How Did Our Electronic Brainstorming Work Out?

trainingIn October, we invited you to participate in an electronic brainstorming session on ways to re-invent museum professional training.  We did this for two reasons:  first,  that we want our book to be as useful as possible and part of that is seeking out new tools, many of them cloud-based, that will allow us to be more creative and work more collaboratively.  Jeff Meade of the Smithsonian’s Ed Lab suggested Wallwisher and we thought it worth giving a try.

Second, we’ve been asking colleagues, as we talk to them about the themes in the book if they feel that graduate programs are preparing emerging professionals for creative work in museums.  And the answer, from everyone, is no.  That’s pretty concerning.  We were curious about what would happen if we asked the field–that’s all of you–about what training should be like.  Could we brainstorm a better solution?  We’ve all been through brainstorming sessions, but there’s increasing evidence that we go about it in the wrong ways.

We put the question up on Wallwisher;  encouraged participation through this project blog,  Facebook and Twitter, and set ourselves for a week of thinking, sorting and evaluating.We got some interesting ideas, some duds, and some inbetween.  Did we consider the experiement a success?  No,  but in the spirit of experimentation and of embracing our own flawsomeness,  here’s what we learned.

About Our Brainstorming

By opening up the process to all comers (crowd-sourcing as it were) we took a leap beyond what might be effective brainstorming in order to see if this online, open method would work.  We found that people had ideas, but it was rare for people to really build upon ideas;  creating and connecting what Tina Seelig calls “a soup of ideas” where they’ve been connected and combined,  and ownership exists among the entire group.   In her book InGenius,  she shares a set of guidelines for brainstorming inspired by Tom Kelly of IDEO in the form of questions.

What’s the room look like?  Our virtual room seemed a challenge–it seemed hard to step back and take in the full swath of ideas.  How could this be changed online?

Who should participate? We made it open to all comers and had participants comment anonymously.  Facebook brainstorms in what’s been described as “2 pizza size teams,”  in other words 6-8 people.  Our group had diverse opinions, but I think couldn’t quite connect.  Would not being anonymous have made a difference?  Should we have handpicked a group or does that risk limiting the pool of ideas?

How should the topic be framed?  In retrospect, our frame was not well-enough defined.  Did we mean graduate school?  or ongoing professional development?  Did we mean training for curators, educators, directors, conservators or even the general public?  A tighter frame might have led to more creative brainstorming.

What else should be in the room?  Because our room was virtual, in fact,  there was everything in the room.  Wallwisher makes it possible to link videos, websites, etc and some participants did so.  Should we have seeded our virtual space with some of this?  Perhaps.

How to start? We should have started with a warm-up,  a silly prompt to begin the process and to open up.

We believed that there were no bad ideas, and when we could (thanks Rainey for taking the lead on this) we encouraged others to build on them,  thinking about each idea as a seed and throwing out prompts, questions or follow-ons.  Seelig describes the process as “build, build, build,  jump!”   In our weeklong experiment,  we didn’t create enough jumping.  Interestingly,  we’re participating in Seelig’s online Crash Course in Creativity and this week have been using Wallwisher with a small group of fellow museum professionals to generate ideas for the problem of it being too hot to sleep.  We’re tasked with coming up with 100 solutions, and the process–of defining, of working with a small group, and of building and jumping–seems to be working much better.  We’ve been able to put our initial learning back to work.

About the Ideas

It’s hard to really re-invent something!  We’ll have another post coming up about what we learned, from all of you, about the future of museum training.

Flawsomeness--embracing those failures–is an integral part of any creative process–including our book writing.   If you participated in the electronic brainstorming (on sleep or training),  we hope you’ll share your observations here so we can continue the learning.


2 thoughts on “How Did Our Electronic Brainstorming Work Out?

  1. First of all, thanks for introducing such a neat tool and now sharing what you learned from experimenting with it. As its already quite a while ago since your wallwisher site was in action, I surely don´t remember everything that came to my mind while working with it. But two observations got stuck in my head.
    As someone with a visual memory I found it rather confusing that the notes got moved around and restructured that often. At the beginning I thought that the wall will somehow grow in a collective process, expanding to every side and will not been moderated that much. Each time I came back it took me a while to read through all the notes and find my way around anew, which was rather time consuming.
    Sometimes I couldn´t find notes at all anymore since they have been deleted. Later I understood that you were asking for ideas only as you made it clear by expanding the intro by a corresponding statement. But I want to question this strict limitation, especially at the beginning of a such a process. Especially with more complex topics you don´t think about every other day or that are not as close to you (as it being too hot to sleep), statements or comments of any kind can serve as bridges to new ideas, stimulate either yourself on the next day, or – more likely – other participants to find the idea or solution related to it. I´m aware that this contradicts with what people generally say about creative processes, but on a couple of occasions I found especially these very valuable contributions too – along the way to the great ideas.
    I´m not surprised that you feel the other wallwisher experiment went so much smoother, as you were all eager to learn about that particular method, reserved some time to do so and worked on a clear problem with, I guess, a lot of simple, serious and funny solutions to it. With this perspective, and in addition to your conclusion, I would say that this test was indeed successful in a lot of ways.
    I´m really looking forward to what you are up to next!

    • Thanks for the thoughtful feedback, Katrin. Regarding all the posts getting moved around, it was our first time using wallwisher and we were trying to mimic the process in a face-to-face brainstorming session where all the post-it notes get organized along the way. We were hoping it would be easier to build on other people’s ideas if they were in categories. And then when we weren’t getting the response we had hoped for we tried changing around the categories some to see if it would help. But you’re right, if you’re not there to watch the posts get moved it can be disorienting. As we experiment more with wallwisher I hope we’ll get better at this part of the process.

      As Linda wrote above in the post, one of the most important lessons we learned was how essential it is for everyone to be on the same page about the problem under discussion, and having a problem of the right size–not too big and not too small. We realized in our debrief that we really needed to have some sort of pre-brainstorming exercise to figure out exactly what the problem is with professional training–instead we were all generating ideas based on our own individual versions of that problem–we tried to cram in too much at once. In the online course we’re taking now, we’re working on a multi-part assignment about sleep. The first step was to come up with a list of sleep problems–our group brainstormed roughly 20 and then settled on “It’s too hot to sleep!” Then the second step was to brainstorm 100 solutions to that problem. Separating out problem generation and idea generation this way gave us a lot more clarity. We’ll definitely be more thoughtful about this next time.

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