This approach can help you solve complex problems.
Imagine a new way of solving complex problems. No deep thought in front of the screen, no number crunching or data analysis.
Instead, people who wouldn’t ordinarily have the opportunity to convene come together to generate groundbreaking ideas and solutions. Experts in history, anthropology, and cellular biology. Screenplay writers and novelists. Physicians and astrophysicists.
This is a tactic called “Mixed Tables” I have used successfully to address vast, complex problems such as how to restore our nation’s respect for veterans after the Vietnam War and help US troops overseas detect roadside bombs. A similar approach led to the government’s counter terrorism approach post 9/11. Businesses can utilize it to navigate our unpredictable society.
In today’s specialized world, we are encouraged to have a laser focus on our individual area of expertise. But when every member of a team has homogenous experiences and expertise, there is a high risk of falling into groupthink and overlooking creative solutions. Mixed tables, convened over a series of dinners, can change this.
But it takes more than a good meal to spark the magic of mixed tables. Below are the steps used to hold successful mixed tables outlined in my new book, The Renaissance Campaign.
Identify your question, and hypothesize the outcome you want.
Yes, your outcome may shift, but it’s important to understand before heading in: What are you trying to figure out? What is your ideal outcome? What is your challenge, and what are the questions around it? These questions will help you determine whom to invite.
Hold a panel with these questions in mind.
Include three types of individuals: creative thinkers, subject-matter experts, and thought leaders. Ideally, the creative thinkers will be professionals because they are likely to be comfortable with creative work on a tight timeline. The subject-matter experts typically come out of your organization and have in-depth knowledge of the issues. The thought leaders should include diverse people from a variety of backgrounds who are insightful and have already accomplished amazing feats. They’re there to provide unexpected insight.
Hold your mixed table over dinner for three consecutive evenings.
The first night, guests meet one another and mingle. A mini-TED talk-style presentation introduces the problem at hand. Then, participants break into groups; each group answers a sub-question, then shares their outcomes. Everyone should agree to discretion, and everyone present must participate.
The second night provides a deeper dive. Revise questions from the previous night and have subgroups delve into specific challenges. Alternatively, use this night to deal with parallel applications. For instance, if the overarching subject is ending hunger in a specific country, the second night might tackle the outbreak of a deadly flu strain in the region. Distribute examples before the meeting. Close the evening with sharing and debating.
On the third night, the groups should reach an outcome and define a path forward that can be translated into action through a campaign. Everyone should provide feedback. What did they learn? What did they like or not like? Sometimes, after a mixed table, we create a private website so participants can stay in touch and continue the conversation, fostering an exchange of information.
Bringing together diverse thinkers to solve problems is not new. In 15th-century Italy, the famed Medici family consulted painters, architects, financial experts, poets, and playwrights to create a vision for the city of Florence that many historians credit for ushering in the Renaissance. Mixed tables can lead to mini-Renaissance epiphanies today.
In the mid-2000s, my team used mixed tables to work out the complex question of how to detect roadside bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq. Around the same time, I convened mixed tables on behalf of the Medical Research Command at the US Army to bring together scientists who wouldn’t otherwise meet to develop a moonshot plan to cure Parkinson’s disease. The results of that effort occur in labs today.
Sometimes there are immediate solutions. Other times, sparks fly and wind up in separate corners, but more often than not, leveraging the power of divergent thinking will create transformational solutions.