and online whiteboards.
4. Tools and techniques, both virtual and in person
Tools and techniques that facilitate visual thinking can significantly improve brainstorming outcomes. A picture often really is worth 1,000 words. Even a verbal picture. When you use drawings and words conveying images, they’re more easily assimilated. When you say it, but no one sees it, it’s almost as if the idea doesn’t exist. It needs to be captured in a group memory, readily available for all to see—something I learned years ago from Michael Doyle, author of How to Make Meetings Work.
A traditional whiteboard or easel serves as a focal point for capturing ideas. The participants focus on the group memory, which becomes a living record of everyone’s contributions. Participants use the group memory to build on each others’ contributions. You can view a couple of visual idea generation and sharing techniques in a video by Jack Elkins (The idea “T” and the “Story Board”).
Online brainstorming tools, like Miro and Lucid, replicate the offline experience using virtual templates. Here you can review a comparison of virtual tools. I’m not going to lie; these aren’t as easily accessible for some in the older generations as they are for Millennials, Gen Z, and even some Gen X who grew up with digital technology. And some of the really fun tools take some practice. But, heck, we all managed to get the hang of Zoom pretty quickly when we needed to, right?
Strategies for effective idea presentation
The words you use when presenting ideas play an important role in the way they’re perceived. I’d like to share some strategies I grabbed from the Blue Avocado blog for offering ideas to your boss, co-workers, or even friends and family. The author is Jack Elkins, Founder of Sidekick Innovations, whose mission is to help businesses collaborate to keep up with the world’s increasingly complex challenges. That’s exactly your goal when you brainstorm or offer up ideas within your nonprofit, right?
1. Avoid the phrase, “I have an idea”
According to Jack, the worst way to share an idea is to say, “I have an idea.”
Think about this for a moment. How do you respond when someone says this to you? Maybe it’s different, depending on who it is.
- If it’s a significant other, maybe you’re excited they might be about to propose something helpful. Or even fun!
- If it’s your boss, maybe you’re filled with dread that they might be about to propose something that means extra work or something for which you don’t have the inclination or skills.
- If it’s a co-worker, maybe you’re worried the suggested strategy is not going to do the job as effectively as you’d like, but now you’re in a position where you may have to hurt your co-worker’s feelings.
- If it’s a donor, maybe you’re suffused with anxiety as you navigate the divide between serving and cultivating the donor and most effectively serving your organization.
“I have an idea” is a loaded statement because it comes from a place of ego.
- When someone else says it, you have to worry about (1) wounding their ego if you reject the idea, or (2) having your own ego suffer if you accept the idea, because the idea wasn’t yours.
- When you say it, your own ego may be in jeopardy if the idea isn’t embraced.
“That makes me think of…”
Phrase your ideas as extensions of others’ ideas. Using this approach contributes your energy to existing ideas, and leans into shared credibility and expertise, rather than individual ownership. You’re adding another building block to what you’re all building together.
2. Propose an experiment
“I now put ideas, proposals, and issues on the table as experiments to see what’s meaningful to people rather than as recommendations for what should be meaningful to them.”
For brand new ideas, frame them as an experiment or a trial. Instead of saying “I have an idea,” try, “I’d like to propose an experiment (or trial).” This approach allows for a non-committal exploration of the idea’s potential and facilitates discussions about risks and benefits. It can be effective if you have a manager resistant to change. If it works, everyone shares in the credit!
3. Share an example
“Someone once told me… and it may work here.”
Shift the focus away from yourself by presenting someone else’s idea, data, or anecdotes. Or try a case study. Then let the group draw their own conclusion, fostering a sense of alignment.
4. Introduce inquiry
Whenever the group is not open to what you have to say, or reacts negatively to your idea, try using open-ended questions like What if? … to redirect discussions toward future possibilities. This moves the conversation away from what you think and encourages the group to explore potential outcomes collectively.
5. Involve diverse stakeholders
“If a system becomes too homogenous, it becomes vulnerable to environmental shifts. If one form is dominant, and that form no longer works in the new environment, the entire system is at risk. Where there is true diversity in an organization, innovative solutions are being created all the time, just because different people do things differently. When the environment changes and demands a new solution, we can count on the fact that somebody has already invented or is already practicing that new solution.”
This insight from Margaret Wheatley, a wise warrior, writer, and thought leader, underscores the value of diversity in idea generation. Margaret suggests inviting everyone who cares.
She argues persuasively that when you fail to invite all stakeholders into the process, there will always be some who resist. Then you end up with drains, not radiators. “People only support what they create.”
Get the most from powerful brainstorming
Nonprofits thrive on innovative ideas. Whether you’re looking for time-saving improvements, broader awareness, stronger relationships with donors or volunteers, or that next growth opportunity, a systematic practical approach to idea generation will serve you well.
When everyone understands the rules, roles, supplies, and tools, collaboration becomes inclusive, fostering a culture of creativity and continuous improvement.