Gini Dietrich

Take a Different Approach to Brainstorming

By: Gini Dietrich | January 30, 2012 | 

I had a really interesting experience last week.

This may not be new to some of you, but it was new to me…and it was really freaking cool!

I was invited to participate in a think tank for Interlochen, a center for the arts in Traverse City, Mich.

More on them in a minute.

They invited four experts to join four staff and two board trustees in a day of thinking, brainstorming, cajoling, and planning.

With the New York Times article about how Groupthink and brainstorming don’t work on my mind, I was interested to see how this all played out.

Was it going to work?

The Charrettes

About 10 days before the think tank meeting, we each received a package from the Interlochen team. It included their annual report, some collateral pieces, and a 12 page document that described their story, their SWOT analysis, the work they’ve already done, and their vision and goals for the future.

At the end of the document was the agenda and our assignment: To create a 15-20 minute charrette and be ready to present it during the meeting.

What’s a charrette, you ask? According to Wikipedia:

charrette is a method of organizing thoughts from experts and the users into a structured medium that is unrestricted and conducive to the creativity and the development of myriad scenarios.

Put more simply, it’s a way for a group of people to get together and brainstorm with structure. It’s a way to be sure even the introverts have a voice. And it’s a way to be sure not one person does all the talking and is the only voice who gets a say.

The meeting was divided by charrette. You had 15-20 minutes to present your thinking and then debate its merits with the other experts, staff, and trustees.

It worked really, really well. Better than any brainstorm I’ve ever sat in on. It reminded me of how Vicki Kunkel says she collaborates with others.

For those of you in charge of creating brainstorm meetings at work, I highly recommend this method. It takes a little more upfront work, but the ideas, creativity, and innovation you’ll get in return will be a great return on your time.

About Interlochen

The other reason I felt the day was so fruitful is I was exposed to an organization in an industry I don’t often work.

You see, I danced all the way through college. I even thought I was going to be a prima ballerina. But then I found out how much (or little) they make and that made up my mind for me.

But the kids who attend either summer camp or the boarding high school academy don’t care how little money they make. They are there for their art and that’s all that matters in the world. These are the kids who end up going to Juilliard or one of the other arts colleges.

I was really, really impressed both with the organization and the work they are doing to advance arts into the 21st Century.

There are a lot of lessons corporations can take from watching organizations like Interlochen.

For me? I walked away last Friday with some distance learning ideas for Spin Sucks Pro and a couple of really innovative things that may change the way we service our clients and write this blog.

Special thanks to Leggitt Studio for the best image I could find on what it looks like to work together in a charrette setting.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Great approach, you are left to do the thinking alone before the meeting and then just get together after the real work has been done.

    I wonder how did the meeting end? Was there a decision maker in the room?

    • ginidietrich

      @John Falchetto There was. The president of the organization led the meeting. In the last 90 minutes, he and his staff related the one more important thing they heard, they created three themes from that, and then built out next steps. It worked really, really well.

  • A handful of the best musicians I went to high school with attended Interlochen when we were kids and came back to band the next year with new skills I was a little jealous I didn’t have. It’s pretty cool that you were able to charrette with this organization for the arts.

    This charretting seems like to be a much more efficient use of time too. I absolutely despise meetings that go on and on and on with a lack of preparation and no sense of direction.

    • ginidietrich

      @Anthony_Rodriguez And the meetings that one person bombards with all of their ideas and no one else gets a say. It is a really interesting way to get work done in a short amount of time.

  • This process sounds fascinating. Most of the sessions in which I’ve taken part, happen right then and there. There is very little pre-work. Definitely something I need to investigate. We may have to chat about this and what you liked or didn’t like about the process.

    • ginidietrich

      @KenMueller I’m super happy to talk it through with you. I thought it worked really well because of the pre-work. Organizers AND participants have to be willing to do their part.

      • @ginidietrich I’m wondering if this worked well for them because they were a more creatively minded organization. I’m curious how receptive more business suit oriented folks would be to this process.

  • Roger Valade

    Thanks for hanging out with us, Gini. What a great session!

