Unlisted: Discarded Facilitation Tools and Techniques

This is the “Unlist.” As a facilitator and Lean Six Sigma practitioner, I’m often asked about my favorite tools. But I am rarely asked about my least favorites or those I no longer use. That’s what this list is – three things I’ve tried and discarded from the tool belt. They are “unlisted.”

In no particular order:

Classic Brainstorming (sometimes referred to as “Popcorn Brainstorming”)

This is familiar to most of us. It’s people in teams randomly voicing ideas. It assumes that all ideas are good ideas, people will be inspired by other ideas, and it produces the most ideas. However, it’s simply not true. Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, summarizes the science: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”’ 1

Given all that, “popcorn” brainstorming is banished from my toolkit, replaced it with other creativity tools, such as structured brainstorming, where people record individually first and then present. Or the use of 7 Ways, where you must create seven solutions to a problem. There’s also the “anti-solution”, which engages all the negative thinkers in coming up with all the ways to make the issue worse.

Gathering expectations round robin

This is a favorite of many instructors and facilitators. It’s the practice of starting the session by asking each person to name his or her expectations. I loathe it.  I understand why others find the information valuable, but this method of attaining it is inefficient and invasive. It often puts people on the spot and forces them to have an opinion of a topic for which they know little. Not to mention the time it takes. Instead, I like to state the goals or objectives of the day and ask if anyone has expectations not addressed. Other facilitators or instructors will issue a survey before the session, so they come armed with responses to issues that can’t be addressed or to more thoroughly explain the goals. I like “leaner” methods to gather the information that don’t put people on the spot before they’ve had a chance to bond as a team.

No talking during Affinity Diagrams

Okay, this is technically not an entire tool – just one of its rules. Affinity Diagraming arranges a large number of ideas into “like” categories, or affinity groups (typically, each idea is on a single sticky note). One guideline is to disallow talking during this exercise. I use Affinity Diagrams regularly and have had limited success forcing silence. Charlan Nemeth at UC Berkeley tested the creativity of teams in various conditions, including classic brainstorming and debate. “Which teams did the best? The results weren’t even close: while the brainstorming groups slightly outperformed the groups given no instructions, people in the debate condition were far more creative.”2

What tools have you unlisted? Or are these some of your favorites?

1 Lehrer, Jonah (2012-03-19). Imagine: How Creativity Works (pp. 158-159). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

2 Lehrer, Jonah (2012-03-19). Imagine: How Creativity Works (pp. 160-161). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.


Gwen Voelpel

Gwen Voelpel has 20 years of experience in coaching and mentoring leaders at all levels of organizations. She has an undergraduate degree in communications, a graduate degree in public administration, and has served as an executive leader in several organizations. Gwen is an accredited Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team and Everything DiSC Workplace Facilitator and a Certified Master in Training for The Leadership Challenge.