Sit on your pen

Many years ago, I did a number of creative facilitation training sessions so that I could become one of the BBC's official creative facilitators. This basically meant I was called upon to run ideas sessions and brainstorms for any team who needed help across the BBC. I've always remembered one of the things my trainer and mentor, Paul said to us during one of the sessions, 'Sit on the pen'.

He was referring to the moment in an ideas session or workshop where as the facilitator you don't understand what you are hearing and need to stop writing until it makes sense. This has happened to me a lot when I've been facilitating over the years. The phrase sprung to mind again a couple of weeks ago, when I was facilitating a personas workshop with a client and I made a mental note to write about it.

Workshops are tiring, both as a facilitator and as an attendee and keeping everyone's energy up is one of the key tasks of the facilitator. One of the ways to keep things moving, is to go for a volume of ideas, captured quickly and not to appraise the quality until at the end or later. The problem with this approach, is that it can often result in hastily scribbled notes or half baked ideas filling up flipcharts that no-one can fathom later on. 

If you think about a classic 'brainstorm' or ideas sessions as I prefer to call them, ideally a group of 5 or 6 people, sit around with some kind of brief to have ideas around and perhaps some stimulus to help get away from the obvious run of the mill ideas that will often come out at first. So, when an idea 'happens', there is often an initial spark that comes from someone, that then generates other thoughts from other people, that are built into an idea.

It's important to recognise the difference between a 'thought' and an 'idea'. A thought is, 'apples are good for you'. An idea is, 'give an apple a day to school children for free'. You can 'do' an 'idea'. A thought is just that.

I have lots of thoughts, lots of sparks - often drawn from insights but I'm not always that great at building them into ideas on my own, just using the parameters of my own brain. I often spit them out at people I work with, jumbled together with other random thoughts in the hope that they can help me join the dots. Because they're a clever bunch, they often can help me join the dots and build an idea or throw it out as nothing important. This is also where I am hoping this blog will come in. I've downloaded the Squarespace notes app and Evernote app to enable me to scribble down the random flashes I get from time to time on my phone as well as the post it notes and notebook I already favour. Then when I get time, I might be able to join the dots myself by writing it out and finding a narrative in there somewhere.

Anyhow, what does all this have to do with sitting on pens? Well, as a facilitator, you need to learn the difference between thoughts and ideas, 'sit on your pen', and only start to write something down when you can see it in your mind, when it becomes tangible and 'do-able'. 

This is how I was taught to capture ideas, once you get the feel of how you would 'do' them. 

Apples for kids.jpg

Use A4 paper. Capture one idea per piece. Give it a title (in the middle) and enough detail, so that when you come back to it, you understand what it is and could get on with it. Sometimes, as people keep building on an idea they really like, you might hear  a new idea start to emerge. At this point, you need to 'sit on your pen' again and not keep adding details that you feel aren't relevant. I always tell attendees,

"I think that's a different idea, just jot that down for a second on your notepad and we'll come to it next."

This way, the person doesn't get frustrated that you aren't writing their thoughts down and know that you value what they have to say. On the example above, the 'school learning education packs' could actually be a new idea that warrants its own piece of paper.

Sitting on your pen can of course be applied to any situation where you are facilitating a session and capturing the conversation on behalf of a group - personas sessions, client workshops, team meetings and so on. If the job of writing and capturing is in order to communicate a summary of events, to the attendees and possibly others, it's particularly important that you are listening and appraising what you are hearing and not just blindly writing it all down to make sense of at a later date.

There are times when blindly scribbling everything down is really important (with some degree of comprehension of course). User interviews are not a good time to appraise what you are hearing apart from to be able to ask intelligent questions and probe more deeply on certain things. You shouldn't be too selective about what you note down or you will bias the outcome before you've had a chance to look across all the interviews. Sometimes, you might notice little things that pop out and become more prominent after several interviews. Interviewing is a time for listening and capturing without filtering and definitely not sitting on your pen. 

As designers and creative problem solvers, our instinct is to solve, analyse and jump to a solution. Next time you're in a situation where you need to listen, I challenge you to stop, open your ears and sit on your pen and only pick it up again when you have really listened and decided upon a course of action.