Starting with a clean sheet


Through the “Together Tools” meetup and other learning networks such as “Action Learning for Facilitators”, I love to explore techniques and tools for working with groups.  While some require a degree of preparation or even specialist training, sometimes the simplest options produce powerful results.

I’ve observed over quite some time that a blank sheet of paper coupled with a simpler question or ask, and a few minutes’ individual attention is invariably one of the most effective.  In my experience, depending on the question posed, the empty page can either feel daunting or ripe with possibility.  In either case, once the first words begin to flow, or images are drawn, the pages seem to fill rapidly.

In Action Learning, this method has helped to generate presentation topics or actions and in a “feed forward” exercise.  I also participated in a session on systems change where the opening exercise was “take a sheet of flip chart and draw a system you’re part of that you’d like to change.”  While I initially baulked at the idea I reluctantly mapped out “funding and finance for social change”, a topic that at the time I didn’t feel I had any particular attachment to.  I’ve reflected back on many occasions since, that subjects and ideas related to that particular system feature highly in my thinking.

In the examples above, the scribing was done as an individual exercise and only shared subsequently but in an alternative approach, at a recent … event, after an initial voicing of current thoughts and frustrations, we split into groups.  In only half an hour, the other group had mapped out a full proposal for an event “Our Way Ahead” to take place only 2 weeks later.  While I was disappointed not to be able to attend, I’ve heard that the event was a great success with a huge number of ideas generated- David Wilcox has given a full overview in his Connecting Londoners blog.

A similarly powerful “blank page” moment happened this week in what I hope will be the first of many “Living Change” events that I will attend.  The focus for the evening was “Civil Society is all of us” during which we were all offered a clean sheet and a phrase to complete “I am civil society.  I am…”

After a few minutes putting pen to  paper we were all invited to form a circle and say our phrases out loud.  I was astounded and even quite moved at the depth of content.  What might expect would be a jumble of half formed phrases had an almost poetic quality and clearly reflected some deeply authentic thoughts.

I’ve been reflecting on what might be so effective about a blank page in getting groups to generate ideas, frame personal perspectives to share, or work collaboratively to capture a small group’s collective creative input:

  • Does the act of committing thoughts to paper allow them to be articulated in a more solid fashion?
  • Does the simplicity of the ask and the openness of the page tap our creative potential in a way that just speaking out loud doesn’t?
  • Does the challenge of filling the page allow us to go beyond the reactive into a more exploratory frame of mind?
  • Or perhaps it’s less about the blank page and more about the time for quiet reflection that is the key?

What do you think?  What scenarios have you encountered where  a blank sheet has been used to good effect (or perhaps fallen flat and remained untouched?!)


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