Easy As 1, 2, 3

All’s fair in love and creativity-prompting techniques. Consequently, I’d like to share with you a quick and easy brainstorming tool that I’ve stolen wholesale from a colleague in the Comms team. I’ve been on the receiving end of it, and found it to be a very efficient way of loosening up my thinking and gaining some different perspectives on recurring challenges. I’ve also used it in a workshop on a department away-day (which I’ll explain shortly) and had positive feedback from the team that this was a surprisingly effective means of playing around with new ideas. It probably has a name, but I don’t know what it is, so I call it the ‘1, 2, 3 Thingamee’.

123 Activity sheet

The tool is on one sheet of A4 paper (landscape format). Imagine the page divided vertically into thirds, creating three invisible columns. The first column has one horizontal line across the middle, the second column has four horizontal lines, evenly spaced, and the third column has four boxes, each box aligning with a horizontal line in the neighbouring column. These three columns, or steps, are numbered 1-3. You’d need a group of at least four people for the tool to be effective – the Comms team uses it with about 12 people, and I used it with a group of 25.

Step One: everyone in the group is given a ‘1, 2, 3 Thingamee’ sheet. They are asked to write one word on the first horizontal line that describes the topic or theme under discussion and then pass their sheet onto someone else in the group (passing to the left if sitting in a circle for example).

Step Two: Having received this one word, the next task is to list four words (in the second column) that come immediately to mind in relation to the prompt – any combination of adjectives, nouns and verbs is allowed. It is best not to overthink it and for the facilitator to only allow 30 seconds for this step to be completed. Pass the sheet on again to someone else, or further around the circle.

Step Three:  Having received these four key words, complete the boxes (in the third column) with four different solutions to the topic under discussion, taking inspiration from each of the words to trigger your ideas. For example, I participated in a Comms team brainstorming around reaching out to more families. As it was marketing, press and learning staff together in the room, we devised a combination of campaigns, promotions and programmes. We only had five minutes to complete this step, and were encouraged not to overthink it or self-censor, but to be quite playful with our solutions. Because the four trigger words were generated by someone else, falling outside of our usual ambit, we had to think differently. It was also fun to use one word as the jumping off point for generating ideas. Often, initial programming ideas are inspired by specific audience interests or exhibition content, so it was liberating to come up with ideas in response to words such as ‘sharing’ or ‘excitement’.

Step Four: Divide the group into smaller teams, ideally 3-5 people in each, and challenge each team to work up one solution, either by developing one of their ideas further and fleshing out the details, or by combining two partial ideas to come up with something completely new. This step is given more time, approximately 30 minutes although it could be longer. In a group of four people, you have potentially 16 rough ideas on the table and four opinions on the best way ahead – so there’s plenty to play with. Habitual thinking has also been lightly disrupted, so the group is warmed up and ready to experiment with new approaches. I really enjoyed working across departments, not least because it gave me an interesting insight into how my colleagues approach the same audience from a different perspective. We couldn’t rely on subject-specific jargon or shorthand, or make assumptions about shared viewpoints, and that also helped to nudge thinking into new territory.

Step Five: Each team feeds back their solution to the whole group. Not surprisingly, there is huge variety across the teams’ responses, which is testament to the 1, 2, 3 Thingamee’s ability to cast the ideas’ net further out than usual.

Step Six is up to you. The Comms team do this exercise weekly, which must keep a steady flow of new ideas coming into the department, but I doubt it’s intended that every one of those must be taken forward. One important benefit will be that a new idea is put into action – and this happens – but I think an equally important benefit is on the participants’ creativity. An hour of ideas-generation aerobics every week must keep thinking flexible and have application beyond just the exercise itself.

I used this process to deliver a 90-minute workshop on a recent department away-day. An opportunity has come up for Learning to work more actively with curatorial colleagues on a small temporary display, exploring the theme of architecture. What can come out of my head alone is limited, so the away-day workshop was a golden opportunity to reap lots of ideas and benefit from 25 creative brains in one space. It was also a great chance to work across teams, so programmers and administrators from adult, digital, families, community, schools, young people, etc were encouraged to mix it up.

The 1, 2, 3 Thingamee was the heart of the session, but I didn’t want to go straight into architecture without some stimuli to get our imaginations going. So I gave everyone a pre-session task (which was deliberately broad) – to print out an A3 image of an example of inspiring and unusual architecture. After a brief introduction on the purpose of the session, we went around the group and everyone shared their image and put it in the middle of the circle. There were examples from every continent (including the Antarctic), using every material you could imagine, and spanning a huge range of functions and scales. There were lots of ooohs and ahhs during our show’n’tell. It was a nice way to ensure everyone had the chance to speak, and it also offered a small glimpse into another side of each other that we possibly wouldn’t have known otherwise.

From there, we went through Steps 1-3 listed above. The Step 3 instruction was to dream up four displays, one per word, that are architectural in nature (so could be installations). For Step 4, I divided the room into six teams and sent them off to collectively develop one idea further. During the feedback session (Step 5) I frantically scribbled down notes, trying to capture each team’s solution. I now have six fantastic, imaginative ideas to kickstart the lengthy process of developing the final display. I don’t know where it will end up, but I’m glad that we’ve started big. There is also the added benefit that the whole department (well, everyone who was there) now knows about this project, and has some investment in its realisation. And finally, I got the impression that the team enjoyed being able to step back from daily demands and bring their creative selves to a playful, low-risk, problem-solving activity. The 1, 2, 3 Thingamee works because it draws out the best of the collective imaginative power of the group. And it’s not because we all think the same way – bumping together different ways of thinking is what leads to more creative ideas.

IMAGE: Jackson 5, http://www.mcrfb.com/?p=54099

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