Friday, May 8, 2009

Selecting ideas - part 1

In a previous post I described a method of idea generation that combined the strengths of both individual and group brainstorming. The result was a a very large set of ideas for a theme from which the team needed to choose one or possibly combine two. My problem was to devise a way to support the team in its decision-making as they sorted through more than 100 ideas.

Based primarily on Universal Design for Learning Guidelines, Principle II: Providing Multiple Means of Action and Expression, and on an idea from Michael Michalko's Thinkertoys, I devised an idea sorting process that combines verbal/auditory, physical/spatial, and visual means of interacting with the set of ideas.

First, before the meeting, I put each of the ideas on a separate sheet of paper. I used yellow because I had lots of 4 x 6 sheets of yellow paper, and I think colored paper worked better than white paper against the light colored floor. Then, at the meeting site I laid out a 6 x 6 foot square on the floor using blue painters' tape. Then I put two tent signs made of construction paper at opposite ends of one side of the square, labeled "Creative" and "Ordinary", and two tent signs at opposite ends of an adjacent side labeled "Useful" and "Not Useful".

Then I briefed the team on the procedure. Each team member, taking turns, would read one of the ideas aloud to the team. The team would respond with a snap evaluation of the idea as creative or ordinary, and useful or not useful. We had already discussed what creativity is, and we used "useful for our Odyssey solution" as the definition of useful. For example, an idea might be very creative, but not useful for the solution for any number of reasons. If the team doesn't have the skills to execute it, if it would take more time than the team has left, or if the idea was just too weird, it got placed more toward the "Not Useful" side of the square. There are degrees of creativity and of usefulness, so each idea was placed not just in one of the four quadrants but also more or less toward the extreme edges of the square. The team helped influence the reader's placement of the idea on the grid: "Right!", "Down!", "Less useful than that idea!".

In the end, I asked the team where on the grid they should look for ideas to evaluate further in order to choose a theme. They chose creative/useful. After some negotiation about which clusters of ideas to include, the team was left with about 15 ideas to put under closer scrutiny, which I'll describe in part 2.

Overall, I think this process was successful. It allowed the team of first and second graders to process over 100 ideas in about an hour and to choose a minority of ideas to look at more closely later. The whole team stayed engaged with the selection process for about half an hour. After that, engagement dwindled so that about half were still engaged at the very end.

I would change a few things the next time I used this system. First, if possible, I would split the session time if needed so that all team members could remain engaged for the entire process. Second, I would use this process earlier in the season to reduce the pressure to complete the activity within one session. We were running up against exhibition dates and the team needed to choose a theme to gain momentum. Third, I would describe the entire idea generation and selection process to the team at the beginning. My thought is that possibly some of the non-useful ideas might not have been added to the pool and so the number that would need to be processed would have been reduced.

I waver on this last point though. Some of the less useful or less creative ideas may have sparked other ideas that the team ended up keeping. Also at the time I couldn't describe the entire process because I hadn't devised it yet.

There is one thing I would not change the next time. As I mentioned, the team ran out of steam after about half the ideas were processed. However, I dont' think it's a good idea to leave the remaining ideas unprocessed. I'm afraid that this would lead to encouraging the team to choose the first good (or good enough) solution in the future and shut down their creative process. It could also marginalize the ideas that were not yet processed, as if something outside the process had indicated that the "right" solution had already been selected. I think sorting through the entire set of ideas in a systematic process provides a good model for moving creative thinking from the realm of a magical spark to the realm of a set of thinking tools. If the team loses momentum without completing the sorting process, I would resume it later and be sure to finish the entire set.