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.


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