Igniting Workplace Enthusiasm

"Focus Map Idea Generation"


Contemplating the silent rows of downcast eyes around the meeting room, following your heroic 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 or is my leadership insufficient to the task?". 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 volunteered around the room, is one of life’s joys for me. The engineers in the room sit there glum, lifeless, and silent. They have no ideas, right? They don’t volunteer any ideas, they just look unhappy. Must be an uncreative, pedestrian, rather hopeless 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 they saw a bunch of loudmouth lightweights, talking unsubstantiated nonsense about topics concerning which there was obviously no core foundation of insight or knowledge. This on-the-fly idea generation was meaningless, 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, self-subjugation and modesty. If they are Japanese engineers, well forget it!

What type of environment works best 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 make this the idea generation environment.

He saw group brainstorming as an adjunct to individual idea generation. A lot of research work has been done on the individual versus group approach to idea generation (see Diehl & Stroebe, 1987). Frankly from my reading, there are a lot of "apples" versus "oranges" comparisons in play, so I found it hard to reach concrete conclusions about the individual versus group 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. Suddenly being put on the spot for an idea and then delivering something shiny and new, is not a national attribute that I have observed much to date.

Osborne believed that pre-work was a prerequisite. Individuals bring 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 last 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 to shine is the right environment and the right idea generation method.

Many years ago, I took Conrad Heraud’s "8 Techniques for Innovative Thinking" course and 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.

Starting with the key information needed on a topic enables the later generation of practical ideas. It is extremely difficult in group or individual work to immediately go from a broad theme, to generating specific ideas in quantity. To think of concrete ideas, you first need to think of the necessary information about the topic. You can’t solve a problem (or its component parts) that you have not clearly identified. As Osborne noted, we want quantity first and we judge the ideas later.

Focus Mapping is a "priority 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 in the process 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. This is a key to the successful use of the process, so do not allow the participants to miss this step. You will cover a number of priorities in a session, so a quick determination is best.

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 subthemes, until you reach a point where ideas can be generated. This could be done in just one cascade, 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 the key information that relates to the central theme. Look to get out the detail and facts around the theme, as broad subtopics in the first cascade. There will be many elements that will come to mind, get out as many as possible (see Diagram 1).

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. Number these on the sheet in a different colour for easy reference (see Diagram 2).

Step Three

Taking the highest priority item, repeat the process on the next worksheet - get out as much information as possible. Keep repeating this process (see Diagram 3).

Step Four

The participants may need to keep going with the information points depending on the subject, but usually they will soon have gotten to a level of detail that allows them to start thinking of concrete ideas.Take the highest priority point, write it 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 (see Diagram 4). Again, some individual work can be done first, before calling for ideas.After having listed up practical ideas, the next step is to start to evaluate and prioritise the ideas. Put this list aside and now move on to the next worksheet.

Step Five

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.

The Focus Mapping process enables the participants to quickly derive concrete data about a topic, which then becomes the basis for thinking of practical creative ideas. The drilling down across the priority items allows a breadth to the process that is very comprehensive as well as rapid.

Try it and be surprised with what your colleagues come up with – even the engineers!
All they need is the right environment.








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