#257 from R&D Innovator Volume 6, Number 1          January 1997

The Spirit of Koinonia
by Michael Michalko

Mr. Michalko, from Churchville, New York, is a creativity expert who provides creative-thinking workshops for organizations and associations.  He is author of Thinkertoys (a handbook of business creativity for the 90’s) and ThinkPak (a brainstorming card deck).  Phone 716-293-2957; email michalko@frontiernet.net.

The physicist David Bohm, while researching the lives of Einstein, Heisenberg, Pauli and Bohr, made a remarkable observation.  Bohm noticed that their incredible breakthroughs took place through open and honest conversation.  He observed, for instance, that Einstein and his colleagues spent years freely meeting and conversing with each other.  During these interactions, they exchanged and dialogued about ideas which later became the foundations for modern physics.  They exchanged ideas without trying to change each other’s attitude and without bitter argument.  They felt free to propose whatever was on their mind, and paid attention to each other’s views, thereby establishing an extraordinary professional fellowship.  This freedom to discuss without risk led to the breakthroughs that physicists today take for granted.

Many other physicists of the time, in contrast, wasted their careers bickering over petty nuances of opinion and promoting their own ideas at the expense of others.  They mistrusted their colleagues, covered up weaknesses and were reluctant to openly share their work.  Many refused to discuss their thoughts about the problems because of fear of being labeled controversial by their colleagues.  Others were afraid of being called ignorant.  The majority of scientists of the time lived in an atmosphere of fear and politics.  They produced nothing of significance.

Einstein and his friends illustrate the staggering potential of collaborative thinking.  The notion that open and honest collaboration allows thinking to grow as a collective phenomenon can be traced to Socrates and other thinkers in ancient Greece.  Socrates and his friends so revered the concept of group dialogue that they bound themselves by principles of discussion that also maintained a sense of collegiality.  These principles were known as “Koinonia,” which means “spirit of fellowship.”  The principles were:

*  Establish Dialog.  In Greek, dialogue means a “talking through.”  The Greeks believed that the key to establish dialogue is to exchange ideas without trying to change the other person’s mind.  This isn’t the same as discussion, which from its Latin root, means to “dash to pieces.”  The basic rules of dialogue for the Greeks were:  “Don’t argue,” “Don’t interrupt,” and “Listen carefully.”

*  Clarify Your Thinking.  You must suspend all untested assumptions. Being aware of your assumptions and suspending them allows thought to flow freely.  Free thought is blocked if we are unaware of our assumptions, or unaware that our thoughts and opinions are based on assumptions.  For instance, if you believe that certain people are not creative, you’re not likely to give their ideas fair consideration.  Try to maintain an unbiased view.

*  Be Honest.  Say what you think, even if your thoughts are controversial.

These principles are easy to understand.  What’s difficult is the willingness of a group to apply the principles when brainstorming.  The traditional brainstorming method is to have a small group discuss a problem.  Ideas are offered by participants, one at a time.  One member records ideas and suggestions on a flip chart or chalk board.  All withhold judgment.  After the brainstorming session, the various ideas and suggestions are evaluated, and the group agrees on a final resolution.

There are many problems with traditional brainstorming.  Sessions can be undercut by group uniformity pressures, or perceived threats from managers and bosses.  Other sessions fail because people find it difficult to avoid judging ideas as they are offered.  The assumptions people hold drive their biases about ideas.  Personality differences also come into play:  some people are naturally willing to talk, while others tend to be silent.

The following are some suggested conditions to help overcome these attitudes.  They enhance Koinonia in your brainstorming sessions.

Participants.  Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, made it a standard practice to assemble people from very different domains of interest for his group sessions.  He felt this practice helped him bring out new ideas that could not arise in the minds of individuals who were from the same domain.  The ideal brainstorming group should include experts and non-experts, project participants and others not directly involved in the project.

Collegial.  All participants must regard one another as equal colleagues, even if you have nothing in common.  This allows thinking to be participative.  Just the willingness to consciously think of each other as colleagues causes people to interact as colleagues.  We talk differently and more honestly with friends than we do with people who aren’t our friends.  Any controlling authority, no matter how carefully presented, tends to inhibit free play of thought.  If someone is used to having his or her view prevail, then she must suspend that privilege.  If someone is used to withholding ideas because of junior status, then he must surrender the security of “keeping quiet.”

Suspend all Assumptions.  In order to give fair value to ideas, everyone should get rid of their biases.  By the sheer power of his imagination, Einstein suspended many key assumptions held by other physicists of his time.  When someone says, “This is the way it is!” creative thought becomes stifled.  The group’s agreement and discipline of suspending assumptions is key to unblocking the creative imagination.

