Techniques to Generate
Lead a hands-on working session and build something new together.
A broad way to describe a hands-on, in-person session where participants learn something new together. As you plan a co-creation session, consider a mix of large-group and small-group instruction. We find that it’s helpful to have an emcee describe a process from the stage and keep time from the front of the room and also have table-based facilitators who can help guide a process and offer help along the way. If possible, offer time at the end of the session to report out on each group’s progress. This can feel time consuming, but it can feel rewarding for participants to have something to show and share as a result of their collaborative work.
Sketch out the details of a new idea.
A great solo or group activity, concept posters help people develop and flesh out the details of an emerging idea. Use concept posters as one step in an event with multiple activities, especially after you’ve invited participants to brainstorm approaches for addressing a shared challenge. The best concept posters invite participants to bring the details of a big idea into sharper focus: you might prompt people to consider things like timeline, audience, potential stakeholders, required resources, and potential outcomes.
Organize possible responses to a complex problem.
A powerful tool for generating many ideas in a very short period of time. Develop a chart that invites people to consider big-picture categories and come up with ideas that address a particular concern for a particular audience. Just make sure your categories are straightforward enough to spark your participants’ creativity, not stump them. One good idea is to label the columns by people (like program staff, executive staff, and community members) and label the rows with important elements of a program (like sustainability, accessibility, and relevance); then, invite people to come up with ideas that populate the cells where these people and elements intersect.
Draw the step-by-step process that brings an idea to fruition.
Think of this as an on-the-fly approach to user experience design. Once a participant or group has come up with a new idea, invite them to diagram the experiences of a person who might be served or impacted by its implementation. Consider major milestones and important experiences they might encounter, and consider how the program design for the new idea might most effectively facilitate that person’s experience.
Break the ice, shuffle the room as people sort into categories.
A valuable exercise when a large group of people is meeting for the first time. In advance, organizers should choose a variety of themes—such as sectors, hobbies, ice cream flavors, etc.—and identify four options within each theme—like nonprofit, corporate, government, philanthropy or chocolate, vanilla, blueberry, rocky road. Then, a facilitator should introduce the exercise by asking people to move to the corner of the room that best represents them and their interests. This happens in rounds, start with sectors, then do hobbies, then do ice cream flavors, and so on. During each round, participants pair up with someone new and briefly introduce themesless to each other.
Sketch your personal journey, then extend it into the future.
Part introspection, part storytelling engine, this activity invites people to draw their personal journey and envision what the future might hold. It may help to limit what you mean by “journey”; perhaps invite people to talk about their career trajectory or their experiences learning something new. Give people time to draw their journey first, marking personal milestones and tracing a pathway that’s as linear or serpentine as they like. Then, offer ample time for sharing: invite people to use their diagram to tell their own story to a partner or a small group, and make time for the conversations that result.
Develop detailed profiles representing people you hope to serve.
A classic tool for building empathy and thinking deeply about the needs, interests, and goals of critical stakeholders for a project or idea. Personas might represent specific people, or they might represent people working in particular kinds of organizations, like governments, cultural institutions, and nonprofits. The best persona profiles feature “gives and gets”: specifically, what might a person represented by this persona profile contribute to this new effort? How might they benefit in return? If you develop several persona profiles, consider integrating some key features of those organizations into each profile to help you compare the personas to one another.
Generate ideas in silence before sharing them with the group.
A riff on brainstorming, quietstorming invites participants to work solo before sharing out their ideas with a group. First, give participants a prompt to respond to or a big idea to reflect on. Give them a few moments to jot down ideas and organize their thoughts before you invite them to join in a small-group or large-group discussion. This is a great way to change the pace of an event: instead of letting the loudest, quickest voices in the room dominate the conversation, quietstorming rewards deliberate introspection.
Quickly generate, critique, and refine new ideas.
A feedback exercise in three steps where people propose, critique, then refine a novel approach to a stated challenge. It’s always appealing to invite people to confront an idea’s flaws: use this tool to develop robust solutions to complex problems. Round Robin works well with a group of three, but it can also work around a larger table or in an auditorium-style seating arrangement, especially if you facilitate a discussion about how ideas improved through critique. Just make sure people get their original sheets back after all the passing!
Illustrate connections between people, organizations, and communities.
A helpful way to visualize the individuals and organizations who might be critically interested or involved in a project or initiative – plus the relationships between them. Be systematic as you draw to make your map more meaningful: perhaps use one color or symbol for people and another for organizations, and use dotted or solid lines to illsutrate connections between stakeholders. Use this method to surface critical gaps on your map: Who’s missing? What connections need to be forged? How might you strengthen the connections you already see?
Fill-in-the-blank prompts that spark lively conversation.
A fruitful ice-breaker or starting point for a series of human-centered design activities. Use statement starters as an ice-breaker to invite participants to introduce themselves and offer their response to a prompt. Or, use statement starters as the first step of a multi-step process to generate and refine new ideas.
Sketch your pic and list your interests as a personal introduction.
One of our favorite icebreakers, this activity invites people to introduce themselves by sketching a “profile picture” and listing a few of their interests and affiliations. It’s a good way to keep introductions quick in a large group by helping people limit their remarks. Consider adding a funny question that goes beyond name, organization, and hometown; we’ve asked people to name their favorite Thanksgiving side dish and their favorite board game. Feel free to make these questions more serious too: in a gathering at the beginning or end of a multi-day event, consider asking what word people heard most at the event, or ask people to volunteer one word to describe how they feel.
Keep participants moving with dynamic station-based activities.
More of an experience design tactic than a specific technique, the World Café format invites people to rotate through a series of station-based activities. This format works best when you preface it with detailed instructions from the front of the room. After setting participants free to move among the stations, we often leave those instructions displayed on a slide at the front and also present the instructions on a printed sheet at each station. Several of the techniques described in this chapter work well as world cafe stations; they work best if you can have dedicated facilitators or a team of roving facilitators to monitor participants’ progress and help along the way.