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"My Innovation Participants Are Too Afraid To Sketch": How to still Make Your Brainstorm Fruitful

Sketching is commonly a key component of innovation brainstorms because it allows us to both conceptualize and communicate our ideas.

However, sketching is pretty worthless when your participants are too afraid to do it.

The problem is most people are anxious about sketching. They are so self-conscious about their ability to sketch that they'd rather not sketch at all.

You'll notice that during innovation brainstorms, participants stay glued to their seats, pretending like the whiteboard at the front of the room doesn't exist. There's no way in hell they'd walk up to it and uncap that dry erase marker.

Even in a virtual brainstorm, participants prefer to stay quiet in the background of the meeting rather than giving the MIRO marker tool a go.

Sketching anxiety makes brainstorms uncomfortable, dreaded, and difficult... and ultimately, much less fruitful than they could be.

Regardless of participants' feelings towards sketching, each of them has extremely unique and valuable ideas that we want to harvest. (That's the reason for brainstorming after all.) So it's in our best interest to help participants overcome and/or side-step their sketching anxiety.

The good news is we've trialed and had success with a handful of different strategies to do just that.

How to empower fearful sketchers:

1. Create a judgment-free zone

Let everyone know that brainstorming is messy and loose.

Explain to them, "We're not here to critique or judge, we're here to come up with as many ideas as possible while learning as much as we can."

Create a judgment-free zone not only by posting the "No judgment allowed" rule but also by upholding it. Post this rule, explain it to everyone at the start of your brainstorm, and don't be shy about reminding everyone if you noticed judgment creeping back in throughout the session.

2. Place focus on ideas, not sketches

In innovation brainstorms, it's the insights and ideas/solutions we care about... not the sketches. Putting our focus on the sketches themselves pulls attention away from what actually matters.

Sketches are just the vehicle for your participant's insights and ideas.

So quit referencing and critiquing "sketches" during your brainstorm. Instead, shift your focus and attention onto the ideas. Guide your participants to do the same.

Work by Offsite student: Emealia Hollis

3. Lower everyone to the same fidelity

It's the hot sketcher in the room that raises the bar too high, pushing the fearful participants to recede even further into the background of the conversation.

To counteract this, find a way to make everyone equally skilled. We've found that a clever way to do this is to lower everyone to the same fidelity (the lowest person's ability).

You could do this by giving everyone Play-doh or Legos to illustrate their ideas with. A method we use quite often and had great success with is mouse sketching. Instruct all of your participants to communicate their ideas using only their mouse to draw on a digital sticky note.

Suddenly the hot sketcher can't hot sketch.

This method allows participants to stop worrying about how their sketch looks since they all look bad.

Since we can no longer be distracted by the sketch itself, we're forced to focus on the idea.

The best part is, this super low fidelity, idea-focused method allows everyone to move much quicker, harvesting more and better ideas for you.

Work by Offsite students: Ben Hannigan, Camille MacRae, Marco Tarantelli, Megan Tran, Mike Naunheim, & Nicholas Gallagher

4. Use Words instead

Sketches aren't the only way to illustrate ideas. Words can often capture and communicate ideas quicker and with less trepidation than sketches.

This is because most of us are more comfortable with writing words than we are with sketching pictures.

You can use words to brainstorm in a variety of ways. First, write your opportunity statement large in a place where all participants can see it clearly. Then you can either give everyone a stack of stickies and ask that they write one idea on each. Or you can have your participants simply state their ideas out loud and you write a list of words or short phrases to capture and communicate them for everyone to see.

5. Appoint a visual facilitator

If words just won't do it, and you really need sketches in order to conceptualize and communicate the group's ideas, try assigning one person from your team to illustrate the participants' ideas.

This will take the pressure off of your participants and they'll be more motivated to explain their ideas.

Since the visual facilitator will be illustrating your participant's ideas in real-time, the participant will be there to clarify and revise what is being illustrated in order to ensure their idea has been captured accurately.

Whether or not you personally feel the effects of it, sketching anxiety is very real and very common. If you don't plan for it, your brainstorm will suffer.

In your next innovation brainstorm, give these 5 strategies a try to effectively brainstorm with sketch-fearing participants.

You'll help them sidestep their fears and allow them to share their ideas without discomfort, giving you a more fruitful brainstorm.

We're curious, what else have you tried to counteract sketching anxiety in your innovation brainstorms?


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