By Patrick Cisler

As I stepped up to the whiteboard to demonstrate my sub-par artistic skills, I knew the comical sneers and remarks regarding my drawing would be worth it if I could get my point across. First I draw a balloon. This represents the world of possibilities in which we can work with clients (in my case, a specific program within an organization I am working with). Next, I draw a birdcage around the balloon. This birdcage represents our current operational structure. Put the two together and the balloon represents how we currently work with clients and the birdcage represents the structure we have built around that work. Still with me? Some heads nod and others look at me quizzically. Then, I tell the program staff, “Now as we explore new possibilities for how to work with clients, I want you to blow up the birdcage.”

Very often staff meetings are held to explore new ideas in order to improve the business. However, I find that far too often good ideas get cut short because team members diffuse the idea through the lens of how things currently operate. “That will never work because that doesn’t fall under anybody’s responsibility.” “We don’t have the time to take something like that on.” Or, “That’s a marketing issue, and we work on service delivery.” In addition, staff often are afraid to share ideas that are “outside the box” because they haven’t been given permission. When we blow up the birdcage at the beginning of the meeting suddenly staff feel empowered to think differently. Now ideas can be shared without trying to picture that idea in the context of the current business. Whether in business, schools, churches, government, or non-profits, the power to think differently can lead to transformational changes.

In the early stages of truly innovative thinking we should look to really open our minds to a lot of ideas. However, you don’t end a meeting with all of these ideas still out there. At some point in an effective brainstorm it is important to establish good filters, begin to converge thoughts and dismiss ideas that don’t meet the filters. If we think outside the birdcage in the early stages we can begin to understand as a team what we really desire for our business. Once we determine what we really want to achieve, without considering all that ways it won’t work, we expand the balloon. With a new balloon in place, then we can begin to work backwards to design a new birdcage.

Doing simple illustrations like this help to convey your point in a way that is humorous, easy to understand, but also gives you and the staff a phrase to refer back to throughout the meeting. Try using the birdcage and other illustration tools at the beginning of meetings to provide staff a new way of framing discussions. Happy Brainstorming!