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Atlantic Review of Economics 

            Revista Atlántica de Economía

Colegio de Economistas da Coruña
 INICIO > EAWP: Vols. 1 - 9 > EAWP: Volumen 2 [2003]Estadísticas/Statistics | Descargas/Downloads: 7344  | IMPRIMIR / PRINT
Volumen 2 Número 15: Participative Action Research: The Vision Conference.

René Victor Valqui Vidal
IMM, Technical University of Denmark

Reference: Received 25th March 2003; Published 24th November 2003.
ISSN 1579-1475

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This paper presents the principles behind the design and management of the Vision Conference: a one-day workshop for a large group of participants endeavoured to create ideas, projects and visions for the future activities of a local community or an organisation. A case study from a local community in Denmark is also presented with the purpose of illustrating the organisation, planning and management of a Vision Conference. The paper focuses in the three central social processes of the conference: group work, problem solving and facilitation. The paper ends with a discussion of creativity and creativity techniques suitable for Vision Conferences.


Este artículo muestra los principios existentes detrás del diseño y la gestión de la Vision Conference: un taller de un día de duración programado para un elevado número de participantes con el fin de generar ideas, proyectos y visiones para el desarrollo de las futuras actividades de una comunidad u organización local. Presentamos un estudio llevado a cabo en una comunidad local de Dinamarca con el fin de ilustrar la organización, planificación y gestión de una Vision Conference. Este trabajo se centra en los tres procesos sociales de la conferencia: el trabajo en equipo, la resolución de problemas, y el proceso de facilitación. Este documento finaliza con la exposición de un debate sobre la creatividad y sus técnicas más adecuadas para desarrollar estas Vision Conferences.


   "Dreams, not desperation make communities survive". This slogan was written on a wall of a shanty town in the outskirts of Lima, a community that has developed from nothing to a well functioning town. Visions, collaboration and hard work have been those factors that have transformed a desert to a well developed town. To create dreams about the future is an important task for many groups of individuals and organisations both in grass root activities, public institutions and small businesses. To create visions is the ability to think about the future with great imagination and wisdom.

   Our research area is grounded in three usually unrelated disciplines:

   oAction Research (Greewood and Levin, 1998) specially in what concerns participative research,
   oSoft Operational Research (Rosenhead and Mingers, 2001) specially in what concerns the facilitation of participative problem solving processes, and
   oCreative Problem Solving (Couger, 1995) specially in what concerns the use of creative tools to generate visions.

   These are the foundations of our concept, The Vision Conference, that opposite to other conferences and workshops (Scenario Conference, Future Workshops, Delphi method, etc.) it is focusing on visions, ideas and projects for the future of an organisation.

   The main purpose of this paper is to present the principles of the Vision Conference: a one-day workshop designed for a large group of participants with the purpose of creating visions for the future about a specific theme. The design, planning and management of the Vision Conference will be discussed in Section 2.

   In Section 3, the different ideas and concepts discussed in the previous section will be illustrated presenting a real life case study: A Vision Conference organised by a development centre in a vulnerable region in Denmark This was a one-day conference designed for 30 individuals and the author of this paper was the main facilitator assisted by other 4 facilitators.

   During a Vision Conference several social processes will be going on: First, the problem solving process where the group work is focusing in the specified task or purpose of the conference, and secondly, the group work process that includes the dynamic relationships between the different participants that might enhance or restrain the first process. In addition to these two processes we have the facilitation process, this is the process of managing the other two processes and the facilitators are the managers of the this process. To facilitate is to make an action or a process, easy or easier. These social processes will be discussed in more detail in Section 4.

   Another task of the facilitators is the design of the Vision Conference. This work starts before the conference day tackling different design and planning tasks. After the conference, the facilitators have to report back and evaluate the whole experience. In Section 5 we will discuss the design aspects of the Vision Conference .

   The Vision Conference is about the release of creativity to produce visions and ideas, therefore in Section 6 some aspects of creative problem solving will be discussed. In Section 7 some creativity tools will be introduced. Finally, the last section presents some final remarks.


