Tablecloths for Idea Generation

I recently organised a workshop with Sara Jones of City University, London. Sara wanted to use the Digital Shoreditch Festival as an opportunity to generate new and useful ideas on ‘How to foster a culture of collaboration between universities and industry’.

The festival brings together diverse participants from start-ups, SMEs, large companies and academia for a series of talks and panel discussions. The diversity of the participants provided a great opportunity to get input from a wide range of interesting people.

However, running an idea generation workshop between conference presentations and panel discussions presented us with some challenges.

How could we:

  • bring together diverse people who’d never met before 
  • focus them on the challenge
  • enable them to generate useful ideas, quickly
  • distil useful conclusions from the activity
  • … and make it enjoyable for the participants

We decided to use Dialogue Sheets. These are large A0 sheets of paper (119 x 84 cm) that contain a series of creativity prompts and questions designed specifically for the challenge that is being worked on. The Dialogue Sheets also contain blank spaces where participants write their ideas, thoughts and responses.

The Dialogue Sheets are laid on top of tables, people gather round and one person reads the creativity prompt or question in front of them. The group discuss it and they capture the discussion on the dialogue sheet. The group take turns reading the creativity prompts near them and then capturing the essence of the discussion.

As the discussion gets going the ideas start flowing, coffee gets spilled, formality is forgotten, friends are made and everyone joins in writing and drawing their ideas and suggestions.

There’s no need for the group to agree. In fact, disagreement and diversity of ideas are encouraged. It creates a good discussion and generates more ideas. Providing each viewpoint is captured, no one feels that they’ve been left out or that their input has been ignored.

The Dialogue Sheets, or ‘Tablecloths’ as we affectionately called them, worked well.

They provided a focal point for people to gather around. The creativity prompts and questions provided a great way of focusing people on the challenge and giving them different directions to explore as they generated ideas.

Best of all, the ideas were captured and we could work through the tablecloths after the event and identify the most interesting, most intriguing and most promising ideas to take further.

City University are applying the ideas that were generated to help them collaborate with start ups and SMEs. These ideas have been shared with Knowledge London and the workshop is described on the Guardian Education Blog.

So forget what your mother told you, it’s OK to write on the tablecloth!


Photograph courtesy of Amanda Brown.


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