Category: Tips, hints and advice

6 Feb

Brainstorming v storming the brain.

brainstorm v storming the brainBrainstorming has long been a feature of interactive sessions and while it certainly has its uses, it is often used for the wrong purpose. I’m grateful for an article in Silas Amos’s excellent Design Gazzette blog, where he takes a wry and sceptical look at brainstorming. He endorsed my view that brainstorming is not a useful technique for coming up with creative ideas. It can be very useful in selection and development, identifying routes and approaches and building processes. Creativity is in individual activity – people come up with original ideas, not groups. Creative concepts need a ‘Eureka moment’.  Of course, an individual may come up with an idea in a brainstorming session, Eureka moment can happen anywhere, but a brainstorm can often work against that idea even seeing the light of day.

The problem with brainstorming is that it is at the mercy of group dynamics. We all know the mantra that, ‘Thers is no such thing as a bad idea, and all ideas are equal.’ Unfortunately all groups are not equal. Often teams within companies come with a lot of baggage. Powerful personalities and hierarchies can hold sway and personal prejudices prevent great ideas from being voiced – or worse, they are voiced and then fail to be recognised. Even with groups of individuals who have never met before, positions are negotiated and personality defines people’s roles.

It’s not all bad news, however, because brainstorming groups can be very good at the next stage in the innovation process. Innovation = creativity + application. Application, like brainstorming is process-based. Brainstorms are great for selection, opportunity recognition, development action points and commercialization identification.

When we need creative ideas, we need the opposite of brainstorming – it can be useful to storm the brain. It may appear counter-intuitive, but the brain is actually very good at dealing with lots of problems at the same time. We may have a single issue in conscious focus, but the subconscious brain is working on dozens if not hundreds of tasks. In fact, the subconscious activity is far more powerful than the bit we are aware of. Just think of how many times you have been wrestling with a problem only to have to give up and go and do something else and later when focusing on a totally different task, the answer to the first pops into your mind. How often have you been working into the evening and finally admit ‘defeat’ and go to bed, then the following morning a clear answer comes into your mind while in the shower or driving to work?

Taking a break to allow the brain to run ‘off-line’ is a great technique for facilitators and seemingly un-related games or tasks. Synectics, the problem-solving methodology developed by George M. Prince, uses what it calls ‘excursion’, time spent on totally different activities to allow brains to work on solutions in the background. In the same way, it is natural for the brain to work on multiple problems, we do it all the time, we’re just not aware.

By all means use brainstorming for commercialising and exploiting ideas, but for creativity, leave it to problem solving power of the individual brain. Given the right environment creativity will flourish.

11 Apr

Training, coaching and the need for a business case.

Think like an FD or CEO

We have all been there, I guess: we create a great programme that will tick all the boxes and deliver the results our client contact outlined in the brief – then it does not go ahead. ‘Budget issues; finance is tight… maybe next financial year.’ Training is one of those subjects that everyone acknowledges its importance, but in the heat of competitive demands, it seems to have the weakest case – even when a budget has been earmarked.

It is easy for us trainers and coaches to wring our hands and blame the short-sighted bean-counters, but that is not going to help us make our case for expenditure. When putting together a programme, as well as detailing the operational deliverables we must also put forward a sound business case. If we see a significant obstacle being the FD or CFO, we should not be looking to fight them, but think like them. You may be working on a course or workshop for a manager or department head, but if that project depends upon a CEO or CFO to sign it off, you need to make a compelling reason for them to do so. Think like a CEO rather than a trainer for a while.

Those top-level directors, the ones with the power of life or death over your project, are busy people. Make sure your project proposal has a short, executive summary right at the start. And focus upon the benefits, the real business benefits that will accrue from the training project. Most importantly, try to quantify the results. You may need the help of your client contact who raised the brief. Will the desired improvements increase efficiency, save time, reduce waste, expand capabilities? Try to put some figures against it. If they are not directly available from your client, perhaps make industry comparisons, or look at competitors; maybe trade bodies have figures you can use to build your case. There is nothing like pound note or dollar signs to grab the attention of people who spend all day staring at the bottom line.

So, next time you are working up a proposal, as well as looking at the benefits for the delegates, spend time also underlining the benefits to the organisation.

6 Feb

Roles people play and group dynamics

In participatory groups there is tremendous dynamic energy which, if properly recognised and harnessed can help achieve objectives for both the group and the individuals concerned. However, these same forces if uncontrolled can be equally destructive and tear the group apart.