   The Vision Conference can be conducted for a wide range of purposes. They are usually used to help organisations and group of individuals to create visions about the future. These visions will then be used as input to the process of strategy development. Similarly, they can be suitable for involving diverse groups affected by imminent developments in the larger systems which include many actors such as industries, regions and communities. We have used this conference while supporting grass root innovators and organisations in relation to the task of creation of new ideas for community work. The Vision Conference ideally brings together 30-60 people representing all relevant actors. The participants must adequately and accurately reflect the groups´ range of interests, but participation must be voluntary.


   The purpose of the Vision Conference is not only to create ideas and visions about the future but ideas and visions that are suitable as a basis for the process of strategy development to be carried out by the organisation in question. The Vision Conference is both a learning and creative experience characterised by:

  ·The organisation learns about the different actors´ ideas, wishes and visions;
  ·The different actors communicate to each other their visions;
  ·The participants learn to work creatively, collectively, and purposely in a large group; and
   ·The participants learn how to design and manage Vision Conferences.

   Design and Planning

   Achieving such learning outcomes depends very much of how the Vision Conference is designed and managed. Two critical dimensions of Vision Conference design are: the definition of the conference task and the social organisation and management of the group. Initial definition of the task and the stages towards its completion is the responsibility of the facilitators (design-managers) of the Vision Conference. In consultation with the organisation responsible for the Vision Conference and through some prior research into the relevant issues, facilitators should first:

   ·Develop a tentative definition of purpose that will be meaningful to participants; and
   ·Suggest a program that provides both adequate direction and sufficient scope for the participants to assume control and responsibility as the conference progresses.

   With their experience and knowledge, the facilitators can remain alert to possible drifts into maladaptive directions during the stages towards task completion. However, they do not claim such expertise as would make participants subordinate and passively dependent upon them. The primary purpose is to create the room and the opportunities for the participants to be creative, producing their visions for the future. This is possible only if both the information and ideas come from all the participants and if the group work is organised so that progress towards task completion is accepted as the participants´ as well as the facilitators- responsibility.

   The Conference

   The conference task and program usually take the form of some themes that the participants accept responsibility for answering in collaboration with each other going through a creative process. The participants will usually be divided in sub-groups, each sub-group being of 7-12 persons and having a facilitator. These sub-groups will be facilitated to create ideas, visions, and objectives for the above mentioned themes. Some creativity techniques will be used to support the creative process in each sub-group.

   The Vision Conference is usually of one-working day duration. In the morning, work in sub-groups will be combined with plenary sessions with the purpose of producing as many ideas, projects, visions and objectives as possible. This is called the divergent phase of the conference. In the afternoon, the same combination of work in sub-groups and plenary session will be carried out, but now the work will be focused in those most promising ideas, those selected by each sub-group. This is called the convergent phase of the conference. Sometimes, it could be a good idea to redesign the sub-groups in the afternoon, this might be a crucial decision and should be discussed by all the participants and the facilitators.

   It is not unusual to start the whole conference with an invited speaker with the purpose to give the first kick-off and some inspiration to all the participants. This person should be selected based on his experiences with the theme of the conference and his ability to communicate his knowledge to a big audience. It is a good idea to end the conference with a short presentation of one of the facilitators to summarise the achieved results and with a final talk given by one of the representatives of the organisation organising the Vision Conference to outline what is going to happen in the near future.


   After the end of the conference the facilitators elaborate a report to be sent to all participants and the board of the organisation in question. This report contains:

  ·The complete ideas, projects, visions and objectives produced by each sub-group in both the divergent and convergent phases of the conference; and
   ·An evaluation of the different processes and activities carried out at the conference (the learning process and group dynamics).

   It is expected that the board of the organisation in question will use the reported information as input to the process of developing strategies and actions plans for their future activities. It happens often that the participants constitute a network capable in its own right of taking further initiatives and probably organise other vision conferences with other organisations (learning and empowerment).

   The overall purpose of the conference and the propose stages towards its completion should be put to participants at the outset. The Vision Conference is a task-oriented event. Unless participants can see at each stage in the context of making progress with meaningful tasks, they are likely to become confused, uncomfortable, and impatient with the broad scope and freedom provided. Also, this is an opportunity to test with the participants the relevance and validity of the proposed conference design. The invitation and introduction to the conference should emphasise the need of the participants on accepting the "ownership" of and responsibility for the conference proceedings and outcomes.


