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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on Seattle 2.0, and imported to GeekWire as part of our acquisition of Seattle 2.0 and its archival content. For more background, see this post.

By Matt Paulin

In many of the Idea Sprints, we have found that the ideas can bounce around widely.  We might have discussions about the iPad, going in tangent with space travel, or scratch-and-sniff stickers.  Sometimes it is helpful if the discussion stays withing a particular idea space or problem space.  How do you keep the ideas tied to a common thread?

The following is a discussion of two strategies for focusing the group on a topic.


The idea of themes has come up several times.  The hope is that a theme would be announced before the event, then the participants could say “that sounds fun!” and decide to visit.  Maybe they would even do some research on the theme ahead of time.

The reality is, you just risk loosing people by selecting a theme that no one is interested in.  Also, no one does homework.  

We have tried to avoid this by deciding on the theme at the event.  This was our process.

  1. At the idea sprint, we went around the group and asked everyone to suggest 1-2 themes.  
  2. These were all written on a whiteboard
  3. Then everyone had 2 votes and made a mark next to the themes they liked best.
  4. The theme on the board with the most marks won.

This worked well to find the interest of the group but then we came up with a new problem.  What is a theme anyway?  Is it just a word for focusing people?  Maybe it is a topic people wanted to stick to.  But, the theme itself might be too restrictive or expect the participants to know enough about a subject matter to stick to that theme. I personally think the best themes are just a word or two long.  Maybe they are even just nouns.  Things like “Neuroscience”, or “flying machines”.   

Now that we have a theme there is yet another problem, experts.  You might not have anyone in the group that knows anything about neuroscience.  Or maybe half the people do and the other half really know nothing.  So when it comes to forming a group for two hours it seems best to keep the theme somewhat whimsical and more of a suggestion than a solid rule to stick to.  So this should be more fun than informative.

To recap, when it comes to themes, we need to

  • Not alienate people by picking something no one wants
  • Keep the description of the theme short
  • Have fun with it

So how about this…
Perhaps this mental exercise will solve the problems from above.

  1. The group decided on a 1-3 word theme using the voting process above
  2. Everyone writes a couple nouns on scraps of paper that are related and throws it in a hat.  
  3. Then we pass the hat around.  
  4. Everyone takes a scrap of paper, and generates an idea using those nouns.  The idea doesn’t have to be good.  In fact it might be worth saying, “come up with your worst idea using those words”

This solves the problem of making the theme too restrictive, and keeps everyone creative.  Maybe we will try this next time and see how it goes.


The plan here is that you focus the ideas and discussion on a starting idea.  We used this many times in the first iteration of the Seattle Think Tank . The way it works is you find a couple volunteers with ideas on their mind.  Then armed with an oven timer this is the format.

  1. The presenter get 3 minutes to explain their idea
  2. The group gets 10 minutes to discuss
  3. Everyone fills out a questionnaire and gives it back to the presenter.

The oven timer is key here.  It is a great way to mechanically keep everyone moving forward.  
You can see the strength of the idea by how the time is used.  If the subject swings widely away from the original idea then the team intuitively doesn’t value the idea.  This also happens if the discussion just stops.  The group will then usually lock onto an idea which stronger.  The interesting point here is that if the discussion spins away from the original idea, it usually doesn’t go far and the discussion stays in the same idea space.  

One thing that I would change is,  I think we could drop the questionnaire.  Originally we wanted to give the presenter anonymous feedback.  But, most of the time the information wasn’t as helpful as the discussion itself.


These two strategies are intended to help a groups focus on a subject.  In one we focus on words, in the other we focus on the solution.  I’m sure there are plenty of other ways to do this.  One that comes to mind is Future Problem Solving .  It is a bit more hard core for coming up with solutions but, it does employ a process that delivers results.  

I’m sure there are many more strategies than these.  Do you have a way to keep people engaged on a particular topic or problem when they are brainstorming?   Please write to me and tell me your tricks and tactics.

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