Life. Then Strategy

Fast brainstorm techniques: the 60-minute PATCH method

Problem solving in 3600 seconds: is it possible?

They say you should spend 99% of your time in the problem and 1% of your time solving it but, sometimes, time’s against you. So what do you do? Throw 3600 seconds and a handful of good brains at it, I say.

This is gun-to-your-head, do-or-die stuff. But once you crack an idea or two using this sort of process it’s incredibly hard to go back. It’s a very simple model that I’ve played with in various forms for a while now. Have a go – you will surprise yourself.

5 key principles of creative problem solving

1. Your problem-solving comrades need a common language

Language will get in the way of a fast brainstorm. I’ve seen it many times. The three big stumbling blocks are the words ‘problem’, ‘insight’ and ‘idea’.

I see a problem like a Rubix Cube, a game of chess, a crossword. It’s a challenge – not a depressive issue. Insight – an unspoken human truth (more here: How to do account planning) . Idea – a novel concept (more here: How to explain an idea). You and your problem-solvers can define these words any way you like – just define them or you will feel let down and I couldn’t handle that.

2. As you get workshop-fit, problem solving will become easier (not always ‘easy’)

You will need to develop your own workshop culture. Every company is different. I’ve run brainstorms where creatives who’ve never worked in big groups were forced to work together (didn’t work – personal style of working, fear of judgement and questions about who gets the award) as well as groups of people who had never been asked to contribute creative thinking because ‘that’s not your job’. It takes time to cultivate this culture and to become workshop-fit. If you have a crack at a structure like the one below with the same people 5 times in a month, then you may get workshop-fit.

3. State, don’t speak

I always start a brainstorm like this saying that I want ideas, not talk. Thing is, people always over-talk. They do it for various reasons: nerves, to look like they’re smart, to impress, to explore, to relate and build rapport.

I’d rather the thinking happens on the inside (in a fast session) and someone shouts “blue balloons” at me rather than: “I went to the shops on the weekend and there was this red car with wings… and I looked at it and remembered I needed to get milk… I’m not sure if this helps. Does it help?” Encourage the stating of concise thinking, not the waffle that we ALL have that gets us there.

4. Save the judgement for later

Everyone needs to know they’re in a safe environment: they will not be judged. Dumb ideas can lead to great ideas. Great ideas lead to greater ideas. Everything is stimulus.

5. Quantity before quality

So, since everything is stimulus, run this session for quantity of thinking. Quality can come later. Start your session saying how many ideas you want out of it. Give people an adrenaline kick: “We’re going to crack 30 ideas in 60 minutes.”

The PATCH structure to creative problem solving

Now, this session relies on a few of the people in the room knowing their stuff. You could send around a paragraph beforehand outlining some of the issues but try not to lead people with your own thinking. Keep the session a bit naive. You can always follow up with another session a few days later that builds on all the information that passes hands.

Use system cards, paper or butcher’s paper as you go. Use what works for you. Consider using pens thicker than a biro so people can see each other’s work on the table later.

I use a mixture of solo and small-group work for various reasons. Solo work: people need space to get their thoughts together and some can be led by others if paired too much and too early. Small-group work: stimulus, building (but NOT chatting).

State the rules up front, your expectations, shake them out of their routine… then start.

1. Problem: time required = 5 minutes

Aim: define the key issue you need to focus the group’s attention on

1 minute – solo: list three big issues you think we need to solve or that are connected to the problem we’ve been briefed with

2 minutes – pairs: state the issues you wrote down to each other and pick the one biggest issue to deal with

2 minutes – all: state the one biggest issue each pair discussed

The facilitator will need to look for overlaps in issues and help articulate the issue/s in interesting ways. Get out of the language of ‘we need to sell more’ – this is not concrete. You need stuff like ‘the sales staff are bored’, ‘our ratings on Amazon are pathetic’.

1-2 minutes – facilitator and all: pick the one big thing you need to focus on. I like to state it as a challenge question: “How do we get 100 IT students to see that trialling our new software before the end of the semester is key to becoming a serious professional?” (Something better than that)

2. Audience: time required = 5 minutes

Aim: list the key audience/s to focus our thinking on

We’re going for a quick dump of personas (see How to do account planning) and then making a selection. If you had more than an hour, you’d hopefully have some data about which personas/audiences to focus on because they represent a good business opportunity.

2 minutes – solo: Think of any research or personal experience you’ve had in this area and write down 5 persona labels each. Push for quirky and odd – but real. If you’re working with a group of 5-8 you’ll end up with 30-40, see some very obvious overlaps and then get serious. If your group understands the audience, get them to list the goal the persona has in dealing with you.

