Crowdsource Your Business Strategy: Tips from Portland Net Impact

The following post is part of TriplePundit’s coverage of the 2011 Net Impact Conference in Portland, Oregon. To read the rest of our coverage, click here.

By Jacen Greene

What do student bonds for clean energy, bicycle deliveries at Burning Man, and life-size sugar statues have in common? They’re all solutions to problems faced by Portland, Oregon organizations. The solutions arose from a brainstorming session at the 2011 Net Impact Conference. Most executives would probably shudder at the thought of formulating strategy with a group of complete strangers, but at the Portland Impact sessions, “radical transparency” was more than just a marketing buzzword. The nonprofits and mission-driven businesses taking part—Portland Pedal PowerUpstream Public HealthFocus the NationThe Bus Project and GoBox—each outlined a real strategic challenge for attendees to help solve through brainstorming, synthesis, and prototyping.

The Portland Impact sessions were organized by Graeme Byrd, President of Net Impact Portland and Business Development & Collaboration Manager at FMYI; Meg Busse, Strategy + Community Consultant at Context Partners; and Jen Schmidt, Senior Development Officer at Mercy Corps. Ted Howes, Director, Advisory Services at Business for Social Responsibility, provided a framework for brainstorming from his previous work at IDEO:

  1. Defer judgement, especially on your own ideas
  2. Encourage wild ideas, but stay focused on the topic at hand
  3. Build on the ideas of others, but stick to one conversation at a time
  4. Be visual: draw your ideas
  5. Go for quantity

Each session started with an intro from an organization representative and a short overview of the challenge they hoped to address. Participants were then asked to spend a few minutes of quiet brainstorming, writing ideas and drawing scribbles on Post-It notes. As soon as the writing slowed, participants were asked to share ideas, sticking them on a poster in the center of table as they described each, and to build on the ideas of others. Before long, a constellation of concepts appeared on each poster, grouped by category. The physical, verbal, and visual aspects of the session kept participants engaged whatever their style, and with careful observation, those facilitating could draw out and expand on ideas from even the quietest attendees.

How, then, to organize and rank a huge group of disparate ideas? Howes described a process for quick and useful synthesis:

  1. Distill the ideas promptly, before you forget the story behind each scribble or note
  2. Identify and filter the best ideas
  3. Cluster ideas into themes
  4. Make connections between ideas and build up concepts

Participants voted on their favorite concepts, narrowing the ideas down to a manageable batch, then brainstormed missing pieces and repeated the process again. In less than an hour, each organization had a menu of workable strategies, including financing clean energy projects at universities (through student bonds), viral marketing for a bicycle delivery firm (deliveries at Burning Man), and reducing soda consumption (life-size sugar statues—did you know the average American drinks their own weight in sugar each year?).

So how did organizations know which of the brainstormed strategies would succeed? Organizations worked with facilitators to develop simple, cheap methods of prototyping each concept. These final prototypes will hopefully yield a winning solution for each of the organizations present, and at virtually no cost—but with great word of mouth from energized participants.

Brainstorming, synthesis, and prototyping: a quick, fun, and easy recipe to engage with stakeholders, expand your strategy, and tap into skills your organization might lack. The next time you’re going to ask your advisory board for advice, think of going to your community first. You might be surprised by what you gain.


Jacen Greene is a social enterprise consultant in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Graeme Byrd.

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