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Unlocking Creativity Through Collaborative Conversations

How to have effective generative discussions

In my opinion, generative discussions are the Seal Team 6 of tackling audacious problems. It helps you harness the cognitive firepower of several individuals towards a successful outcome.

A generative discussion is the ability to be able to generate a self-sustaining conversation among a group of people that produces ideas that are greater than the sum of its parts.

Imagine you have this situation - your team is building a B2C SaaS application, and you are unable to understand what is causing such high customer churn despite your team shipping some incredible features. Or maybe you recognize the need for your team to have a robust data engineering practice, but what should that mean in reality? Or what if you are trying to raise the technical bar of your team and you need to find innovative ways to be able to do so. These are just some examples of open ended problems that you could gather a group together to tackle using generative discussions.

So how does generative thinking work in practice? Wharton Magazine has a succinct way of describing the 3 scenarios of how this plays out 

  1. Generate a large quantity of ideas to solve a single problem without judgment of the ideas until all the ideas have been posted.

  2. Generate a variety of ideas outside of logical, already established approaches.

  3. Generate focused and detailed improvement of one idea or solution.

The number one dynamic we see in organizational settings that is negatively impacting innovation is vast over-emphasis on convergent thinking. What are some other ways to say convergent thinking? Among them would be judgment thinking, critical thinking, devils advocate, and decision-making. Whichever term you choose to use, judgment thinking is narrowing. The assumption is that options exist and now you are narrowing them by applying convergent thinking. It’s not that difficult to see that having a team or an organization that just narrows its thinking is not on a path to change, growth, adaptation, innovation or creation of any kind. What if no options to judge exist? What would the convergent thinkers, the “deciders” do? Where do the options come from? If we do not expend the energy to value and include the divergent thinkers or generative thinkers, the folks geared to creating options, there will be nothing to judge, nothing to criticize. This awareness is a rather fundamental principle of innovation enabling.

Steve Forth at Ibakka describing generative thinking

Overall structure of having generative discussions

This is typically the process we end up walking through.

  • We gather a small group of folks given an advanced read ahead of the problem we are trying to unravel. 

  • At the session itself, typically in-person, we huddle around a whiteboard with just the problem statement at the prompt. 

  • This typically will have someone have either a clarifying question in terms of the problem itself, or will opine on an aspect of the problem. 

  • Now this is the key part — when someone provides an opinion, it is crucial to pay attention to what they are saying. Depending on what they say there are 3 options

    • 1) You provide your own opinion independent of their opinion

    • 2) You provide a counter opinion to their opinion 

    • 3) You use their opinion, to formulate a derivation of your own opinion

  • In the initial parts of generative thinking, the group is likely going to add a few opinions independently of each other, maybe either points 1 or 2, to just get a sense of where the group is at mentally. 

  • However, the real power of generative discussions comes when you are able to start pulling the threads together to start using point 3, as a way to build upon the thoughts and discussions of others. 

  • Sometimes there might be cases, where the conversations run dry because the problem is incredibly obtuse to tackle. This is when using techniques like Eigenquestions — to help reframe the question — come in handy and help reignite the conversation. 

Key tenets

  • Set aside sufficient time — Given there is no predetermined set of options that you have to solve your problem, you need to be ready to set aside enough time to be able to have these kind of open ended discussions. Depending on the class of problems you are talking about, you might require at least a few hours, if not discussions over several days, to be able to reach a useful outcome. 

  • Do it in-person — I am a huge proponent of virtual work. However, one of the big failings of virtual is the inability to have generative discussions. We have tried it several times, but have never had success. I believe the reason for that is the fact that the way people talk in real-time online is a lot more discrete as opposed to continuous. For example you have to let one person finish talking, to only then start your own rebuttal/opinion. However, if 2 people accidentally talk over each other, the whiplash from that encounter is far greater in a virtual setting than a real setting. This results in people receding into their own shell rather than speaking out freely. This is especially true, if the people on the call are not all peers. If there is a hierarchy involved, that might result in junior people feeling an inhibition to interrupt other folks in their discussion. In practice, we have found this barrier to be almost non-existent when we have the discussions in person. 

  • Get a whiteboard — Having tools like whiteboards really help — oftentimes the discussions might start at point A, and if you aren’t paying close attention you might reach point Z. Being able to visualize, or cluster themes or topics of discussion, so that it helps keep the group on track is a powerful tool.

  • Check your ego at the door — The whole point of generative discussions is to be able to be able to discussion openly and freely, any potential solutions to a particular problem. This might result in your set of ideas being completely debunked by someone else in the group. While being respectful forms the foundation of generative discussions, any perceived slights or not being the person whose solution is being generated on, should absolutely not be a factor in your contribution into the process. At the end of the day, everyone is trying to get to a positive outcome, and being able to shed your ego for the sake of the collective good can be hugely liberating. 

  • Active participation from all members — For generative discussions to have a successful outcome, you have to have people who are able to generate thoughts or ideas. These ideas don’t even need to be good ideas. They just need to be inputs into the process. For effective participation, members should either contribute to the discussion's direction, update their opinions maturely, or offer compelling reasons to challenge the group consensus. If you only have 1 or 2 people having most of the discussions with a silent majority, it doesn’t yield a valuable generative discussion. It is much more preferable to have a small group that is actively contributing than a large group, most of whom are passively watching.

  • Effective facilitation — If you have a healthy set of generative discussions, there will be all kinds of directions for the conversation to go into. It is very typical for this format to follow a scatter-gather approach, where the group first goes very wide with the ideas that they put on the table. You need someone in the group, typically assigned ahead of time, who

    • 1) Keeps the conversation focused but does not nip any ideas in the bud 

    • 2) Gathers the various threads to start forming themes or clusters so that the group can start narrowing down what they want to walk away from the discussion with. 

    • 3) Synthesizes information from various people to produce a derivative that people can use as a launchpad for further conversations.

I personally am a huge fan of generative discussions. It feels like a superpower to leverage the brainpower of your colleagues to solve some of the most challenging or strategic problems that your team encounters. 

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