Suspend Judgment.  After hearing an idea, many of us are tempted to say, “Yes, but....”  To change this mindset, whenever someone offers that block, require that person to say, “Yes, and....” and continue where the last person left off.  This simple change from negative to positive will help change the attitude of the group.  All criticism and judgment must be deferred until after the idea-generation stage.

Environment.  Hold your meetings in a risk-free zone, where people can speak their minds without fear of criticism or ridicule.  Encourage people to say what they’re thinking, even if their thoughts are radical or controversial.  Once people realize they can speak freely without being judged or ridiculed, they get comfortable and open.  When they’re concerned with “who said what,” or “not saying something stupid,” creativity is retarded.

Playfulness.  An environment of playfulness and humor is highly conducive to creativity.  This reduces tension, elevates expectations, and encourages normally inhibited people to speak freely.

Facilitator.  In the absence of a skilled facilitator, habits of thought will pull the group toward critical, judgmental thinking, and away from productive, creative thinking.  The facilitator should have strong interpersonal skills and be able to paraphrase and find analogies in suggestions.  As a group develops skill in brainstorming, the facilitator’s role becomes less crucial.

Stating the Problem.  The facilitator should post a common problem statement.  It’s a good idea at this stage for the facilitator to ask each participant to come up with his or her own personal way of seeing the problem and the “ideal” solution.  Engaging people to look at the problem in a personal way is important since it makes the problem their own, and can resist being drawn to consensus.  This will take advantage of the group’s diversity.  Also, through wishful thinking, perspectives are broadened.

Idea Production.  Quantity breeds quality.  Imagine a pearl diver on a South Sea island.  He pushes the canoe from shore, paddles into the lagoon, dives deep into the water, picks an oyster from the bottom, surfaces, climbs into his boat, paddles to shore, and opens the shell.  Finding nothing inside, he pushes the canoe off again and begins paddling into the lagoon.

What an incredible waste of time.  The reasonable thing is to dive again and again, filling up the canoe with oysters, and then return to shore.  Pearls are rare; many oysters must be opened to find one pearl.  It’s the same with producing ideas.  Many times a group will produce few ideas and proceed as if they are the answer.  But creative ideas, like pearls, occur infrequently.  So the sensible thing is to produce many ideas before we evaluate.  Just as a good idea may stop a group from going on to discover a great one, a great idea may stop it from discovering the right one.

To help increase idea production, when you send an agenda for a meeting, ask everyone to bring three new ideas, as their ticket to admittance.  Present an idea quota.  For example, an idea quota of 200 forces the group to put their internal critic on hold, and get all ideas down, including the obvious and weak ones.  The first third will be the same-old ideas, the second third will be more interesting, and the last third will show more imagination and complexity.

Elaboration.  If the group has trouble meeting its idea quota, extend the thinking by elaborating on the existing ideas.  Ask what can be substituted, combined, adapted, magnified, modified, put to some other use, eliminated, rearranged or reversed?

Clarify Thinking.  A technique helpful for problem solvers involves clarifying the reasoning through the Thinker-Questioner-Reflector (TQR) technique.  Anyone can call for a TQR session at any time during the meeting.  The person with the idea is the Thinker.  Someone else is the Questioner, and all others become Reflectors.  For a specified period (e.g. five minutes), the Thinker thinks out loud, prompted by questions from the Questioner.  Then the Reflectors offer reflections, ideas or extensions from the interchange.  This gives the idea a full hearing.

Recording.  Usually the facilitator lists ideas in a shared display to create a group memory.  These displays can be more beneficial when they are more structured than just listing all ideas.  Try using generative graphics such as wall-mounted scrolls.  Record ideas with cartoons, diagrams, or printed phrases using colored markers.  The main thing is to stimulate full and energetic participation.

Try recording by posting ideas in clusters using Post-it notes.  This makes ideas moveable.  When ideas are grouped by themes or characteristics, a structure begins to form.  More ideas are then generated as participants see the structure and fill in the gaps.  A sense of priority or dominance is often revealed as one or more clusters claim the group’s interest.

Evaluation.  At the end of the brainstorming session, make three lists:  ideas of immediate utility, areas for further exploration, and new approaches to the problem.  The facilitator can do this alone, or can have the group vote on how the ideas should be allocated.

A brainstorming session that reflects Koinonia allows the group to grow a new kind of collective mind in which people are no longer in opposition.  They become participants in a pool of common ideas, capable of constant development and change.

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