    • ginidietrich

      @Roger Valade How’d you do that so fast? I was just sending a note with the link! Thanks for having me…I really enjoyed working with you.

      • Roger Valade

        @ginidietrich Expert precision… or dumb luck. Often, they are indistinguishable!

        • ginidietrich

          @Roger Valade It’s probably dumb luck.

  • Love it! Homework usually pays off. I guess this type of thing is no exception.

    –Tony Gnau

    • ginidietrich

      @T60Productions It definitely is more upfront work, but the payoff is pretty big.

  • ginidietrich

    @C_Pappas I’m curious to hear how the charrette idea is received

  • Maybe it’s the type of company that I gravitate towards, but this perfectly describes the collaborative creative process in just about every job I’ve ever had throughout my career. 🙂

    • ginidietrich

      @jasonkonopinski That’s so funny. Every brainstorm I’ve ever participated in has begun with “here’s the basic idea now go!” And everyone throws out ideas. People have to be reminded no idea is a bad one. And eventually one person’s idea wins because they’re the loudest. It doesn’t exactly work.

      • @ginidietrich Brainstorming sessions like that tend to be counterproductive because the participants tend to censor themselves, presenting only the ‘best to them’ ideas. Social proof in action.

        As much as I enjoy working independently and removed from the chaos of office life, the opportunity to brainstorm is something that reinvigorates me and breaks me out of routine. I like that.

        • ginidietrich

          @jasonkonopinski I like it, too. Especially when presented in this way because it gives everyone a voice.

        • @ginidietrich Business meetings are like kobuki theater.

      • @ginidietrich @jasonkonopinski That sounds like pretty crappy “brainstorming” meetings.

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  • It sounds very intriguing and like something that I want to learn more about.

    • ginidietrich

      @TheJackB It’d be interesting to introduce the idea in your next brainstorm meeting. See where it takes you.

  • The Charette approach is used heavily in community planning here in St Paul, I could write more about it if you would like. Our implementation is up and down – sometimes it’s not as open as it should be, but generally the process works well. It originated in architecture school, where students had a short amount of time before the small cart (charette) came through to collect their work. Ideas were supposed to be a bit raw and very unpolished, yet still thunk out to the point where they could be presented to a larger group.

    Organizing this effort is difficult because, as in most situations, people are not used to thinking this way. The Charette process becomes more effective with use because participants learn to make good use of it. There’s a lot more to be said but I’ll leave it here for now.

    • ginidietrich

      @wabbitoid When I was doing research before the meeting, I discovered that’s how it’s mostly used. It’s pretty interesting to bring it into the typical advertising/PR/marketing brainstorms that don’t work very well because of the typical one loud mouth who takes over the entire meeting. Forcing people to think ahead of time is pretty powerful.

      • @ginidietrich I guess we have similar problems in community brainstorming, so it all makes sense. The origins in Architecture at the Ecolé are interesting – and probably work for a similar reason – architects tend to have big ideas that they will go on about for hours if you let them. 🙂

        Social Media in general has so much to learn from Community Organizing – I would like to write more about this but the resistance is so incredibly strong it’s hard to imagine it helping (not hurting) my employment chances. But community dynamics and how to deal with various strong-willed people is a topic that has been dealt with by many Community Organizers in many different ways over the years – there are a lot of tools in the toolbox.

  • Neicolec

    Well, now you’ve got me curious. I’m always looking for new approaches for facilitating with clients. Going to check this out! Thanks, Gini!

    • ginidietrich

      @Neicolec I think you’ll like it. It’s really productive and allows everyone a voice.

  • rajean

    As much as I adore a brainstorming session (and sadly, I seem to be in the minority of most places I work, I typically bring that to the table), I have never heard of a charrette. Now I’m excited to use it. Thanks.

    • ginidietrich

      @rajean You’re welcome! If you end up using it, let me know how it goes!

  • I related very well to Vicki Kunkel’s comment, which makes me think I would be a big fan of a charrette. (Plus, it sounds like a swanky event…like a soiree…”Sorry, I’d love to but I have a charrette to attend!”) Thanks for sharing your impressions, Gini.

