Improvisational rules for idea generation

To do the improvisational game for brainstorming (warning: it's not good for deep design thinking), you need a few things: a small group of people (2-8), a comfortable room, a nice chunk of dedicated time, at least one problem definition relevant to the project, and someone at a whiteboard to write down short descriptions of each idea people suggest. If people need the whiteboard to explain ideas, that's OK. But since the goal is volume, detail shouldn't be the focus.

To start, someone acts as facilitator and stays by the whiteboard. There should be a problem statement that defines what the group is generating ideas for. This can come from the problem statements or requirements, or it can be something you come up with on your own. Once the problem is agreed upon, people start offering ideas, which the facilitator writes down.

The game begins when someone suggests an idea and a discussion ensues. There are four rules to follow for that discussion:

1. Yes, and When someone else offers a thought, the only allowed response is "Yes, and <insert something here>." Your first attempt must be to continue his line of thinking. Generally, you take his idea or point and move it forward or redirect it, such as "We could use a search box here...", "Yes, and it would be smart enough to bring the user to the right place when they type something in." Or, "Yes, and it could make use of the new search engine we're building and return faster results." The intention is to keep things moving positively and to develop a habit of listening to others in order to help them with their ideas, instead of just waiting to say your own.

2. No half-assing. It's not acceptable to offer an idea of your own, followed by "Sorry, I know it's lame" or "I'm not good at being creative." Half-assing means not being committed to what you're saying. What you say doesn't have to be brilliant for you to stand behind it. It's OK for your idea to be bad: it just might trigger someone else to say something better. If you trust the person next to you to say "Yes, and...", she might be able to do something interesting with your "lousy" idea that neither she nor you would have thought of otherwise.

3. No blocking questions. Questions put ideas, and the people asking them, on the defensive. If you say, "Why the hell would you do that?", you're framing a new context around what the other person said that is not improvisationalit's judgmental. It assumes that there is no good reason for it until proven otherwise, which isn't the right atmosphere for open and free thinking (although it is the right atmosphere later on in deeper design discussions). Instead, test your own intellect: how can you direct their initial idea into something useful? Make whatever assumptions or leaps of faith you need in order to make sense of someone else's statement. Roll with it and keep going. Short, clarifying questions might be OK on occasion, but don't make them the focus. It's better to move on to the next idea than narrow in on individual ones. If raw idea generation is the goal, the volume of ideas per hour is more important than the quality of each idea. Saying nothing can often be better for the overall goal of idea generation than making a point of how stupid one idea is.

4. Make the other guy look good. No one should keep score or keep track of who said what. Rewards should go to people who help amplify, express, or draw out the best ideas from others in the group. Because the odds are that whatever gets designed will be built by everyone in the room, there's no sense giving out gold stars or categorizing ideas based on their originator. If the design process starts as a healthy communal process, where the best ideas rise regardless of their origins, the rest of the project will likely have the same spirit.

The result of this kind of exercise should be a list of rough and sketchy ideas that someone will sort through later. When he does, he'll pick out the ones interesting enough to pursue or to discuss in more detail. Because these follow-up discussions are less about raw idea generation, the improv rules don't matter as muchalthough the spirit of them should carry on.

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