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Creating a Conference ‘Idea Factory’

Posted on March 30, 2007

By Ed Bernacki

A few years ago I was asked to be the fifth speaker of five at an innovation summit. It occurred to me, “What can I add that they have already heard?” As I speak on ‘turning your organization into an idea factory’ I asked the organizers if I could scrap my keynote and organize an ‘idea factory’, a type of brain storm session.

The key to brainstorming with large groups is to focus everyone on the same challenge or problem. Define it in writing. In this case, I used research that listed 10 factors for shaping a more innovative organization. I wanted ideas that any company could use to enhance these 10 factors.

You can use the same model and take 60 minutes of your agenda to capture hundreds of ideas from your audience. Here’s how:

Use round tables for 7 to 10 people. Define what you want people to brainstorm in writing. Then create a ‘table top’ brainstorming leaders kit with two pages in it:

1.      An ‘instructions’ page for a table leader that outlines the process.

2.      A ‘challenge’ page that defines the issue you want people to focus. Leave room for the leader to write ideas on it as it will be collected.

Open this session with a 10 minute ‘mini keynote’ to discuss the issue you want to brainstorm. This provides clarification and context. Be clear. Ask for ideas, not opinions.

Have groups pick a table leader who reads the written challenge. They start the discussion for 30 minutes and summarize the 3 to 5 main ideas that are generated. Encourage leaders to expand each idea to a full sentence or two. Collect these pages and recognize your leaders by reading a few of the ideas to close the event. 

In my case, I assigned one of the 10 factors to each table. About 250 ideas from 38 tables were collected. The organizers decided to publish a booklet that summarized the innovation summit. Two months later participants received a copy with all of the ideas in it.

The paradox is that if I have spoken in the traditional way, nothing new would have been created. This approach led to a great deal of value and who knows, perhaps some participants used to these ideas to turn their own organizations into an idea factory!


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This is BRILLIANT! Our conferences have a wide range of participants (from shop floor workers to CEO's) and this is a great way to get everone involved together. Past evaluations have always indicated that more interactive sessions would be appreciated. Thanks for sharing!

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