    And what, you found that PR work was more profitable than dance!? But dance and PR are similar in so many ways–you have to stay on your toes; balance and core strengths are essential; you have to combine all sorts of elements and make it look beautiful and cohesive so the audience correctly interprets the message; and it takes grueling hard work, yet everyone else thinks it looks easy!

    • ginidietrich

      @MimiMeredith Yeah…now if I could figure out how to get my body to look like a ballerina’s by doing PR.

    • @MimiMeredith hahaha! Give anything a french word and it sounds better. 🙂

      • @Lisa Gerber @MimiMeredith @ginidietrich At first I thought it was Chatroulette and I was starting to worry about what Gini was getting into…

        • @KenMueller @Lisa Gerber @ginidietrich I heart Lisa Gerber, too!! And I love it when people find the same things amusing that I do…but Ken and Lisa, this may not be a good sign for you. AND Gini you do look like a ballerina…a biker ballerina.

        • @MimiMeredith @KenMueller@ginidietrich I’m not embarrassed to say, your comment made me laugh out loud.

          I’m sorry, I can’t go to your soiree. I have to attend a charrette. Awesome.

        • @MimiMeredith @KenMueller @Lisa Gerber @ginidietrich Really? A biker ballerina? She has a skull and crossbones tattooed on her point shoes? What a visual. Just had to run a search.

        • speechless! @Sean McGinnis @MimiMeredith @KenMueller @Lisa Gerber @ginidietrich

        • @Lisa Gerber @MimiMeredith @KenMueller@ginidietrich Come to think of it a Charrette sounds like some sort of fancy barbecue.

        • @TheJackB @Lisa Gerber @MimiMeredith @KenMueller @ginidietrich

        • @TheJackB @Lisa Gerber @KenMueller @ginidietrich

        • @TheJackB @Lisa Gerber @KenMueller @ginidietrich I think it should be! An idea session with steaks…my ideal! Sorry Gini, I’ll order up some grilled shrimp for you!

  • oeschger

    @kbloemendaal Also see!: “Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work” 🙂

    • kbloemendaal

      @oeschger did you actually read that “great wall of text”… talk about difficult layout!

  • Whatever method works, use. I believe that ideas work better when generated via group think, because then we’re working not only on our own ideas, but on contributing, improving and enhancing on each attendees’ suggestions. A well-trained facilitator knows how to cultivate introverts and to cultivate their input, to keep extroverts pumped but prevent them from dominating the session, protect all idea kernels and help them blossom, make sure that the there are appropriate check-ins to assure that the “problem holder” is sensing ideas that are not just creative, but map back to the strategy and will achieve the session objectives, and that the group is guided to take the best ideas from “good” to “GREAT”

    • ginidietrich

      @KensViews Nice way to rain on my parade. Jerk.

      • Hey @ginidietrich I thought @SpinSucks was a place to exchange ideas and all perspectives were welcome!

        • ginidietrich

          @KensViews Except when you disagree with me.

          In all seriousness, I’ve never been in a meeting as productive as Friday’s was. Everyone had to do their homework, which meant the ideas were well thought-out. We definitely debated the ideas of each and some did not make the final cut, but it allowed a bunch of strangers to really help this organization.

          I do this with our staff meetings internally, too, though I don’t call it charrettes. We provide everyone information they need ahead of time and ask them to come to the meeting with ideas. It provides structure to our brainstorming and works really well.

        • @ginidietrich Very happy you found a method that works for you. (Even if that method doesn’t include me) Hence my first words (You do cling to ALL my words, don’t you?) Seriously, many people (NOT you) knock “brainstorming” but that’s just a term for all kinds of metholodologies, or no real methodology at all. A good facilitator can have an enormous positive impact. (BTW, I very much endorse the idea of advance homework–people walking in having thought up some initial solutions.) And I heart @Lisa Gerber

        • ginidietrich

          @KensViews @Lisa Gerber What does Lisa have to do with this?!?