One of the key dynamics relates to process and how the group gets things done. Anyone who has run a workshop will have recognised how people negotiate their roles as a group forms. Classically these roles may include:

  • Initiators
  • Information givers
  • Information seekers
  • Clarifiers
  • Reflectors and summarisers
  • Consensus seekers
  • Mediators and harmonisers
  • Encouragers
  • Gatekeepers

There are also some roles that can be defined as non-group roles which are usually taken by individuals as an indication that their personal objectives are not being met. These include:

  • Dominators
  • Blockers
  • Avoiders

It’s important to understand that individuals can play more than one role. In addition, they are not absolutes but relative roles, negotiated within the group.

One of the dangers is that group members become fixed in their roles which may block their own and the group’s effectiveness. In big groups (over say 12) you will also observe a breaking down into smaller groups each with members negotiating roles and with the groups themselves taking on rles within the workshop.

One of the most effective ways to manage this is work in sessions where the group is broken up into smaller groups, pairs, threes, fours etc. A good facilitator will manage this actively and not allow members to choose their own partners and teams. By this means you can mix the smaller groups, pairing people intelligently to allow them to explore new roles in each encounter and fulfil their objectives.

Active group management also avoids the emergence of in-groups and out-groups, and groups ‘ganging up’ upon or ostracizing difficult or non-conforming individuals. The facilitator can ensure the groups are inclusive.

It’s important to remember that this is a constantly changing landscape. As individuals interact, the roles people play and their relationships change. One of the most useful skills for a facilitator is to watch the body language in these smaller groups. It is usually easy to observe where people are positively engaged or not.

9 Jan

Is ‘death by PowerPoint’ inevitable?

Death by PowerPointIt is common for trainers (and trainees!) to refer to ‘Death by Powerpoint’, and it is true that the presentation tool is most often wrongly used and rather than enhancing presentations, successfully ruins them. My preference is always to go for interactive and participatory workshops whenever possible, and the closest I ever get to didactic delivery is usually using a flip-chart and marker pen. However, there are occasions when a computer-based presentation is unavoidable and can be extremely useful, if used correctly.

When can Powerpoint*  be useful?

  • When working with big groups in lecture style format and theatre layout.
  • To display and demonstrate examples as part of a workshop – perhaps to show video clips or compare statistical data.
  • To quickly present  complex data.
  • To add variety and break up the pace of a workshop.
  • To bring in an additional level of information encoding to stimulate recall.

Do’s and Don’ts.

Do:

  1. Plan how and when you are going to use your slide-show.
  2. Take a leaf out of TV News or current affairs – The screen displays support graphics or images to set the scene and support what the presenter is saying. They don’t display the words that the presenter is saying.
  3. Think of you presentation as two complimentary elements – what you will be saying and what is appearing on the screen – make it a double act.
  4. Break up your presentation. If you are going to be standing up for say 40 minutes. don’t have 40 minutes of PowerPoint. Vary the pace: maybe 5 minutes introduction, then a 10 minute slide presentation, 15 minutes interactive question and answer, 5 minutes of information delivery by slide followed by a 10 minute quiz, then 5 minutes summary by slide and interaction.
  5. Integrate interaction. After delivering a batch of information, ask open-ended questions: ‘What do those figures suggest?’, ‘What strikes you about that scenario?’, ‘How would you respond?’ etc. Ask delegates to complete short questionnaires, quizzes or engage in creative note taking.
  6. Break up you presentation – mix text slides with image slides, audio and video clips, two or three word themes with charts and graphs.
  7. Make use of charts and graphs rather than columns of figures if possible.
  8. Provide handouts – don’t expect delegates to take in and remember masses of data.
  9. Theme your presentation – turn it into a narrative, a story with a beginning middle and an end. I have used themes of silent movies, a journey, exploration… I even used the Dick Whittington story to build an export presentation around. It makes your presentation more memorable and gives you a structure to hang it around.

