The Information cycle: Brainstorm – Structure – Overview
What do you do to manage the vast flows of information in your company and capitalize on the creative juices of your staff? Are there sufficient mechanisms and forums available for harvesting ideas and turning them into actions, that can be tracked and evaluated over time?
Well I’ve invented the fail safe system to do just that! No not quite, but here are some ideas that I use in practice to help do just that and I work alone! So the challenges in multi-man teams are even greater.
The idea is to map some basic flows between states of information, from the raw idea through to a structured management database and action lists. We’re not talking projects here but everyday stuff, although ideas or issues managed may give rise to projects needing the focus of specific resources.
- Techniques may rely on software or not.
- At each stage, information may be qualified by its level of summary, whether an individual item or an overview.
- Each level may be more or less structured and more or less related to other items; artifices exist for linking items between them, tags in Evernote, id link between issues, summary mindmaps or process overviews.
An overview of each of the parts
EA process maps: allow for the grandes lignes to be mapped in a graphical way to show sequences of events. I use them for the strategic level although they may be detailed. They are akin to fishbone diagrams showing time sequence from left to right.
Strategy documents: Typically in a flat Word document and free-flowing text, the strategy document is useful to bring together large numbers of items into a coherent (or otherwise) strategy. The advantage of such a document is its appeal to management and readability, but lacks the detail and structure of operational plans.
Issue list: A structured database using 5 main fields to identify individual items by name and number with date last modified, the main concept is of an observation, having a cause, a solution and a conclusion. The advantage being that problems or questions may be stated initially without knowing their solution. It transpires that sometimes actions are stated which represent solutions but without having stated the problem. The distinction between cause and observation is made, since the observed is not necessarily the underlying and finally the conclusion is not just the solution but why perhaps a decision to close or defer an action was taken.
Todo lists: the issue list may be used as a todo list but there is a difference. A todo list should remain operational, today-ish or next week-ish, short term whereas as other documents set down what needs to be done without necessarily fixing the timescale. Again project plans may well replace a todo list.
For the individual, Outlook is good for this, offering the “follow-up” / completed funtions which may be applied both to tasks and to mails.
Evernote: out of the realms of operational structure, Evernote is great for free form thinking. It can be likened to a mindmap using text. It has very useful tags which can link notes and easily enable navigation of a groups of notes. However, its free form nature while stimulating creativity needs the hard boundaries of the issue list to become an action: observation, cause, solution, conclusion and its hard to create this in open text.
One useful add-on though, is Nimbulist for iphone which, in conjunction with the tick box, creates lists of tasks. More on that later.
And finally mindmaps, free form by excellence and creativily stimulating, in fact so successful that they need to be balanced by structure, since the wealth of ideas must be translated into real-world action and tangibles to take on their full value. There is much mindmapping software reviewed here, or the traditional paper mindmap which is making a come-back.
Overall, the interactions between the different levels is cyclic such that ideas starting out in a mindmap may easily find themselves mutated through the system only to come back into a summary map at a later stage.
The different tools and techniques available enable and cause ideas to evolve over time as they are subjected either to thinking constraints (e.g. what solution for this observation?) or freedom of thought (how does everything fit together, where are we going?).
While the approach may be quite difficult to grasp, or time-consuming in administrative or write-up time, it will prove its worth in generating ideas and then a structuring framework for quality follow-up and implementation.
The interaction between the different levels enables both free form creativity and innovation but then attempts to drive the creative into real-world action, without which the creative is wasted.
Certainly, individual tools may vary at each level but the overall cycle remains brainstorm – structure – overview and back. Similar to the Plan – Act – Do – Monitor cycle the brainstorm – structure cycle fits in with this best at the Issue List level, drawing heavily on the idea of planning and monitoring. The innovation is to bring the brainstorming and free thought part into the mainstream planning cycle.
Control of the whole process can be eclectic and varied in itself. To avoid, this, try to repatriate issue numbers into strategy documents or onto Evernotes to show that the process has gone full loop. The danger can be to have duplicates, but judicious management of the issue list to eliminate and merge them should be part of the process.
Don’t forget however the “Do” part of the cycle, since the creative idea generation and structuring process also requires action. An idea, issue, task or object is nothing itself if not acted upon to create change.
Comments and suggestions, real-world experience of similar processes welcomed!