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On-Demand Ideas

training consulting - brainstormI’ve often asked myself why we (the Allen team) sometimes have some of our best, most creative ideas while we’re working on a pre-sales mockup or demo and why that creativity sometimes outshines the work the work that we do later as part of the project. I think that there are several reasons, not the least of which is that it is sometimes easier to be more creative when there are fewer constraints. Often, in the pre-sales process, we don’t yet know what those constraints will be. They may be technical, legal, or specific to the quirks of certain stakeholders. Sometimes having less information can be a good thing, at least as a starting point. This past week, I got to be involved in two very different types of creative instructional design meetings. One of them was a brainstorming meeting for a project in pre-sales, where we needed activity ideas for a course in pet health and nutrition. The other was for a project that we had just won, but it had a very ambiguous scope. We needed to design an online reference tool to help users of a system that tracks data from drug trials. I think that we came up with some good ideas for both projects (and I’ll talk about those later on). I thought I would write up my very own pointers on getting the most out of meetings where you need on-demand creativity:

  • Invite a variety of team members and not just the usual suspects. The dynamic of such a meeting requires all kinds of creativity. Even people that have historically come up with some creative ideas will do better if they can bounce ideas off of someone else. The project manager for the online reference tool invited our technical lead, a graphic design lead, and an instructional design team in addition to a couple of extras. The interplay of technical, graphic, and instructional strategies prompted us to come up with a solution that none of us would have come up with on our own.
  • Invite one person who doesn’t know what’s going on. Okay, I admit that this person is often myself but I think that there is a valid reason for inviting someone that maybe didn’t do his or her homework (and doesn’t know what the solution is supposed to be). Of course, this may at first be annoying to those that did their homework, but the clueless person will sometimes throw out new ideas precisely because he or she doesn’t know enough to self-censor a half-baked idea that may later morph into something valuable (assuming some input from those in the know).
  • Apply some pressure. I think it’s sometimes more difficult to be creative if you have all of the time in the world. On the pet nutrition course, if we didn’t come up with something interesting in that hour-long meeting, the designers wouldn’t really know what to script, the artist wouldn’t know what to mock-up, and the people getting ready for their sales presentation wouldn’t know the rationale behind our design. If it has to get done, it’s more likely to get done. If there is still time, then it’s iffier.
  • May the best idea win! One potential pitfall is when a creative session gets too fair. All ideas aren’t equal, and it takes a team that really trusts each other and that isn’t after individual glory. You have to be willing to let your own contribution get mutilated by someone else, to let it get passed over entirely, and to realize that creative people don’t always play fairly. There is a difference between being cutthroat about ideas and being cutthroat as a person.
  • Someone is going to need to go back to their cubicle and develop things further. Things will continue to change as things get executed. Sometimes, this process will enhance and complete the original idea and other times it will take it in another direction, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I tend to favor plans that can be scaled up or down to suit the available resources and timeline. If it can’t be scaled and things are tight, the risks may not be worth it and maybe the practical idea should win out.

I’m sure that’s more than enough advice on training consulting and brainstorming. For every rule, there is an exception anyway (usually several exceptions). How did our brainstorming meetings turn out? Well, for the pet nutrition course, we came up with a couple of activities. One activity teaches anatomy by playing off of DaVinci’s sketch of the Vitruvian Man, wherein the learner contrasts the Vitruvian Man with a Vitruvian dachshund and a Vitruvian housecat. Another is a kitty weight loss challenge, sort of a Biggest Loser: Cats. For the online systems reference, we came up with a design that allows learners to search for exactly the information they need, tag that information so that they can easier find it later, and see the collective tags of their peers and coworkers. They can navigate by role, by step in the system process, or search by their tags. Arguably, this is not as fun as spoofing feline weight loss. On the other hand, it is very different from how we had envisioned the solution originally and much more usable by learners.