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Many traditional "open space" and "unconference" events, while participant-driven, still allow assertive participants to dominate agenda design by claiming spaces and time slots without any process for giving equal access to all those present.

Aspiration follows a methodology for dynamically generating agenda topics that is designed to give all participants equal input while also setting a collaborative, communal tone for the proceedings.

Our approach is intentional in two regards:

  • Making topic definition a collective exercise rather than an individual exercise
  • Allocating session topics iteratively, per time slot, rather than monolithically at the beginning of the event.

In order to generate the information needed to do the above, we follow an "agenda hacking" process early on the first day of each event.

In this process, participants first work in small groups to generate a thorough list of topics and questions they want to discuss, recording each item on a separate "Post-It" or "Stickie" note. Then participants collaboratively aggregate and sort items into topical clusters.

The following details the process.

Preparing to Hack an Agenda

The supplies and resources needed for running this process are:

  1. 3" x 5" un-ruled stickie notes, 1 pad per about 5 participants
  2. Fine point Sharpie markers.
  3. 1/4" color dots for voting
  4. A large, smooth wall surface to which stickie notes actually stick (test in advance!)

There are sample links to the actual products on the Materials Shopping List page.

The details on the supplies above actually matter. Smaller or ruled stickies are substantially harder to read during later phases of the process, and off-brand stickies tend to adhese much less well. And the Sharpie pens also dramatically increase legibility over ball-point or other less vidid writing implements.

In terms of the wall surface, make sure to attach "test" stickies 1-2 hours before you run the process in order to verify things will stay stuck.

Set up the target wall with "Column headers", blank stickies of a different color that will appear above those generated by participants.

Make sure that no participants get stickies of the same color as the column headers.

Generating the Universe of Topics

In order to have a successful brainstorm, the instructions to participants need to be clear and simple.

First, be clear on what is being brainstormed.

  • Start the instructions with "We are asking you to write down everything you want to discuss about X", where X can be:
    • The theme of the event, e.g. "Security for Human Rights Activists"
    • Organizational in scope, e.g. "Our programs and operations for 2013"
    • Brainstorming in a specific context "Ways in which the organizations here today can collaborate and share knowledge"

Keep it simple, short and clear, so that participants can replay it in their heads.

Second, be clear on what data to capture:

  • Each stickie note should contain ONE FULL SENTENCE, not just a term or short phrase. The sentence can either be a question or a statement.
    • Writing "Mobile" or "Security" on a stickie note has minimal value. Writing "Is Mobile the right technology to achieve our goals?" or "We will fail if we don't prioritize security practices in our communcations" is much more useful.
  • Separate ideas should go on separate stickie notes.
    • Focus on short, legible sentences, longer sentences make for hard reading and harder grouping.
  • More is more: This is not about capturing one or two "perfect" stickies, but rather a larger number, "everything that is on your mind"

Then, be clear on how they do that:

  • Get into small groups with 2-3 other people they don't know or don't know well
  • You will have 10-12 minutes
  • Each group should generate at least 15 stickie notes, at least 5 per person
  • Don't get side tracked actually discussing the related topics; note the topic and get back to brainstorming.
  • You can work together as a group, or in parallel as individuals. The benefit of being in a group is you can sound ideas of others and compare with what they are thinking.

Once the instructions have been given, ask for clarifying questions. and then start the process: "On your mark, get set, brainstorm with strangers!"

Don't give supplies to individuals until they have joing appropriately sized groups.

Facilitating the Brainstorm

As the brainstorming is happening, remind folks of quality control issues:

  • As participants work, walk around and exhort them, "more stickies", "keep brainstorming", "more is more!"
  • Keep an eye out for groups that have stopped brainstorming and started discussing a specific topic.
  • Also keep an eye out for proper stickie note curation:
    • Participants should write on the stickies in the proper orientation, with the adhesive on the top in the back, so the notes will stick correctly on the target surface.
    • Encourage particpants not to do anything to compromise the adhesive quality of the stickies, such as sticking them to clothes or other fabric surfaces. Books, papers, and laptops are great surfaces to accumulate stickies.
  • Give a 3-minute and a 1-minute warning as folks brainstorm in small groups.

Getting Notes on the Wall

As you ask groups to wrap up, have the groups closest to the target surface transfer their stickies to the wall first, and then walk around inviting other groups to post their notes.

Make sure to keep clearing the area in front of the target wall, so there will be plenty of room to move.

Tell participants to place their stickies anywhere under the column heads.

As they post, encourage them not to sort or cluster, just to place them on the target surface in horizontal, consistent fashion. Random tilting and roation of stickies discouraged :^)

As groups finishing posting, tell them not to go far away, just to take a couple of steps back from the wall.

Making Order of the Chaos

Once all notes are on the wall or boards, the fun really begins.

  • Explain that this will work like a friendly moshpit mosh pit, making sure everyone actually knows what a mosh pit is :^)
  • Ask all participants to commit to reading all of the stickies. Acknowledge that this is a substantial ask :^)
  • Explain that they are looking for related stickies, and as they find 2 or more, they should order them into a column and label the column.
  • As a column is labeled, the participant should yell out
  • As the notes get clustered, yell out progress, estimating how far along things are: "Looks like we are 25% done", "we are almost halfway!", "keep going, we are coming up on 75%!", etc.
  • To bring the clustering to a close, call "1 more minute", and gently invite folks to move a final note or two before stepping back so everyone can review the results.

Reflecting on the Map

Before wrapping up the agenda hacking, it is good to honor the work done by inviting feedback.

Ask participants to keep contributions to a single sentence to avoid grandstanding and monologuing, and encourage reflections like these:

  • What observations and "ah-ha's" occurred to folks as they traversed the notes?
  • What surprised you? What were you not expecting to see?
  • What's missing? What were you expecting to see more of?

Before moving to a break, explain how the data will be used:

  • Participants are welcome to propose sessions to add to the agenda based on what's on the wall
  • Facilitators of known sessions should review the topic map and see what is relevant to incorporate into
  • All participants should revisit the wall during the event for ideas on topics not yet covered

Capturing the mapping

Stickie's don't usually stay stuck for very long, so it's important to have a plan for capturing the generated text. The best practice is to follow two complementary processes:

  • Take high-resolution digital pictures of the notes, close-up enough so that the images could be used for transcribing or browsing comments if desired
  • Types the notes into a spreadsheet. If there are not privacy concerns, a nice way to do this is using a shared online spreadsheet so that multiple participants can be entering different columns of stickies in parallel.
    • Our model is to put the "label" stickies in column 1 of the spreadsheet, and what has been clustered under that label in column 2.

Troubleshooting the surface

Murphy's Law dictates that even if you follow the above process perfectly, something has to go wrong. That something is often a wall that doesn't love having things stuck to it.

There are several effective work-arounds to an uncooperative wall:

  • You can tape large sheets of "butcher paper" to the wall using strong tape, and then attach the stickie notes to those sheets. This has the additional benefit of making the entire mind-map portable during or after the event; you can just take the large sheets down and roll them up. When using this approach, make sure to tape all four corners of the larger sheets, as the clustering process exerts a good amount of pressure on the underlying surface
  • If there are large windows available which could be safely employed, those can work quite well, as long as there is not too much light coming in, so as to make it hard to read the stickies.
  • Sometimes Murphy's law is working overtime and there is simply no vertical surface where paper will adhere. In these cases, it can work to sort stickies on a large table surface. Putting 2 or 3 folding tables end-to-end can work well.

OK, that's about all. We welcome feedback and hacks on this hacking process.