   The Development Centre in Odsherred, North West Sealand, Denmark, (DCO for short) is an autonomous non-profit organisation established March 1998. The main objectives of DCO are to strengthen, develop, and inspire to all type of cultural, social, environmental, and commercial activities in the vulnerable region of Odsherred and to create co-operation with similar activities in other similar regions both in Denmark and Europe. Since its establishment DCO has focused on cultural, IT and environmental projects and activities such as: visual arts, internet communication, dramatised cultural communication, sustainable building and design, etc. Projects are carried out by local innovators in close co-operation with the relevant actors of the region.

   This centre is financed through a mix of financing sources: public funds, private funds, sponsors, and business activities. DCO is steered by a board having a wide register of activities within development work, job´s creation, education, production, sales, marketing and communication. In 1999, there were so many projects at the centre that 15 persons were full time employed at DCO. The director of this centre has experiences in fund´s rising and in supporting several types of cultural activities in the region. The director of DCO contacted the author with the purpose of organising a one-day Vision Conference in March 2002. This conference will be the starting of LEADER+ Program in the region. A four year program of 48 million DKr. that will be administrated by DCO to support grass root innovation.


   LEADER+ is an EU-program that supports development in special vulnerable rural regions of the European countries members of EU. It supports creative and innovative projects that can contribute to a long-term and sustainable development in these regions. LEADER+ Program is one of the EU´s structural founding program that is planned to run until the year 2006.

   LEADER+ Program is grounded in the idea of a total and integrated development of a vulnerable region based in a serious analysis of the regions possibilities and limitations. This program aims - using innovative development strategies and action plans - to push forward the region based in the so-called "bottom-up" principle. That is, ideas and projects to be supported have to be born in the local communities of the region where local organisations, local firms, innovators, fiery souls, consultants, etc. go through a creative process with the purpose of identifying the best qualified projects for the region. In few words LEADER+ supports grass root innovation. This means that the projects have to be deeply rooted in the local communities and the allocation of the resources will be made by a special committee where the relevant actors will be represented. 12 areas in Denmark have been selected to receive support from LEADER+ program, one of them is Odshered region. In the application for funds from the LEADER+ Program, DCO emphasises that the selected projects should support the social and cultural capital of the region and create sustainable activities, firms and workplaces.

   The overall theme is: Improvement of life quality. In addition it is specified that support and founding will be given to projects that:

   ·Are knowledge and technology based so that the local products will be both more competitive and environmentally friendly;
   ·Will take initiatives to facilitate access to new markets for small industries; and
   ·Will carry out cultural activities endeavoured to shape the image of the region.

   The Vision Conference

   As mentioned about it was decided to begin the LEADER+ Program as a Vision Conference, to be organised by the director of DCO and the author of this paper as the main facilitator. The objective of the conference was both:

   ·To create a discussion forum for the different actors around the program with the purpose of developing common images of ideas, projects, visions and objectives for the program; and
   ·To see in action a Vision Conference and the way how the facilitation process develops; these experiences and approaches will be used in the future during the implementation of the program.

   The theme of the conference was defined as : Vividly local communities - Visions, ideas and goals for LEADER+ program in the region.

   The Vision Conference was carried out at the localities of the Odsherreds Theatre Centre, a nice place where all the needed facilities were available. The director of DCO and the facilitators (the author and three of his students) met twice to design the conference. Two important tasks were dealt with:

   ·The contents and purposes of the conference, and
   ·The many practicalities related to time schedules, speakers, materials, meals, soft drinks, and other facilities that ought to be available.

   The conference started 9 a.m. and ended at 4 p.m., an one-hour lunch was planned at the middle of the day. The conference started with a presentation entitled: LEADER+ as a tool for local development. The speaker was the director of the LEADER program in Småland, Sweden. This person has a lot of experience about the possibilities and limitations of such a program in connection with community development. The intention was that this talk should give inspiration and ideas for the future creative work based in the Swedish experiences. Thereafter, the participants were split up in four sub-groups each having a facilitator. The theme for the group work was: Idea generation- suggest as many projects as possible that should be supported by LEADER+. Brainstorming was used as a technique and its four central rules were used intensively: no criticism, free-wheeling, spontaneity and it is permitted to combine others ideas. This was the diverging process. After one hour of brainstorming will the sub-groups meet at a plenary session where all the ideas produced will be shortly outlined.

