Monday, May 23, 2011

Tools: The Lotus Diagram

What Is It?

The lotus diagram is a simple, but powerful, brainstorming tool. Consisting of nine squares arranged in a 3x3 grid, a blank diagram looks like a tac-tac-toe board:

Tic tac toe1

Why Use It?

Use a lotus diagram when you want to:

- rapidly generate a broad range of options for action, and

- quickly determine which option is best.

In general, creating a lotus diagram gives participants a more holistic understanding of the options available to them and a way to articulate why they favor one option over the other. But it can also be used whenever you need to explore and expand an idea as fully as possible.

How Does It Work?

To kick off a session with the lotus diagram, just write the focus of your brainstorm (the problem you're solving, the goal you want to reach, the project you're planning, the question you want to answer) in the center cell:

Board 6

Then, as quickly as you can, you fill the surrounding eight cells with the first answers, ideas, or options that come to mind. The goal is to fill all eight cells. If you run short of ideas, press yourself to fill every cell. It's okay for some ideas in the grid to be weaker or less desirable than others.

Board 2

At this point, you have little more than an elaborately-formatted eight-item list. The magic starts, though, when you take each item in the eight outer cells and place each of those items the center cells of eight new lotus diagrams.

For example: one of our eight initial dinner ideas is pizza. To further explore this option, we draw another lotus diagram, making "pizza" the center cell, and brainstorm eight more related ideas. In this case, that might be eight places to get pizza:

Board 3

If you complete an additional lotus diagram for each of the eight items in your initial diagram, you'll generate sixty-four answers to the original question in no time at all.

But you don't have to stop there, of course, because each of *those* sixty-four responses can become the central item in yet another lotus diagram. For example: you might take one of your pizza options -- homemade pizza -- and explore its pros and cons:

Board 4

Because any cell in lotus diagram can be expanded into yet another lotus diagram, you can "drill down" into your ideas as deeply as you like. In my experience, though, descending just two or three levels into the lotus diagram yields unexpected insights.

Notes, Tips, and Suggestions

1) Use flip chart pages. Create the first lotus diagram on a sheet of flip chart paper. Once you have filled in the eight outer cells, create corresponding lotus diagrams on eight additional sheets of paper, displaying these around the original sheet, like this:

Board 5

2) Use sticky notes. If you're working with a smaller group in a smaller space you can use sticky notes instead of flip chart sheets to expand the diagram.

3) Force yourself to fill in every cell of the diagram. You'll be surprised how often an answer you thought silly or lame will generate associations that prove useful.

4) Play with structure. The associations you build in the eight outer cells can be as structured ("pros and cons" or "advantages and disadvantages") or unstructured ("whatever you think of when you think of this") as you like. Experiment with different degrees of structure to see what works best for you.

Ideas for Applications

- Build a lotus diagram for a story. Place characters or settings or themes in the eight outer cells, then expand those cells to explore attributes, details, or ideas for development.

- Prioritizing courses of action. Uncertain which of many courses of action to take? The ones you can expand the most easily are likely your best options.

- Flesh out details for an art project based around a central theme. In the initial lotus diagram, put your theme ("Love") in the center cell, and then brainstorm eight images you associate with that theme (i.e., candy and flowers, people holding hands, two people kissing, etc.). Then expand each of these images by generating eight unusual ways to depict them.

- Identify project management risks and opportunities. Before defaulting to traditional, linear methods for identifying project dependencies, try using a lotus diagram to brainstorm goals, resources needed, stakeholders, etc.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Inspiro: Infinite Inspiration with Push-Button Ease


Inspiro 1

Inspiro, an idea generation app, comes with a ginormous deck of random nouns, verbs, modifiers, and phrases. It shuffles and recombines these to produce an endless stream of odd sayings, writing prompts, story scenarios, poetic images, and unexpected associations.

Long story short: I love it.

At first, Inspiro looks pretty simple. You fire it up. You press a big button. Words flicker past faster than the eye can follow. An instant later, you're presented with a randomly-generated result:

- "Therapists cuddling with nurses, nice and sweet."

- "A hot stud sharing breakfast with a rat."

- "Bangladeshi pool boys regurgitating."

- "Shouting Nazi phrases with lots of pep."

Given random input, the human brain can't resist the urge to find patterns and make meaning. As a result, it's easy for prompts like these to spark all kinds of creative ventures:


- A patient arrives at a therapist's office for sexual addiction treatment, and catches the doc in a love puddle with three sweet-natured nurses.

- We meet our unlikely hero, a down-on-his-luck male prostitute, sharing a dumpster breakfast with his only friend in the world: a rat.

- Immigrant boys, working illegally as pool cleaners, realize too late that the kindly housewife who fed them is actually a twisted conservative activist who has poisoned them.

- A high school pep rally turns into a disaster when the cheerleaders draw inspiration from Third Reich photos in a history book.

