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Volume 17, Issue 16;   April 19, 2017: Naming Ideas

Naming Ideas

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Participants in group discussions sometimes reference each other's contributions using the contributor's name. This risks offending the contributor or others who believe the idea is theirs. Naming ideas is less risky.
President Obama meets with leaders about job creation, December 3, 2009

President Obama attends a breakout session, "Creating Jobs Through the Rebuilding of America's Infrastructure," during the White House Forum on Jobs and Economic Growth, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, December 3, 2009. Official photo by Pete Souza.

When groups engage in joint problem solving, and members make contributions, other members sometimes identify the contribution with the contributor. We speak of (or think of) Chet's idea, or Jen's approach. Often we're unaware of doing it, and we intend no malice. It's a convenience. For many, it's actually a way of acknowledging the contributor, to confer credit. And it usually works well when used that way.

And then there are the other times.

As the discussion turns to the idea's disadvantages, identifying contribution with contributor presents risks. The contributor might experience criticism of the idea as personal criticism, even if the critique isn't offered in that spirit.

In some cases, though, the critique might have been intended to be personal. The criticizer might be using the problem solving exercise as cover for a personal attack. The situation can become ambiguous, complicated, and hostile, jeopardizing possibilities for a constructive outcome. That's one reason why identifying contribution with contributor is risky.

Misidentification is a second risk. We create most contribution-contributor identifications without discussion. Perhaps a facilitator does it, or the first person to use the phrase "Jen's idea," for example. The identification can stick whether or not it's welcome or correct. Others might feel offended if they have a sense of authorship of the contribution, but the idea is named for someone else. And rightly so, since most ideas that arise in group discussions have multiple authors.

Confusion is a third risk. If someone authors multiple contributions, should we number them? Jen's first idea, Jen's second idea, and so on? Usually, we give them names, but we still use the author's name too: Jen's Rotation idea, Jen's FIFO idea, or some such. It's almost as if we want to stay on the risky path.

Formal brainstorming processes deal with these risks by banning criticism altogether. Some brainstorming session designs also ban tagging ideas with their contributors' names. But in other group processes, how can we mitigate identification risk? Here are two suggestions.

Name the idea impersonally
As a contributor, We speak of (or think of)
Chet's idea, or Jen's approach.
Often we're unaware of doing it,
and we intend no malice.
as the first to reference a contribution, or as facilitator, when referring to a previously mentioned idea, use an impersonal name, and ask the group for approval. For example, "I have a thought about the Rotation idea, where we fill the role of scribe by everyone taking a turn from week to week. Is calling it Rotation OK?"
As scribe, record the idea with an impersonal name
When the Scribe, or the Facilitator acting as Scribe, records the contribution on a real or virtual flip chart, the Scribe can also create an impersonal name and check with the group for approval. For example, "Jen, have I captured that idea? And, everyone, is Rotation a good name for it?"

If you offer these suggestions at your next group discussion, best offer an impersonal name for them too. Maybe the Naming Ideas Idea. Um, maybe not. Go to top Top  Next issue: Why Dogs Make the Best Teammates  Next Issue

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