Years ago when I worked as an innovation consultant, a member of one design team approached my partner and said, “Now I understand why your ideation sessions work so well.” He went on to describe his frustrations participating in an ideation session run by another consulting group.
Dominant individuals can intimidate other participants
“First,” he said, “I noticed how when their facilitator stood at the whiteboard and asked the group for ideas, only a few talked. And those were either the bosses or the typically loud people with dominating opinionated personalities. The quiet people were silent, as if they weren’t even there.”
He went on to say, “In your sessions, each and every person shares their ideas. It’s very democratic. We get way more ideas that way.”
A biased facilitator can influence the outcome
“Secondly,” he said, “I also noticed how when the facilitator would write a person’s idea on the whiteboard, that he translated it into his own words. After a while, it became clear that the facilitator already had an answer in mind. And that he was slowly driving the ideas toward a solution that he wanted his consulting firm to implement.”
“In your sessions,” he continued, “People express their own ideas in their own words. And you give them a little time to explain their ideas. It is clear that you respect the individual, and their ideas, and don’t have a hidden agenda.”
He then went to on thank my partner. We were thrilled.
The answer is nominal group technique
Here’s how we did that. The answer isn’t rocket science - it’s really quite simple. Nominal group technique is a method designed for exactly this situation. Although you can read formal descriptions of nominal group that also talk about establishing consensus, let’s just stick with the ideation front end for now. Here are the essential steps.
After presenting the problem or challenge (and making sure everyone understands it), ask everyone at the table to come up with as many solutions as they can INDIVIDUALLY and in TOTAL SILENCE, writing or sketching their ideas on Post-It Notes one idea per note (or per chain of notes).
After everyone is done brainstorming, go around the table and ask each person to present one solution idea and describe it to us in 15-20 seconds (the facilitator can politely stop long-winded people). The rest around the table would listen, and only comment if they had an interesting spin on that particular idea (well, encouraging shoutouts are OK, too - just no negative talk or long spiels). Those who had a duplicate idea or totally unrelated ideas would be asked to just be silent.
That person’s idea would be posted, as is, on the wall (that’s one reason why Post-It Notes are wonderful), along with any other Post-Its with the same or really similar idea.
Then go to the next person and repeat. Go around the table as many times as it takes to hear and post each and every idea.
Why It Works
What our friend noticed - and I have seen in action many times - is that requiring everyone to work alone and in silence gives every person license to contribute. It also prevents side conversations which can be distracting or even bias the group. He used the word “democratic”, by which he meant everyone participated equally.
The “facilitator bias” problem goes away when you let people explain their ideas in their own words and then post their exact idea they way they wrote or sketched it. No translation - no opportunity to twist the idea. [Note. Some descriptions of nominal group have the facilitator write on a whiteboard. I emphatically disagree].
The result is a surprising richness and diversity of ideas that respect your participants.