Don’t:

  1. Don’t start by writing your entire presentation in PowerPoint – this is speaker support, you will be there making the presentation. You want your audience to be listening to you, not reading of the screen.  Plan your presentation on paper, decide what you wnat to say, and then, and only then decide if you need speaker support and how it will be most effective.
  2. Don’t use lots of words – see above.
  3. Don’t use too many slides – one of the most memorable presentations I ever saw was delivered by a speaker who spoke for an hour but used just six slides. She used the slides to highlight five major themes and one summary. They were images not words, put on the screen and left there while she talked.
  4. Don’t read off the screen – as I have already said, your presentation should NOT be the same words that you are saying, but do face your audience and at worst have a laptop screen in front of you for the comfort factor of ensuring the slide has changed, if you must.
  5. Don’t hide behind your laptop – it’s not a sheild. You want to connect with your audience – make eye contact and move around.
  6. Don’t expect people to take in a mass of detail off the screen. If you are delivering a complex of technical proposition, summarise information in charts or diagrams and let your audience know that; “The full data sheets (or whatever) are included in your information pack/handout…”
  7. Don’t forget your objectives – what does your audience want and what do you want them to take away from the presentation? Measure your success by this criteria.
  8. Don’t trust technology – it will come back and bite you one day. Be prepared, have your spare bulbs and data cables etc. Always have a ‘Plan-B’: what will you do if there is a power failure or your laptop is lost or stolen on the way to the lecture? Have you a backup on a memory stick? Have you a version of the presentation you can deliver without visual aids? Have printed out a hard copy?
  9. Don’t have tunnel vision – a slide presentation is not the only way to support your presentation. There are other alternatives – video is so easy these days and a DVD of half a dozen video clips can be far more memorable than fifty slides full of text. A simple slide-show of images can be very effective. You can always link up to examples from live websites or even a webcam demonstration by a colleague 100 miles away. Take a look at some alternative presentation media such as Prezi (www.prezi.com), that get away from the slide format.
  10. Don’t forget to time your presentation – you don’t want to rush and you want to have time to be flexible, interact with your audience and make detours if necessary. Knowing that you have ample time will make you more relaxed and allow you to vary your pace.

* I have used the term PowerPoint throughout as a generic term, but this refers to all flavours of text-based slide presentation.

3 Dec

Working with SMEs

Helping SMEs Plan

I find working with SMEs (Small to Medium Enterprises) especially rewarding: they are enthusiastic, energetic and very committed. Often the biggest problem is actually slowing them down a little: they are is such a hurry to get on with things that the planning stage is sometimes neglected. This is understandable, we’d all rather be doing than planning, but it’s important to see that all that energy an enthusiasm is properly directed. The most helpful approach I have found is streamlining the planning process to its simplest framework.

There are weighty books on business planning and sophisticated software packages, but all require a degree of time resource that is usually at a premium for small businesses.

Working with small businesses is usually done in one of three ways:

  1. One-to-one with the owner/CEO.
  2. With a small team from the same company.
  3. With a group of owners/senior managers from a number of companies.

The one-to-one basis allows a very tailored approach akin to coaching and mentoring. You can quickly assess strengths and weaknesses, understanding and attitude. You can also be more outspoken. It’s important to have done your homework before you meet. A long, drawn-out exploratory meeting is the last thing your client wants – indeed, it’s the last thing you want too as budgets are usually tight with small companies.

The most critical step, and often one that is the biggest stumbling block is setting objectives. It’s not to say that the client does not know his or her objective, just that they have not articulated it – it is something the just ‘know’. The other problem is that SMEs have very real issues to deal with that day, that week or that month. That can make it difficult to see the long term view and set an objective for where they want their business to be in say one, two or three years. I often use SMART objective setting, but leading them to think long term by saying something like; “In one years time…”, and letting them complete the objective statement.

Once you have the objective, I like to get the framework of the plan built right at that first session. That means you can’t begin with a blank sheet of paper, you need some pre-prepared material to work with. You can use a checklist, but I usually find that unsatisfactory as it lacks flexibility – there is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution and you can try your client’s patience going through a list of irrelevant topics. You are not really interacting but more interrogating and it is difficult for the businessperson to take real ownership of their plan. That’s one reason why I am a fan of card-sorting. The client can build there own plan while interacting with you. They choose what topics are relevant for them and what they can discard: they decide upon their importance and where items should go in their plan. Importantly it shows the business plan as a process, a series of steps the order of which has a logic behind it that comes out of their own business requirements.

Working with a team within a business can follow a similar route, but you have to be very aware of the group dynamics. More junior members of the group may feel reticent about contributing and you also have to guard against it becoming a forum to deal with personality issues rather than the task in hand. If I’m working with a team of around equal seniority, the fastest and most effective route is to get them to collaborate on one sorting exercise. This usually stimulates a lot of debate and prompts some innovative thinking. Where there are members from various levels or departments it’s necessary to take a view as to whether the previous method will work. If it’s felt that it won’t generate the best result I use the following approach. If the group is small (two or three) I ask them each to prepare their own plan at the same time but in different parts of the room, then compare them and comment on each others’ hopefully moving towards a consensus. With a bigger group I would divide them into teams mixing each one carefully. With small groups you could use checklists, but card sorting is much more flexible and interactive.

