I started my session by referring to Stephen Johnson's excellent RSA Animate talk - 'Where good ideas come from', and suggested that the workshop provided a great space for harnessing the thoughts and ideas of the participants on the matters we were focusing on. We worked through the approach that I had learned from Fred Buining, the great Dutch facilitator, encouraging participants to suspend their disbelief and think imaginatively with purpose to explore the problem statement we had created and then generate many possible solutions. This process prepared them for the main task which was to work in two's or three's to create a poster to describe their solution to the problem. Here the process encouraged both imaginative and critical thinking within a well defined time frame. At the end of it each small group pitched their poster to the others and at the end of the pitch the other participants had to make at least one suggestion to add value to the ideas that had been pitched. What emerged were some 'great ideas' which had huge potential to be shaped into exciting new concepts and social practices. It was a wonderful experience and I caught the sense of excitement as some of the participants realised some of the potential in the ideas. Feedback at the end on my contribution was very generous and I went home a happy man.
On 5 hour journey home I reflected on the experience. Travelling makes you do this doesn't it? I re-read a blog post I had downloaded by Carlo Miceli http://www.carlosmiceli.com/about/ who summarised the key points in Stephen Johnson's book and it seemed to me that the workshop satisfied two of his ten statements about where good ideas come from.
The Adjacent Possible
The first pattern he recognises is that ideas are connected like doors. Open a door and you can see new ideas, but only ideas that are connected can be seen. It’s by learning from other people’s ideas, or previous ideas of our own, that we come up with new ways of seeing the world. It’s a constant connection of innovation. The key is not to isolate your idea. Instead, try to connect it to as many doors -people, places, ideas – as possible.
I think the 'design thinking' workshop provided an excellent space in which individuals could open the doors behind which their ideas sat and expose them to new possibilities.
Ideas are not single elements. They are more like networks. They are not sparked by the connections between different elements: they are those connections. For ideas to happen, you have to place the elements at your disposal in environments where more connections can occur in the right way. The best networks have two characteristics: they make it possible for its elements to make as many connections as possible, and they provide a random environment that encourages constant “collisions” between all of its elements. The elements are worthless if they are not properly connected. The magic in the workshop is the way in which people who had participated in and shared a process were then connected in the act of designing their solution to the problem/opportunity and deep collisions of ideas and reasoning occurred to create some 'GOOD IDEAS'.
Johnson says that “if we’re trying to build organizations that are more innovative, we have to build spaces” that foster real collaboration. The process I facilitated just required a space where we could move from tables to a semicircle of chairs but it did need wall space for the sharing of ideas and posters. And this wall space was particularly useful because of the long whiteboards. It was pretty near perfect for the type of collaborative thinking we were engaged in. But space alone is not enough that space and the people in it have to be helped to think in certain ways - someone needs to lead and facilitate the process with a structure, with some basic rules and an energy that creates momentum in the collaborative process. There also has to be the means to capture ideas as they emerge for they are transient and will not stay in the mind unless they are helped - so there was a lot of catching on post-its, in posters, and on video. The animation of posters - the culmination of the process and the catching of elaborated ideas on video was particularly important. We kept the process going by adding new ideas to the poster after each presentation. Uploaded to dropbox these provide a useful resource for reflection and further development. After the workshop the organiser transcribed all the post-it ideas and circulated them by email as part of an ongoing conversation. The lesson is that GOOD SPACE + GOOD FACILITATION has the potential to produce GOOD IDEAS that must to be CAPTURED in order to be used.
So this is how I witnessed the birth of some great ideas. It was a deeply purposeful, collaborative, energetic and constructive process and I feel privileged to have been a part. But the good ideas are only that. They need to be developed and grown into something that can be brought into existence. The story of where GOOD SOCIAL PRACTICES come from, is an entirely different story.
The following day I sat down and tried to catch some of my learning from the event. I was particularly interested in the high level concepts and how the rationale might be developed to support these. As I wrote I realised that I was embodying the first of Johnson's innovation pattern. During the process I had opened my door to share my ideas and then been provided with the open doors of participants through which they had shared their ideas. My writing process was the way I tried to select and make sense of these exchanges connecting the big ideas to the subsidiary ideas that gave the big idea substance and meaning and which ultimately might enable new social practices to be created. More than that the process itself was uplifting and I could see how, if I was taking them forward, I would be enthused by this process of adding detail and further meaning.
Finally, one other thing I now have which I didn't have before is a personally meaningful story I can use in my work in encouraging creativity to flourish in universities. Such stories are valuable ways of bridging the gap between the abstract ideas of Stephen Johnson to the real world of academics, educational developers and managers.
Louis Pasteur famously said that “chance favours the prepared mind.” Johnson adapts this and says “chance favours the connected mind.” The workshop demonstrated that "chance favours minds that have been connected through a well thought out facilitated process"
Sources of ideas:
Carlos Miceli Review of 'Where Good Ideas Come From'
Stephen Johnson Where Good Ideas Come From