In 2014, on behalf of the tireless efforts given by thousands of people that made GO what it is today, I was humbled by receiving a Cordes Fellowship. Every year, the Cordes Foundation provides scholarships for 50 of the world’s most promising social entrepreneurs to attend Opportunity Collaboration (OC), a global gathering of leaders dedicated to building sustainable solutions to poverty. Nominated for this award by two amazing social entrepreneurs, Saul Garlick (Founder of ThinkImpact and Unleesh) and Paula Vlamings (former Executive Director of Planeterra), this fellowship allowed me to present our work to like-minded leaders that were doing everything and anything to craft a better and more just world. The backgrounds of these individuals are profoundly humbling, and the convening of these minds over a sensational week was one of the best and most inspiring experiences in my life.
And yet imagine the vast doubt that unfolds in your mind when placed among the top philanthropic leaders of the world and you realize that every day, you are expected to contribute about how your experiences and opinions matter. At Opportunity Collaboration, the 400 odd attendees are broken down into random groups of 15-20 people that meet daily for about three hours. Dubbed the Colloquium in OC-speak, it’s akin to a home-room class allowing attendees to form deeper relationships with other attendees while debating issues pertaining to social welfare. Some have worked in the field of social entrepreneurship for decades, some for months. All are expected to contribute.
While debating politics, philanthropy, and social wellbeing, a well-reflected opinion of mine came when we talked about zombies. As in, the living dead and not the epically melodic mid-60s rock band.On day four, our group discussions began with a exercise as debating got particularly heated at our last session. Our home-room got split into two teams and each sat at two circular tables. Each table had one blank sheet of paper and a few pencils. Our home-room facilitator told us that our hotel was being invaded by the walking dead. We had 1 hour before they arrived. There were four buses that could take 100 people to the airport for evacuation. We had five minutes to form a plan on who would get evacuated. 3,2,…..1 and go.
I took the pencil and drew a rough sketch of the below. This exercise is ideal for Flare:Focus, a brainstorming process pioneered at the Stanford dschool that takes abstract thoughts into an action plan via design thinking:
In essence, Flare:Focus empowers a group to flare ideas in a focused manner. The process the engages the group in a full brainstorm mode and centers around the act of taking another person’s idea and then building upon it. Most importantly, at key intervals called focus points, it quickly draws the group back to reality so ideas are both novel in design yet plausible in execution.
Here’s how it worked for us. After getting buy-in – in about 30 seconds – that this process would help our team “win” this exercise, we started to flare ideas. First, the most important thing is that when you flare, there is no such thing as a bad idea. If you are acting as the process-leader and hear someone interject a “But how….” or “That won’t work because…”, stop it immediately. Be polite yet be firm as if you do not, it will deflate the entire group’s blue-sky thinking capabilities.
Flaring is all about “Yes, And”, wherein one person takes an idea and builds upon it by starting with “Yes, and then we can….”. Derived from the fast and loose creativity of improv comedy, the process empowers groups to come up with a surge of ideas in very little time.
We decided to flare for 60 seconds and here is what we came up with:
There were probably about 15+ details I scribbled down while others barked out ideas. Whenever someone contested a suggestion (the zombie cannot swim thing almost became a debate), I nipped the discussion in the bud. We are flaring ideas and one little debate about any given thing can trip up the entire process. Seamus Harte, a facilitator at the Stanford d.school who taught me this process, often has people literally wear different hats at workshops he facilitates.
“At a workshop I did with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I had their leadership put on baseball caps when flaring. This served as a visual reminder that we could only flare. When the focus part came, we took off the hats to apply some critical thinking,” said Harte.
And so now came the first focus point. At a focus point, the group decides upon a rule to implement that will narrow down the ideas to a more focused goal. With zombies 55 minutes away, we made two rules:
Once these rules were implemented, we broke up our team into two smaller teams (2 minutes remaining) to flare some more on our focused areas of responsibility. I continued being the process-leader for the defense team (writing down ideas, keeping track of time, ensuring everyone’s voice got heard, etc) while someone else took the role for the evacuation team.
We flared again, this time focusing on defense and more precise details became known:
These ideas took about 60 seconds to flow out of all our heads. We then started assembling the ideas by ripping up the paper into little pieces so we could visually sequence them by priority on our table. A project plan formed.
The OC-facilitator called time with a repeated and harsh barking of “Pencils down, pencils down!”, a phrase that momentarily whisked me back to seventh grade. The other group presented first and – to be polite here – their plan was a bit mired in fantasy and pockmarked with logical holes. Certain members of their team expressed that the zombie exercise was a waste of time. Arms folded, they said “We are here to talk about sustainable development, not zombie apocalypse.”
Our team presented next, the evacuation team went first and the defense team (presented by their respective process-leaders) went second. The facilitator nodded his approval, our plan clearly had been better thought through and would be adopted so we could prevent said hypothetical human apocalypse.
Yes, the zombie exercise is silly. Some people intentionally sat out and many who read this blog will agree with their inaction. We should ‘get on with it’, return back to figuring out sustainable development, and skip the silliness. This is a lofty notion that is simply not based in reality.
Why? At every single Fortune 500 company, startup, or nonprofit company I have worked at, there are ALWAYS meetings about silly things and many people that take part often just tune out. It happens all the time. Yet meetings are vital community gatherings to express all sorts of ideas, from the creative to the mundane to the inspirational. Not every meeting will strike at the heart of the why behind an organization; sometimes we have to gather to discuss health care plans, how to allocate old food in the company fridge, how to market an event, and,even how to escape the brainless idiots that infiltrate our organizations. There will always be those that take part in these meetings who sit out, wishing we could ‘just move on’ from this topic so we could all get back to meat of their work.
Unlike most meetings that are paced with the excitement of someone looking for their keys, Flare:Focus stands out by keeping everyone engaged. The “Yes, And..” spirit is infectious. New ideas are formed creatively, links between existing ideas connect quicker. The focus and addition of rules at set intervals keeps the meeting tight and goal-oriented. And the final result is something wherein everyone feels they have contributed and thereby more excited about the result.
Focus:Flare can be effectively applied to writing a newsletter, planning a gala, creating a video, or any other creative project. Especially when things seem silly or trite, Flare:Focus is a powerful process to get things done quicker and more creatively,
While hopefully not the only impact I had while representing GO at OC, I hope that the introduction of Focus:Flare will keep some administrative meetings lighter to bear, as sometimes the what and how we do things is just as important as the why.