Art Projects

- Mix stark, graphic medical imagery with erotic photos

- Shoot a gritty black and white photo series substituting stunning models anywhere the viewer would expect to see a homeless person

- Choreograph a frenetic contemporary dance piece to a throbbing house music number punctuated with random phrases ("Bangladeshi pool boys regurgitating") read by a deep-voiced narrator.

- Dub high school pep rally cheers over a juxtaposition of 1940's WWI imagery and news footage from the Civil Rights era.


- Instead of dry slides listing health insurance plans, create user profiles summarized as personal ads ("Single male, 25, unattached...") and show which health plan would be best for that person's needs.

- Enhance the appeal of a brightly-lit, brightly colored object by surrounding it with gritty, dark, urban imagery.

- Offer insight into the plight of illegal immigrants by comparing their harsh working conditions to the harsher living conditions back home.

- Explore the commonalities between war-era propaganda posters and the motivational posters seen in schools and offices.

Band Names

- Cuddly Therapists

- Rat Breakfast

- Bangladeshi Pool Boys

- Peppy Nazis

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. By pretending that Inspiro's random phrases contain a solution to your creative problem, you can very quickly make the jump from "blocked" to "back to work."

The program has three modules:

The Muse, which serves up short phrases in any of ten (!) configurations, from simple pairings of modifiers and nouns ("bloody mountain lions") to detailed, almost hallucinatory imagery ("mountain lions bounding through fields of hitmen, carrying your cat").

Scenarios, which generates fresh story prompts ("arriving late to a funeral with an orangutan") each time you press the big red button, and

The Daydream Machine, which delivers a series of ephemeral directions and observations designed to spark unexpected associations ("Work this into a story: A smile is transformed by a nightmare" or "Read this to a subject before photographing him: A prophet favors pressure.")

As if that were not enough: in addition to the library of nouns, modifiers, and phrases Inspiro comes with, you can customize and expand the idea engine by adding your own. And because not all brainstorming audiences will be charmed by the occasional naughty concept ("A circus performer playing doctor with a nun!"), you can choose whether you want Inspiro to serve up G-, PG-, and/or R-rated ideas.

Inspiro sells for the remarkable price of just $2.99, and is available for iPhone and iPad in Apple's App Store. To see the program in action, visit the website and go see this video demo.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Practical Evernote: Tips on Using Evernote to Plan a Vacation

Clever use of (temporary) notebooks and tags can make Evernote the ultimate vacation planning tool. Here's my process, step by step.

1) Find useful information. Travel guidebooks are outdated the instant they're printed. Instead of depending on them, I leverage the wisdom of crowds at There's no faster way to get a solid overview of sight-seeing options for any city in the world.

2) Clip only what's needed. When I first started using Evernote, I tended to capture entire pages with the web clipper. Then it occurred to me: when I'm actually on the road, do I want *every* review of the place I'm interested in? Do I want to see *every* ad that TripAdvisor squeezed onto the page?

Now, I highlight and capture only what's essential: the name of the attraction, its address, its operating hours, and a link to its web page. Conveniently, most TripAdvisor entries put all this information at the top of a page:


I highlight this information, click the Evernote web clipper button, and move on. (PS: If you want to see the entire page later, remember: Evernote saves the web address of every snippet you capture. Should seeing the original page become important, just click that link to revisit the site.)

PowerUser Tip: If there's a detail from a review, a photo, or a map image you want to save in addition to basic location and contact information, highlight these separately, creating an Evernote for each. Later, in the Inbox, you can combine these little fragments into one note containing everything about a specific sight or restaurant using the Merge Notes command.

3) Create useful tags. Back in my Evernote Inbox, I start the process of tagging each note I've captured. These tags work well for me:

- City tags. Just the name of the city where the attraction is located, like "Helsingborg" or "Oslo."

- Attraction tags. I use tags to indicate the type of attraction: sights, markets, museums, shopping, sacredsites, battlefields, restaurants, breweries.

- Open What Day? tags. It sounds crazy, and it may take a little extra time to research and capture, but the utility of my "Open What Day?" tags makes the investment of time and effort needed to create them worthwhile. Almost every attraction is closed on certain days, and there's nothing more disappointing than schlepping across town, only to be confronted by locked gates and dark windows.

So now, I add tags indicating the days of the week an attraction is open or the day a market takes place. That way, if we find ourselves with free time during the vacation, I can do a search on city and day tags ("Oslo" + "Thursday," for example) and generate an instant list of all attractions open in Oslo on Thursdays!

PowerUser Tip: You can use a similar system for tagging restaurants. Add a tag for each day of the week the restaurant is open, plus a tag indicating when you'd most like to go (breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks). Later, it's easy to use a simple search ("Wednesday" + "Dinner") to generate a list of perfect options on the fly. (If you're really anal retentive, add a tag for the neighborhood or district name, too. Then you can use a search to tell Evernote, "Show me a list of breakfast spots in Midtown that are open on Sunday morning!)

