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Harness the Brains at Your Conference

Posted on March 28, 2007

By Ed Bernacki

Somewhere in conference folklore is the idea that conferences are for learning. I missed that lesson. I believe you should harness their brains of your audience to storm through an important  challenge at least once a conference. The key to brainstorming with large groups is to focus everyone on the same challenge or goal. Define it in writing. Here are five things you could a challenge an audience to consider:

·   What questions: what would you ask our CEO, Board, etc. if you could?

·   What’s your opinion: what’s good or what’s not good about something.

·   What ideas: how could we improve, fix or enhance some aspect of our business?

·   What problems: what problems should we address?

·   What challenges: what are your big challenge facing you this year?

People want to contribute to the success of their organization and industry. Harness their feedback in ways that create value.


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Bonnie Wallsh

Ed, how do you recommend involving people from different generations, cultural backgrounds, and with different learning styles?

ed bernacki

Hello Bonnie
Interesting question. Here are some thoughts.
I believe it comes down to your objectives for this type of ‘idea factory’. These sessions are about seeking ideas from people, not their opinions of something. I make a distinction between opinions and ideas because too many sessions end with opinions that have little value after the event, unless your goal is to gather people’s opinions.

I try to find a common focus among the people in the group. I do this by defining a ‘challenge’ or problem (that becomes the focus for the session) that is meaningful to participants.
It is important to word these problem or challenge statements carefully to ensure that people understand what you want. For example, I once was involved with an ‘idea factory’ with a challenge to make conferences more effective.
There was a problem with this challenge as the term ‘effective’ is not clear. We then defined ‘effective’ in terms of people acting on their ideas after the conference.
My experience suggests that you can cross the barriers of ethnic or age differences when they have a common objective. As such, this is one of the reasons I suggest people invest 10 minutes to have someone talk about the issue before people start the brain storming work. As well, the first job of the table leader is to ensure that everyone understands the challenge or problem.
Learning is also not one of the priorities. Let me explain.
I view learning as how knowledge gets into the heads of people. I am more interested in how they use what they have in their heads to solve the challenge. As such, I am more interested in their problem solving style. This is a key part of the innovation work.
If you want to read more about this see www.wowgreatidea.com On the opening page you can down load an article called ‘Square Pegs Take Two’.
In any group you will have people who question everything and some who wonder why you need to question anything.
This creates a tension as both do not understand why the ‘other’ does not think like them. The lack of awareness of this fundamental difference leads to a lot of frustration.
If you need a strategy to deal with this, you could frame your question in terms of asking for two types of ideas:
1. How could we do something better?
2. How could we do it differently?
This allows for the innovators to harness their ideas to find new and different ways to do something. It also allows the more adaptive thinkers to focus on ideas to make the current process better. In the end, the best ideas tend to rise to the top, whether they are different or better.
Lastly, I have done sessions that focus on creating a bigger understanding of a problem by asking, “What are the assumptions that we have used in the past about the current design of …..?”
I make it clear that I do not want new ideas. I want people to think of the core assumptions that someone made that led to the current idea. This often creates breakthroughs when someone notices an assumption and then realizes how flawed it was.
Your question is really valid.

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