   During the afternoon the same sub-groups started the work, but this time the theme was: Idea adaptation- select some few projects from the list generated in the morning and work further with the purpose of designing an application to get support from LEADER+. This was the converging phase. This was an exercise in project design and planning. After one hour work the sub-groups met at a plenary session to report about the selected projects. At the end, one representative of the board of DCO gave a summary of the general results achieved and the work to be done by DCO in the near future, Finally, the facilitator gave a short outline of the way how the conference went forward as a learning process, the purpose is to discuss the good and bad experiences of the whole conference.


   Two weeks later, the facilitator presented to DCO his report from the Vision Conference. This report contains: the background for the conference, the planned schedule, the actual schedule, the concrete results of the work of each sub-group and its evaluation by each facilitator, the final evaluation of the whole experience and some conclusions, see further Vidal (2002b).

   The conference when ahead as planned, a small delay at the beginning and some waiting time due to the fact that the sub-groups did not end their work at the same time cause some disturbances but these things did not affect the main group work. The invited speaker was brilliant, gave a lot of inspiration, and he gave many examples of simple projects that had been implemented with success in Sweden. He emphasised the importance of supporting small industries, and the necessity of having strategies for marketing and communication.

   From the reports of each sub-group it is possible to conclude that their creative processes were quite different, this is probably due to different participants and different facilitators. In spite of that, many projects were suggested in the morning by each sub-group, in average 25 projects. It was not problem while diverging but the wild ideas were missing. In the afternoon all the sub-groups wanted to continue diverging and had difficulties in selecting one or two projects for elaborating an application. The plenary sessions went very well, very amusing, each sub-group very engaged in their ideas and projects, it reflected a good atmosphere and it was a lot of laughter, a good sign of creative work.

   There were many projects within art and culture, and ecology and tourism. There were missing the innovative projects within small industries and IT. This show the necessity of marketing the LEADER+ program in the sector of small industries. The difficulties in elaborating concrete applications by the different groups show the need that DOC should give support and advice to the potential innovators in relation to formulating applications.

   Summarising, it was concluded by the facilitator that the Vision Conference was a positive experience. All the participants and the facilitators learned something. This conference was a big communication event where ideas, wishes, dreams, visions, strategies, plans, and objectives interacted with each other and got closer to each other in a constructive way.


   The success of the Vision Conference is conditioned by the effectiveness and creativity of the group work. Since the participants are invited to the conference it is recommended to use some selection criteria. Some of these criteria could be:

   ·Representation: participants represent the relevant actors from the different sectors of the community;
  ·Goal compatibility: participants have as close as possible the same goals so that they can pull in the same direction at the same time;
   ·Process compatibility: participants have to agree on the framework and tools used during the conference;
   ·Deliberation: participants have to be able to reflect, think an act effectively and in a structured and creative manner;
   ·Positivism: participants have a constructive attitude to group work and collective problem solving and they will communicate openly and honestly;
   ·Communication: participants have to be able to talk and listen effectively; and
   ·Focus: participants have to be able to concentrate in their tasks avoiding or disregarding any kind of distraction;

   It is clear that selecting the participants and distributing them into sub-groups is a very important task, that has to be solved seriously in order to develop effective group work and high quality results. This task should be solved by a person having good knowledge of the local community and experience of working together with persons from the implied organisations. In the case study discussed in the last section it was the Director of DCO who solved this task, he had a solid knowledge of the different human resources of the community, the different relevant institutions, the local firms and grass root innovators, and the potential conflicts among the different organisations.

   In connection with the group work in the Vision Conference there are two central social processes to be managed: the problem solving process and the group process. The first process is the way how the sub-groups in the conference essay to solve the task of generating ideas and visions going through divergent and convergent phases. The second process is related to the manner how the individuals in the group work together, how they learn, how they communicate, their social and power relationships, and how they deal with conflicts, etc. Obviously, these two processes interact each other in various degrees, the ideal group work is the one where these two processes support each other. We talk about group dynamics, when energy and synergetic effects are created in the group work as a result of well-balanced processes where the task is just as important as the group trust and identity.