4) Save your notes to a (temporary) project notebook. Create a notebook specifically for this trip, and, after tagging every note in useful ways, move your trip-related notes from the Inbox to this notebook. (For my upcoming cruise, I created a temporary notebook called "EuroCruise2011.")

Sending all new notes to the Inbox reminds you to tag them appropriately ... and, once they're tagged, having a project- or vacation-specific notebook gives you a place to put them once the tagging is done.

If you use an iPad, you can also designate your vacation notebook for replication to your device. That way, you'll have access to all your valuable vacation material, even if you don't have access to an Internet connection.

When the vacation is over, tag *every* note inside this notebook with the notebook title. (When I do this, I'll tag all the notes in my cruise-related notebook with "EuroCruise2011.")

PowerUser Tip: To add the same tag to multiple notes, tag *one* note first. Then, highlight all notes you want to associate with that tag and drag them to the appropriate tag in Evernote's list of tags.

With that done, I move all my vacation notes from the temporary, vacation-specific notebook to my Archives notebook. As a result, I can:

- summon these vacation notes if they're needed in the future. A quick search on the new "EuroCruise2011" tag will instantly recreate the contents of this notebook on the fly.

- delete the vacation-specific notebook. Why maintain the visual clutter and distraction of an extra notebook once the trip is over?

Do you use Evernote to plan vacations? If so, please share your tips and strategies with me. I'm always on the lookout for strategies that will make the process smoother and more efficient!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Evernote: Stop Filing and Start Tagging


New Tools, Old Habits

When people shift to a paperless filing system, they bring their paper-based mindset with them. New users see Evernote’s notebooks and think, “Folders!” And because notebooks are quick and cheap and easy to create, they soon have hundreds of them.

But over time, as the collection of notebooks grows, this system works against you. As the number of notebooks increases, so does the amount of time required to decide where to file a particular note.

Soon, you catch yourself scrolling through your long list of notebooks, asking, “Hmmm … which notebook does *this* note belong in?” Later, you’ll struggle to recall which notebook contains which note. You’ll even catch yourself creating a new notebook to hold a specific note … and realizing, after the fact, that you had already created a very similar notebook during a previous session.

All this scanning, scrolling, debating, manual searching, and backtracking consumes time and energy. Eventually, maintaining the system becomes a job in itself. So much for the advantages of a paperless system!

Fortunately, in Evernote, there’s a better way of getting things done.

Two New Habits

To enjoy the benefits of Evernote’s better way, you’ll have to your paper-based filing habits with two new paperless ones:

1) Start using tags.

2) Stop thinking of notebooks as folders.

Start Using Tags

Tags are, essentially, labels. Many new Evernote users don’t use tags effectively, because they are used to investing so much energy in building elaborate folder-based filing systems.

Why is tagging more efficient? Here’s the key: a note can only go into one notebook, but it can have many tags.

Remember CustomerCo’s unpaid December invoice? If you use a folder-based system, you’ll be forced to decide whether to file in one of at least three possible notebooks: CustomerCo, December 2011, or Unpaid Invoices. Later, instead of depending on search, you’ll be tempted to waste even more time pawing through these notebooks, trying to find the note you need.

But with tagging, you slap a few labels (CustomerCo, December 2011, Unpaid Invoices) onto the note and you’re done. When you need the note again, a search on any of these tags (or a combination of them) will summon exactly what you need, when you need it, in the blink of an eye.

Tagging makes “finding without filing” possible. If you can avoid projecting an outdated, paper-based folder metaphor on this sleek new system, you’ll never have to ask “Where should I file this?” or “Where did I put that?” again.

Stop Thinking of Noteboooks as Folders

In my Evernote application, I have only two permanent notebooks: the Inbox notebook (the landing place for newly captured, untagged notes) and the Archives notebook (where every note, once properly tagged, will be permanently stored). Because I tag every note before archiving it, I can instantly summon a collection of related notes on the fly, as needed — and never worry about filing anything again.

When working on a specific project, I may, for the sake of convenience, create a temporary notebook for notes related to that project. Right now, for example, all the flight information, hotel reservations, and destination ideas for our upcoming cruise to Norway and Sweden go into a notebook called “EuroCruise2011.”

Why? Because while the project is ongoing, giving it prominent placement speeds access. (And, because I have so few notebooks, the filing process remains friction-free.) But as soon as that project is over  — when the cruise is over — I will:

- Tag all the notes inside that notebook with a common tag. In this case, I’ll select all entries and tag them with “EuroCruise2011.”

- Move all those notes into the Archives notebook.

- Delete the EuroCruise notebook.

Next May, when a friend asks about destination ideas for her trip to Norway, I won’t have to spend a single minute scrolling through notebooks or wondering where I filed those notes. Instead, I’ll click the EuroCruise2011 tag (or just search for it), and, like magic, Evernote will locate and present to me a bound copy of all my cruise-related notes in the wink of an eye.

New Tools, New Habits

Why hobble a powerful new tool with archaic old habits? Save time, save effort, and gain efficiency. Set paper metaphors aside. Let Evernote do the filing and finding for you.