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4 Warm-Ups to Prime Your Team for Decision-Making

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Aug 07 2020

When I say “creative meeting,” what comes to mind? What’s the energy like? What are you and your colleagues doing? My bet is that you’re imagining a brainstorming session. Generating ideas. If you’re lucky, it’s joyful, full of potential, and exhilarating. What I’m guessing you’re not thinking of? Those moments where you have to make decisions. Prioritize, say no, and shut some doors. At IDEO, we call this part of the process convergence: the refining and focusing of options to move forward with a strategic set of choices.

But we recognize that convergence, too, is an opportunity for creativity. These moments can contain sensemaking—the finding of patterns or shifting of perspectives that brings your team to a new, shared understanding of what you have and what lies ahead. In making choices, you are collectively committing to a common vision of what the future could be. It can feel optimistic, unifying, and clarifying. And we know it can be extra challenging to converge when you’re not all in the same room.

I started writing this piece a few months ago, before COVID-19 forced a lot of folks to shift from working in offices to working at their kitchen tables. I’m of the mind that every meeting deserves a warm-up, and I believe it’s even more true today. If your team is working remotely, they’ll be (virtually) walking in from a greater diversity of physical and mental places (for example, perhaps they’ve only taken 72 steps today and their brains and bodies have turned to video-call-induced oatmeal), so creating the conditions for focused, convergent work is even more important.

Here are 4 warm-ups to help your team creatively and remotely converge:

1. Rank this

Instructions: Before your meeting, using a live collaboration tool, set up a spectrum (a simple horizontal line will do) in the virtual space. On the left, write “least”; on the right, write “most.” Pre-create 3-4 Post-its or colored squares per person. Place them off to the side.

To begin, have everyone type a noun in each of their stickies. Then have one person propose an adjective and add it to the top of the spectrum. (If your adjective is crunchy, your spectrum would be least crunchy on the left to most crunchy on the right.)

As a group, as fast as you can, collectively sort all the noun stickies along the spectrum of that adjective. (For example, sort all nouns according to where they fall on the scale of least to most hairy, grumpy, or miraculous). Attempting to do it all at once should feel like joyful chaos.

Pick out a new adjective and re-sort, reminding folks that anyone can move any Post-it, not just their own. Go through a few rounds until laughs abound.

Why it works: Prioritizing is a critical and challenging part of convergence. And it is made even harder when the options you are deciding between feel like they exist on diametrically different axes. This warm-up will help you get comfortable in the ambiguity that is comparing apples and oranges (or perhaps even apples and orange shoes).

2. Goodbye, hello

Instructions: Ask everyone to come prepared to the meeting with a pen and something to write on.

Before you dive into the content of your meeting, have everyone reflect on something they let go of last year and capture a quick sketch of it. Then, separately, have them draw something that was able to fill that newly open space. Have everyone go around and share their drawings by holding them up to the camera.

Why it works: Saying no can feel like the hardest part of convergence, especially when people feel ownership over or connection to the ideas on the table. This reflection exercise will help folks remember there’s power and opportunity in choosing what not to do—because it allows us to focus more energy on the things we do choose to do.

3. Object convergence

Instructions: Ask everyone to come prepared to the meeting with a pen and something to write on.

Have everyone sketch a noun—things like a stapler, a mother-in-law, a glass of water—then go around and share. Pair people up and give them 30 seconds to brainstorm and find a new noun that connects what each individual drew (for example, stapler + glass of water = anchor). Have them do this using the chat function on your video call platform. Multiple conversations will be happening in the chat. But don’t worry, that adds a laughable challenge. Once each pair finds their linking noun, have one person sketch it, then go around and share.

Pairs pairs into quads and have them repeat the process, finding what connects those new things (anchor + lemon = scurvy). Repeat until the collective group has arrived at a single object that has united them entirely. (Hint: like in a game of telephone, this will likely look nothing like any idea anyone started with.)

Why this works: The way forward may not look like choosing person A’s idea or person B’s. It may require finding a third way that draws from the best of both. This warm-up will help you avoid the Frankenstein compromise, where, rather than making decisions, the team mashes all of the ideas together, and dilutes them all to uselessness in the process. In this exercise, teams practice the skill of looking beyond individual ideas to a higher connecting goal or purpose, and collectively aligning on this new vision.

Convergence can feel heavy. This will bring a bit of levity to the process, allowing your team to find the optimism and energy to build on one another’s ideas moving forward.

4. Shake it out

Instructions: Have everyone stand up and close their eyes. Then give these directions, while doing it with them: Reaching out all around you with your hands, shake them vigorously to manifest into the space the multitude of what if’s, what could be’s, and fears of the future. Now, use a pushing motion, clear a bubble of safe, fresh air around you. All together, let’s take a deep breath in and ground ourselves in this space.

Having everyone close their eyes creates an important sense of safety. No one can look like an idiot if they can’t be looked at. Worried that people have stopped wearing pants to video calls, and won’t want to stand up in front of their camera? Have everyone turn off video first, then give the instructions.

Why this works: Our physical state is intricately connected to our mental state. So often at work we ignore our physical bodies, thinking them a distraction, nuisance, or simply irrelevant. In the world of working remotely many of us spend our working hours glued to a screen, ceasing to exist in the three-dimensional plane. Getting your body in the right place (and remembering it exists at all) will help get your mind right too.

It is not infrequent that a team gets to a point of convergence and all feels like a swirling mess of hypotheticals. This warm-up will help create the mental clarity and space to step back and find the broader picture.

Go forth and prototype

Decision-making can be hard and stressful. You’ll probably have to kill some darlings. But you don’t want your team to walk away feeling unheard because the phrase most commonly used in your meeting was “we can’t.”

If instead you can galvanize them—catalyze their creative, collaborative brains in finding and forging the path forward—you will leave with teammates bought into a future they want to build together.

Take these warm-ups and hack them, make them your own, and iterate on them. How can you prime your collaborators to optimistically say “no” to make way for “yes,” find a third way forward, and see past the chaos to clarity?

  • Olivia Vagelos

    Senior Community Specialist, IDEO San Francisco
    Olivia is a community and instructional designer at IDEO U. She spends her days focused on bringing IDEO's ways of problem solving, human-centered design, and creative leadership to life.
  • May Kodama

    Communication Designer, IDEO San Francisco
    May is a communication designer at IDEO. In her free time, you can find her doodling, listening to true crime podcasts, or plotting her next food adventure.
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