With groups of business people from a number of companies the latter approach is usually very successful, but you must make sure that delegates have time and the materials to make notes of their outcomes.

With these approaches you can lay down the framework of a business plan within one reasonable length session. Additional branches, complexities and subordinate plans (financial plans, marketing plans, production plans etc.) being added to that framework as and when the client wishes or the need arises.

3 Dec

Running digital workshops

Add value to digital workshopsBecause of the very nature of digital it’s all too easy to go for the ‘chalk and talk’ route. Produce a presentation, get your stats and screen grabs, or maybe go online in real time – we all know how it goes. For a big group, that lecture format may be all you can do, but for small audiences, participatory workshops where people really engage and look at their own issues can be far more fulfilling and relevant.

Digital, whether you are looking at digital marketing, social networking, ePR, search and optimization, mobile or any mix of topics – is complex and multi-faceted. Clients and delegates have varied needs and objectives, their businesses are of different sizes and stages of maturity, and their knowledge is sure to vary. In short, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. This is why workshop style can be ideal: it allows people to focus on their business needs and deal with topics relevant to themselves.

Dependent upon the size of the group, there are a variety of techniques that can be used – but the key word is ‘variety’. It keeps people interested and engaged, but above all, not everybody has the same learning style so with a good mix, all can be involved and catered for.

There will be need to present information, either on screen or using flip-charts, but I would break this up into small chunks and intersperse it with other activities. If you have a mass of detailed information and stats, put it in your handouts as takeaways. Don’t expect people to absorb or remember the broadband penetration across the major economies of the EU, for example..

Here are a few techniques you may consider using:

  • Pair-work and groups. Break people up into pairs and threes so they can test out ideas on each other. This kind of co-coaching allows them to deal with subjects in a relevant way. Mix them up too – everyone has something different to offer. Bigger teams or groups can work on bigger projects.
  • Set scenarios – this can be useful for groups and teams. Set a ‘what if’ scenario and see how different teams deal with it. A great one for ePR and social networking.
  • Paper exercises – often with digital projects people are used to just sitting at a keyboard and screen. This can get in the way of seeing the big picture. Give people big sheets of paper and big markers to free up their ideas.
  • Allow thinking time – after exercises, give  a few minutes to make notes.
  • Role play – not the most obvious choice for digital workshops, but very useful to remind people that at the end of that email, tweet, or e-commerce site is a real person. Ask someone to take on the persona of a particular target audience, then get somebody else to decide how they are going to communicate with them.
  • Brain-storming – a great way to start the workshop – gets people interacting from the start. It also is useful in setting objectives for the project or session.
  • Sorting exercises – use either pre-printed cards (for standard tasks) or get people to make their own, using cards or post it notes. Then have teams or groups use them to plan how they will attack a project. Really stimulates discussion. Great for marketing planning or website building.

Think carefully about your materials – active note-taking is great way to process information and embed it in memory. A useful way to construct you workshop is to break it into sessions: first you give information, then a small exercise, maybe a check list to tick off. Follow that with an interactive exercise, maybe in pairs or groups followed by open discussion and a little time to make notes on what they have learned. A good worksheet or workbook, well thought-out is so much more valuable than just giving a handout of your PowerPoint presentation.

With digital, a lot of what your delegates will be doing when they get back to work will actually be online, but online working is difficult to do in a training session or workshop. You will need to ensure that the materials you give them to take away are designed to enable them to carry their learning into their digital workplace.

Digital Strategy Planning Cards

9 Nov

Building timelines

Let’s look at a business plan as a timeline. Remember all businesses are different – your priorities differ and you may have some tasks already in hand or completed. So this is just one possible approach by me to a fictitious business plan.

The first question for a timeline is, ‘Where do you begin?’ The obvious answer may be, ‘The beginning,’ but where is that? Often it’s best to start with a bunch of tasks that are important to you, then work out from there. For example, let’s assume that financial tasks are key for me: I need to get a handle on projections and cashflows that I know my bank will want to see. So I’ll just begin by getting all the financial cards together; Create profit and loss forecast, Create cashflow forecast, Calculate break-even etc. – I can sort them into order later and maybe even discard some.

