Igniting Workplace Enthusiasm

Focus Map Idea Generation


Contemplating the silent rows of downcast eyes around the meeting room, following your bold call for ideas and input, can be a character building experience in Japan. You may be wondering "how did this country get where it is, when nobody seems to have any ideas?". There are solid cultural reasons why Japanese staff are reluctant, hesitant, unwilling, and non-empowered to contribute, despite your well meaning entreaties.

 It is not so odd. It took me a while to uncover the fact that engineers aren’t stupid. Commanding the pen and filling pages or whiteboards with crazy ideas being randomly thrown up around the room, is one of life’s joys for me. The engineers in the room sitting there glum, lifeless, silent have no ideas, right? They don’t say anything, they just look unhappy. Must be an uncreative, pedestrian dumb lot, I concluded.

 Actually, the environment for them was not conducive to idea generation. Maybe this is the same for your Japanese colleagues.

 The engineers were silent, but they were carefully analyzing the issue, weighing evidence, sifting through the detail, looking for the perfect solution. In front of them what they were observing were a bunch of loudmouth, flaky, bozos talking unsubstantiated nonsense about topics concerning which we bozos had no core foundation of insight or knowledge. This on-the-fly idea generation was a joke from their engineer point of view.

 Asking Japanese to speak up and float ideas around the room, either in English or Japanese, is a big ask in a culture which puts emphasis on group decision making, harmony, personal subjugation and modesty. If they are Japanese engineers, then forget it!

 What type of environment works well for idea generation and how do we get our Japanese colleagues firing?

 In 1953, Alex Osborn published Applied Imagination launching the "brainstorming industry". His four rules were: 1. Focus on quantity 2. Withhold criticism 3. Welcome unusual ideas 4, Combine and improve ideas. These still work as rules today, so let’s apply these.

 He always saw group brainstorming as an adjunct to individual idea generation. A lot of research work has been done on the individual versus group approach (Diehl & Stroebe 1987). Frankly from my reading, much of it is "apples" versus "oranges" comparisons, so it is hard to reach concrete conclusions about the debate.

 The simple remedy is to include silent, individual time for idea generation before combining the ideas of the group. This is particularly effective for Japanese colleagues, because suddenly being put on the spot for an idea and then delivering something shiny and new is not a national attribute that I have noticed much to date.

 Osborne believed that pre-work was a prerequisite, so that individuals brought their ideas to the session, rather than suddenly being expected to cough up inspiration on command. This seems infinitely sensible, so let’s publicise what we are going to work on well before anyone gets into a room together.

 The presence of a trained facilitator for the session was also stressed. The facilitator is responsible for the processes, procedures, structures, environment, roles and ground rules The facilitator also focuses the resources of the group, and is sensitive to a variety of group dynamics.

 Having spent the past 20 years continuously using idea generation with Japanese teams, I am convinced our Japanese colleagues are brimming with creativity and good ideas. All they need is the right environment and the right method to display both.

 I have found focus mapping to be a great tool for idea generation.

It allows you to start from a broad topic, then drill down to extremely concrete practical ideas very fast.

 The key is starting with the information needed on a topic, to enable the generation of practical ideas.   It is almost impossible to go from a broad theme to generating specific ideas in quantity. As Osborne noted, we want quantity first and we sort out the quality quotient later.

 This is a "cascade" system which works by starting with a high level theme written in the middle of the worksheet, then surrounding it with circled key information about that broad theme. As mentioned above, at this point you may want to ask everyone to individually develop some key information and then call on them to include it on the worksheet.

 It is important to then attach priorities to the information points developed.  Do not allow the participants to miss this step. You obviously need to do more than one priority, so the initial selection process can be an imprecise one, that doesn’t take much time.

 Participants select the highest priority elements and keep cascading down by repeating the process.   That means nominating sub-themes, coming up with related information, attaching priorities to the information, then nominating the next level down of sub-themes until they reach a point where ideas can be generated.   This could be done in one cascade level, or it might take three or four – it will depend on the complexity of the theme.

 The process drills down very deeply and gets participants quickly to the key issues for concrete idea generation.  

 Any of the priority elements, nominated at any stage in the process, can be selected as the next starting point.. Because the process is so quick, the participants can cover quite a large number of areas, which makes the process also broad as well as deep.

 Step One

 Take the central theme, place this in the middle of the sheet of paper, draw a circle around it and have the participants list up information that relates to the central theme. Look to get out the detail and facts around the theme, as broad sub-topics in the first cascade.  There will be many elements that will come to mind, get out as many as possible.

 Step Two

 Having filled out the information points related to the main theme, the participants now make a decision on which are the highest priority items.  They should number these on the sheet in a different colour.

 Step Three

 Taking the highest priority item, repeat the process on the next work sheet - get out as many elements as possible on this information point.

 Step Four

 Again attach priorities to these information points, select the highest priority and repeat the process on the next work sheet.

 Step Five

 Taking the highest priority item, repeat the process - get out as many elements as possible on these points on the next work sheet.

 Step Six

 The participants may need to keep going with the information points depending on the subject, but usually by this stage they have gotten to a level of concrete detail that allows them to start thinking of ideas.

 Step Seven

 Take the highest priority point as a heading at the top of the page on the next work sheet and now have the participants start getting down ideas that occur to them related to the sub-theme.

 Step Eight

 Go back to any of the selected priority items and repeat the process.  This might be from the very first page or a couple of iterations into the cascade process.

 After having listed up practical ideas, the next step is to start to evaluate and prioritise the ideas.

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