        • @ginidietrich @Lisa Gerber Believe she “Liked” my comment, wise woman that Gerber!

        • ginidietrich

          @KensViews @Lisa Gerber Sigh…

        • @ginidietrich@KensViews Why do I have to have anything to with anything? Can’t he just heart me for no reason?

        • ginidietrich

          @Lisa Gerber @KensViews Yes. He can. On a blog post you write. Or a comment you write. But not randomly because you secretly liked his comment.

        • @ginidietrich @Lisa Gerber @KensViews Well, I thought my biggest takeaway was going to be about this cool new charrette concept… But No! Ken taught me the two best ways to draw Gini’s ire. First, rile her up by disagreeing with her and then make her Jealous by hearting Lisa… What a killer combo Kev, these are invaluable strategies!

        • ginidietrich

          @SociallyGenius Don’t you make me ban you!

        • @SociallyGenius None of that was intentional! In fact, I didn’t even think I was disagreeing with @ginidietrich BTW I think @lisa liked my comment rather publicly. Somebody put SOMETHING in the water at @Spin Sucks today!

        • @KensViews oh I know, but this thread just gave me a much needed laugh in an otherwise mundane day. And @ginidietrich I would never want to draw the ire of potentially the coolest person in the world. I’ve only been part of the Spin Sucks crazies for like 2½ weeks, I thought the free pass was good for at least 6 months 🙂

        • @KensViews oh I know, but this thread just gave me a much needed laugh in an otherwise mundane day. And @ginidietrich I would never want to draw the ire of potentially the coolest person in the world. I’ve only been part of the Spin Sucks crazies for like 2½ weeks, I thought the free pass was good for at least 6 months 🙂

        • ginidietrich

          @SociallyGenius Alright, alright. You can have a free pass until June. But watch yourself! I have the mind of an elephant.

        • @ginidietrich @SociallyGenius Poor elephant.

  • I’ve never heard of this but this sounds interesting and something that would work wonders… I am eager to work on something on those line…. Thanks Gini! You have my brain all wired up now… and its 10 at night! But yayyy…

    • ginidietrich

      @Hajra Well, go to bed and then come back in the morning to have your brain fired up again!

  • NICE. As a recent convert to burn down charts, I think I’ll take a stab at this charrette business too.

    Somebody should do a “What is a Charrette?” informational video, starring Charro. BOX OFFICE GOLD!

    • ginidietrich

      @fitzternet LOL!! YOU should do it!

      • @ginidietrich If Charro’s manager is reading this, let’s get it done!

        • ginidietrich

          @fitzternet I’m off to find Charro’s manager.

  • perezable

    @ginidietrich ….and too many voices is exactly what produces mediocre ideas (sparking some debate here…)

    • ginidietrich

      @perezable Too many voices in a brainstorm where everyone is throwing out ideas produces mediocre ideas.

  • BillMalchisky

    @ginidietrich de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats is a tried and true brainstorming method that works great, is structured, gives everyone a voice.

  • cloudspark

    @ginidietrich have you tried gamestorming? works quite well.

  • ginidietrich

    @WhitneyPunchak You’ll have to let me know if you try it

  • I loved hearing this. It sounds like the brainstorming and development method we use here at work (My Engineering Job) on Projects that are less defined.

    I think it works here because we are constrained with a purpose (think develop an adventure tourism park), an area (on this reclaimed surface mine), and objectives (with 2 stables, a horse track, and other amenities). The layouts, designs and ideas get discussed with the people who did the outlines and the board, and the final product is more often than not exactly what ends up working on the ground, and what meets laws, standards and the concerns of the public.

    • ginidietrich

      @etelligence It does sound really similar. Because I’m in a creative field, brainstorming rarely works. We should take lessons from engineers!

  • yourgreatlifetv

    @KristaKotrla Happy Friday sweet Krista, may your day bring you immense amounts of joy 🙂 -Bern

    • KristaKotrla

      @yourgreatlifetv oh Bern, that is the best! Thank you so much!! I wish you immense amounts of joy and big smiles as well ((hugs))

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