I have something to work with. Now, before I can start with the financial calculations there are some things I need to know – the cost of premises, competitors’ pricing, the cost of equipment and materials, perhaps. In short, I need to do a bit of serious research before I can start on my financial projections, so I’m going to collect together all the cards which will help me collect that information, and I’ll put them in a loose group before the financial cards. Let’s suppose my timeline is running left to right – I’ll place these on the left of the financial cards.

Now the cards are thinning out I can see a handful of cards that relate to marketing matters – Market research, SWOT Analysis, Competitive analysis, Sales Strategy and routes to market. Where should I put these? My instinct is to put these early on – it’s good to know you have a marketable idea before you start working on financial details. For now I will put them before the financial research on the left-hand side.

There are some very basic things we need to look at, such as setting our objective and defining our purpose – I can confidently put these right at the start, on the far left.

Now things are taking shape, we have a group of cards that are about getting started, then marketing analysis. Next we gather our financial information then make our financial plans – the next stage is implementation, making it happen.  At this stage I will need to : Source key advisors, Set quality control policy, Plan advertising and communications, and put into action some practical things like: Arrange insurance, Protect IPR and most importantly: Set roles and responsibilities – who will do what?

We can now start fine tuning the individual card positions to make the most logical sense. Don’t be afraid to move whole blocks around. Remember lots of things may happen at the same time so your timeline is unlikely to be one straight line, but may have groups of tasks together or even two or more lines running in parallel.

One thing I would recommend is looking over your plan and see what tasks are mission critical – by that I mean items that could result in a decision to go ahead or not. Perhaps the legal requirements are very strict and if you cannot comply with them the project is a non-starter. So place that card (and any other critical ones) as early in the process as possible to save you wasting time and energy.

Now go back to the start and walk yourself through the plan – if everything makes sense, congratulations. You have a plan!

9 Nov

Building timelines

Let’s look at a business plan as a timeline. Remember all businesses are different – your priorities differ and you may have some tasks already in hand or completed. So this is just one possible approach by me to a fictitious business plan.

The first question for a timeline is, ‘Where do you begin?’ The obvious answer may be, ‘The beginning,’ but where is that? Often it’s best to start with a bunch of tasks that are important to you, then work out from there. For example, let’s assume that financial tasks are key for me: I need to get a handle on projections and cashflows that I know my bank will want to see. So I’ll just begin by getting all the financial cards together; Create profit and loss forecast, Create cashflow forecast, Calculate break-even etc. – I can sort them into order later and maybe even discard some.

I have something to work with. Now, before I can start with the financial calculations there are some things I need to know – the cost of premises, competitors’ pricing, the cost of equipment and materials, perhaps. In short, I need to do a bit of serious research before I can start on my financial projections, so I’m going to collect together all the cards which will help me collect that information, and I’ll put them in a loose group before the financial cards. Let’s suppose my timeline is running left to right – I’ll place these on the left of the financial cards.

Now the cards are thinning out I can see a handful of cards that relate to marketing matters – Market research, SWOT Analysis, Competitive analysis, Sales Strategy and routes to market. Where should I put these? My instinct is to put these early on – it’s good to know you have a marketable idea before you start working on financial details. For now I will put them before the financial research on the left-hand side.

There are some very basic things we need to look at, such as setting our objective and defining our purpose – I can confidently put these right at the start, on the far left.

Now things are taking shape, we have a group of cards that are about getting started, then marketing analysis. Next we gather our financial information then make our financial plans – the next stage is implementation, making it happen.  At this stage I will need to : Source key advisors, Set quality control policy, Plan advertising and communications, and put into action some practical things like: Arrange insurance, Protect IPR and most importantly: Set roles and responsibilities – who will do what?

We can now start fine tuning the individual card positions to make the most logical sense. Don’t be afraid to move whole blocks around. Remember lots of things may happen at the same time so your timeline is unlikely to be one straight line, but may have groups of tasks together or even two or more lines running in parallel.

One thing I would recommend is looking over your plan and see what tasks are mission critical – by that I mean items that could result in a decision to go ahead or not. Perhaps the legal requirements are very strict and if you cannot comply with them the project is a non-starter. So place that card (and any other critical ones) as early in the process as possible to save you wasting time and energy.

Now go back to the start and walk yourself through the plan – if everything makes sense, congratulations. You have a plan!