3 minutes – group: Facilitator writes all the personas up on a whiteboard, butchers paper or sorts through the system cards and makes the group focus on the most important (3 or less). You need people who get the business to do this intuitively. You can test your hypotheses later.

3. Themes: time required = 5 minutes

Aim: list relevant stimulus

Key insights (human behaviour), tactical opportunities (eg seasonality, ambassadors), assets you have to work with (eg databases, Facebook pages, websites, event), hunches.

5 minutes- group: Facilitator writes them all down (butcher’s paper, cards). You can choose to go around the group one by one so people know their turn is coming and to have something for you. You may need to lead the group with information you already know. Filtering is not needed; it’s pure stimulus.

4. Criteria: time required = 2 minutes

Aim: list the criteria by which the filterers will judge the ideas

2 minutes – group: list no more than 7 criteria that you will use to judge the ideas, Some examples: Cost under $X, do-able within a week, penguin-friendly… whatever works for you.

Do it together so people will understand your decision when they’re not in the room, and feel that things are transparent so that next time you ask them in they won’t feel they’re wasting their time.

5. Hatch: time required = 30 minutes

So, we’ve worked for 17 minutes so far. Let’s assume you spent a few minutes getting settled, that a few people came late and disrupted you (establish a clear meeting culture so that people know you will start at the time you said you would) and you gave people a breather between exercises… if we can get through the next part of the problem solving session in under 30 minutes, then you’re all done in an hour. Make sure you have everything written down from the previous steps in clear sight (especially the problem, they key audiences and the themes).

Aim: Come up with 30 ideas (novel concepts – not thoughts like “We can set up a Facebook page” – see How to explain an idea). Try 50 if you’re with a good group and want to scare them.

5 minutes – solo: Come up with 5 ways to solve the problem at hand. Write them on cards/paper. Ask them to write the idea name (eg Earth Hour) and not to get lost in a description.

5 minutes – pairs: Come up with 3 ideas that build on the solo ideas. Idea name only.

5 minutes – solo: Come up with 5 more ideas using random words – give each person a random word to use as stimulus. You may have pre-prepared these: they can be completely unrelated or slightly connected to the issue or audience. If someone loses momentum, give them a different word. Your job is to keep them flowing.

10-15 minutes – all: If you’ve had momentum through the previous 15 minutes, you should have tens of ideas to work with. Use this time to get the group to build and consolidate their thinking. Look for themes that overlap.

Your role as facilitator of a problem solving session

1. Organise it

Make sure the environment is stimulating, make sure there is air, consider mornings rather than afternoons, Fridays aren’t great. Think about who truly has something to offer – don’t invite meeting-surfers: you come and participate or you stay home.

I prefer to get people working solo and in pairs in this sort of session – when people form groups of 3, one will relax, one will dominate and the other will alternate between the two. They also spend time convincing the person with the pen to write their ideas down until you’ve established a great workshop culture.

2. State the rules up front

No judgement, pace is required, give the group a number of ideas to create. Tell them you are going to bully them and keep them on topic (smile when you do this). Tell them to save their anecdotes for beers later. Keep them focused like a personal trainer would.

3. Direct directly

Give one or two instructions at a time – no more. Use names. Tell them where to sit, who to work with, how long they have. Keep the pressure on: if you give them a minute, call out 30 seconds and 15 seconds.

4. Pace, observe, tweak

Pay attention to personalities and heirarchy. Move people around if they don’t work well together. Help people finish/label their ideas and move them into the next one. You may need to adjust the amount of individual and group work depending on the group. Keep an eye on the time and call out remaining time (eg “30 seconds left”, “10 seconds left – get 2 more ideas out”). Keep energy levels up and air flowing.

5. Filter later

Don’t do this with everyone in the room. You can, however, do it immediately afterwards with key decision-makers or – even a day or two later. Group the ideas and see if they ladder up to a more interesting and unique concept. If not, simply apply your criteria to them and select which ones to work on or present to a client.

If you work in an agency, you need to decide how many to present. Some agencies are known for only presenting one idea because ‘it’s the right idea’. Others go the Goldilocks gambit and show three, with the last idea that they present the one they want to make (‘the third bowl of porridge was just right’). If you have a good working relationship, show anything that’s interesting and engage your client with all of the thinking. They’ll appreciate you more and may have something to offer, heaven forbid.

Once you’ve selected the ideas you want to work on or present, you’ll need to work out how to present them: How to explain an idea.

Have a go and let me know…

Give this structure a shot. Let me know if it needs clarifying. If there’s interest I can work out how to create tools, templates and videos of how to do it. Vote with a comment.

Photo by Julian Lim.

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