   In the Vision Conference there is a third social process: the facilitation process. The facilitators are the managers of the conference and their main mission is to create and support group dynamics. By focusing and guiding group members´ communication and decision making processes in a structured form, the facilitators can reduce the chances of engaging in faulty processes and harness the strengths of the group. This can be achieved using the following guidelines:

   ·Use approaches, for example creative techniques, to co-ordinate members´ thinking;
   ·Specified a set of objective ground rules for the group work;
   ·Build up on the strengths of the group and protect the group against its weakness;
   ·Balance members participation;
   ·Support the group while dealing with conflicts;
   ·Plan time to close the different social processes;
   ·Make the group to reflect and evaluate the group dynamics; and
   ·Empower the group.

   The facilitators are constantly thinking (reflection) and listening the deliberations in the sub-groups in order to make suitable interventions (decision making). Interventions mean communicating with the group, given information and knowledge, and encouraging the participants to think about important topics.

   Let us elaborate now more theoretically about the essence of the facilitation process as opposed to its existence or its accidental qualities or in other words the attributes by means of which facilitation as management can be qualified or identified. As we have seen, facilitation is a purposeful process carried out by one or several persons that goes forward between two interacting processes. First, the logical/rational/legal process carried out by a purposeful group (the problem solving group) that wants to achieve some goals. This process has been denominated as the problem solving process, this is the scene of objectivity. Secondly, the non-logical/irrational/illegal process that refers to the chaotic social process provoked by each single participant, by the participants relations to each other, or by the participants relations to the facilitator of the purposeful group, these bring into the participants own subjectivity, intuition, fantasy and feelings. This process can be denominated as the problem destruction process, this is the scene of subjectivity.

   The facilitation process will move in the grey zone between the scene of objectivity and the scene of subjectivity. The rational and the irrational processes are fighting one to another, the one wants to impose over the other. They are in conflict to each other, but they need each other because while the problem solving process seeks to achieve realistic solutions, the irrational process will be the basis for the production of new ideas. Rationality needs chaos, and chaos needs rationality. Due to this contradiction, rationality vs. chaos, we can stipulate that facilitation is a dialectical process.

   Let us also emphasise that facilitation is a purposeful intervention in a social process, a designed process. Facilitation is not a necessity for the evolution of the problem solving process but it is designed to support the problem solving process. The facilitation evolves very dynamically in a grey zone essaying to construct a bridge between the traditional/conservative problem solving (business as usual) and the new/revolutionary power to change. The purpose of facilitation is to seek that the two above mentioned processes do not destroy each other, but on the contrary support each other. In this way, in relation to the Vision Conference, traditional problem solving develops to creative problem solving. This dialectical conceptualisation of group creativity is a generalisation of a neuro-psychological model of the brain´s function while thinking creatively.

   The facilitation process can be managed in different manners as there are several management styles. The facilitators are the managers of this process. Note that if the group can manage itself, there is no need of a facilitator. That is the group can learn to facilitate itself. As in any management process it is a good idea to develop a strategy and design an action plan for the facilitation process and the whole Vision Conference, this will be the theme of the next section.

   Management also involves three other central factors: Power, communication and learning. These aspect are always present in any facilitation process and should be reflected and articulated before, during and after the conference. Facilitation becomes an art when a synergetic effect is achieved due to the constructive interaction between the rational and the irrational processes. The facilitator then becomes the director of a performance, where each participant plays a central role. By the end of the performance if synergy has been created all the participants will explode in a rush of happiness and pleasure, the pleasure of working creatively and collectively to achieve some goals. It is the same feeling that football players experience after a match where the victory has been the result of a combination of individual creativity, collective hard work and suitable facilitation (the coaching).

   Summarising, we can state that the purpose of facilitation as management is not only to solve the task, but other additional goals could be:

   ·Each participant is a potential facilitator, therefore the importance of the learning dimension; ·Empowerment, the participants learn to be more self-confident and learn to work creatively in a group (creativity is an act of liberation from the jail of our own routines); and
   ·Praxis, the facilitators should be able to learn from the experience therefore the importance of the evaluation of the conference and the systematisation of praxis (Vidal, 2003), in addition learning from failure is a good principle for any facilitator.


   Based in the discussions of Section 2 and Section 3, it possible to stipulate that the process of the design of a Vision Conference can be divide into three stages: The pre-conference planning, the conference in action, and the post-conference output.


   It is a common belief that detailed planning at the pre-conference stage is essential to ensure that the facilitators help to create a group work at the conference that focuses on the task and that this needs tight organisation. Moreover, it is also argued that this first stage is as important as running the group work at the conference itself because without sufficient pre-planning the chances of success will be greatly reduced.

