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Innovation Insights by Stephen Shapiro

Today’s blog entry is a goal-free approach to brainstorming.

Brainstorming sessions are useful. The standard approach is one person up front facilitating, while the conversation is single-threaded. To overcome this limitation, some groups use breakout sessions. The problem with this is that they do not allow for cross-pollination of ideas.

To combat these problems, I developed a powerful technique called “Speaker’s Corner” – named after the place in Hyde Park London where people can speak on any topic of interest (typically religion, politics and aliens). Instead of one conversation, there are many conversations. Instead of the leader deciding what to discuss, everyone decides what is important.

Here’s how it works:

  • The group captures (either in the meeting or in advance) a list of topics that are of interest to the individuals
  • The group then prioritizes this list down to critical few – typically the number of people divided by 8. For the sake of argument, let’s say there are 30 people, and hence four topics/corners.
  • We ask for four volunteers (one for each topic) who agree to facilitate a conversation. Each facilitator goes to a different “corner” with a flip chart to capture the ideas associated with their assigned topic.
  • All other meeting attendees then wander freely from corner to corner as they see fit. The only rule is to make sure they are either adding value to a corner, or are receiving value from a corner.
  • Any person, at any time, can create a new corner around any topic.
  • A corner leader can recruit a new leader if that individuals want to participate in other corners.

What you find is that the most important topics with the highest level of energy attract a lot of people. The conversation can continue for quite some time. Topics which fail to attract a crowd wither on the vine (just like in Hyde Park – time to pick up the soap box and call it a day). This is the ultimate “free-market,” egalitarian approach to meetings. In one hour, you can capture more ideas than you would from a full day meeting. And each topic benefits from the cross-pollination of ideas from all attendees.

Rather than having a specific meeting goal, let the attendees determine what is of value. Let go of control and you will find unpredictable – and spectacular – results.

  1. Thanks for your comment.

    I am familiar with Open Space. The technique I describe is similar, yet different in important ways.

    The main difference is in the selection of the “corners.” In Open Space, anyone can talk about anything. I find it to be a bit slow and unwieldy at times.

    With Speaker’s Corner, it is integrated with more traditional brainstorming work. By gathering lists of topics in advance of the breakouts, and having everyone vote on the most important topics, you get some quick momentum. I use Speaker’s Corner when I want results quickly. In as little as 30 minutes, you can generate lots of ideas and build momentum.

    My rule of thumb is to get the group generating as many ideas as possible before and at the beginning of the meeting. Then we have them, as a group, select the most popular topics (using a variety of convergence techniques). The number of corners we select is typically the number of people divided by 8. If the group is smaller, you can have more corners. For example, if there are 40 people, we would have 5 corners. If there are 12 people, we might still have as many as 3 or 4 corners.

    To be clear, I think Open Space is a great technique. It is truly a goal-free, free-market approach. I find it is perfect when you have more time and when you are working with divergent groups of people coming together. When I work with corporations, the Speaker’s Corner section is a small part of the day. And most of the team members can quickly align behind a number of key issues.


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