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Getting Our Own Goose Bumps and Generating Creative Possibilities

I’ve often wondered what an IF facilitator might do in a Sanctuary Project to encourage a discussion panel to generate some truly creative policy possibilities.  There are times when a discussion panel might struggle with moving off the line. They might sketch out policy ideas that seem pedestrian or all-too obvious. These might be ideas that come readily to mind for them. In IF projects we, as facilitators, don’t tell the panelists what to think. We can’t generate content for them. But is there some way to challenge them to come up with policy ideas that might really make others say, “Wow, I never would have thought of that!” Can we help them take their thinking to another level? In IF projects we often emphasize the importance of retaining policy ideas if any participant thinks they are relevant, and we often end up with long lists of possibilities. But what if we challenged a panel to augment their policy ideas by being bold enough to cut out some ideas and replace them with even more dynamic ones?

I’m not sure whether or how this might be possible. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a Bob Edward’s interview of legendary music producer Quincy Jones (from Edward’s XM show on 11-20-2008; the quotations below are my rough transcription). In the interview Jones talks about his creative collaboration in producing Michael Jackson’s mega-hit Thriller album, the best selling album of all time. Jones says that at the time that he had no idea of how good the album or any of the songs might be:

“Who knew what was coming with Thriller? You can’t guess that, you just have to do the best you can. Try to get your own goose bumps.”

Jones tells how they worked down from 800 possible songs to 12. Eventually it was set that there would be 9 songs on the album. But how would these decisions be made? Could the selection process be generative and not just subtractive? For Jones, it was clear that it would not be a matter market research. That would lead them astray:

“I think when you start chasing demographics and focus groups and all that kind of stuff, you get in a lot of trouble.”

Instead, once they got down to 9 songs, Jones played what he calls a little trick, asking:

“Out of these 9, which do you think are the weakest—the 4 weakest? Irregardless. And after you make that decision, you go back in to try to make 4 more that were stronger than anything else on the album. That’s always worked for me really well, because you turn the album upside-down, when you take out the 4 weakest and try to make them the 4 strongest. And, um, that’s always been a good luck charm for me. And we tried it and it worked.”

As a result Thriller ended up adding 4 songs that went on to become top singles in their own right, “P.Y.T.,” “Human Nature,” “Lady in My Life,” and “Beat It,” and, of course the album went on to become the top-seller of all time.

Could something like this little trick work during the facilitation of IF Sanctuary Projects? Could it be a good luck charm for panelists, helping them to be bold in the ways they make choices to exclude some possibilities and augment others? Could it be a spur to the discovery of new and more powerful policy ideas that might make their work even better? A lot will depend on the situation. And as Jones says, we won’t know in advance. We’ll just have to do the best we can and try to get our own goose bumps.

–Jeff Prudhomme