   On the other hand, it is our experience that too much planning and organisation might kill spontaneity and creativity in the group work. Therefore, a suitable balance should be found, a suitable framework that gives space for the development of the rational and irrational processes, and for adaptive decision making during the facilitation of the group work.

   At this stage, it is of central importance that the facilitators discuss with the organisers of the conference the purpose, the task, the organisation and the management of the group work. Good time should be allocated to discuss thoroughly these themes so that at the end of this stage the organisers of the conference and the facilitators have develop a consensus about the objectives and development of the conference. This goal compatibility is of extreme importance. In addition, it should also be discussed the processes, tools and techniques that might be utilised during the conference. How will the participants react to them? is a central question to be discussed intensively at this stage.

   Another important activity at this stage is the collection of relevant information by the facilitators and the dialogue with the organisers of the conference about central topics and their possible outcome during the conference, in other words visioning possible processes and creating scenarios of possible outputs. The task should be deeply understood by the facilitators as well as the possible conflict areas. Previous relevant reports from the organisers and reports from similar conferences elsewhere should also be available to the facilitators.

   It is also important that the facilitators use some time to elaborate the agenda and the organisation of the conference itself. Thereafter these issues should de deeply discussed with the organisers of the conference to achieve consensus on these topics.

   Already at this stage the facilitators should think about the last stage where an evaluation of the conference should be elaborated. An outline of the final report could be made and a simple information system could be designed to be used and filled-up during the next two stages. Some facilitators prefer to use a personal log book from the very beginning to take note of important information, events, conflicts and decisions, such book will be very valuable at the last stage of the conference.

   For an experienced facilitator it is usually sufficient to have two intensive three-hours meetings with the organisers of the Vision Conference to go through the pre-conference stage. At the end of this stage a short document should be elaborated with the intentions, the task, the agenda, etc. of the conference to be send to the invited participants together with the invitation letter.

   The Vision Conference

   At the beginning of the conference day, it is important that the facilitators explain to the participants the purpose and the agenda of the conference, before going to work in sub-groups. Explain that the agenda can be changed if necessary, and that the time schedules have to be respected to avoid too long waiting times when the participants will be meeting for the plenary sessions.

   In the Vision Conference some creativity tools will be used in the problem solving process. The tools to be used have been selected from a huge amount of well-known techniques. The facilitators should be convinced that the selected tools are the most suitable for the conference, but if during the sessions it is detected that the tools are not supporting adequately the facilitator should be capable of switching to other more appropriate tools. The next section will discuss this topic. One thing is crucial: the participants should feel quite easy with the facilitator, the process and the used techniques, in this way it is ensured true participation. Finally, the facilitators are the managers of the conference therefore all the discussions and recommendations of the last section are applicable here.


   After the conference, the facilitators have to write an accurate report of the experience. This report should include the following themes:

   ·An outline of the background and purpose of the Vision Conference;
   ·The results obtained at each sub-group;
   ·The evaluation by the facilitator of the work in each sub-group;
   ·The evaluation of the whole conference by the facilitators, including the good and bad experiences; and ·What did we learn from the experience?.

   In the last section, we have a list to be used to select the participants, this list can be used in the evaluation process to see discrepancies between our expectations and the achieved results. If it is possible the facilitators should try to get some feedback on the conference from the organisers and the participants. This could be made by asking the participants to fill-up a questionnaire that focus in the learning aspects of the experience. This is of central importance if it is planned to carry out a new conference after some period of time to produce new visions or to elaborate strategies.


   It is difficult to give a simple and general definition of creativity. It is easier if we restrain to study creativity in relation to problem solving tasks. Creative problem solving means to:

  ·Challenge assumptions by questioning the basis of the problem formulation;
  ·Recognise patterns because usually chaos and complexity are caused by simple patterns which, when recognised, lead us to the solution to the problem;
  ·See in new ways means looking for patterns from different perspectives: a rational or logical, an organisational or procedural, an interpersonal or emotional, and an experimental or holistic;
  ·Make connections, or biassociate, because many creative ideas are the result of synergy occurring between two thoughts or perceptions;
  ·Take risks because there always exists the probability that your ideas will lead to failure due to many factors out of your control; and
  ·Seize upon a chance means to take a calculated risk in order to take advantage of an opening that will allows to move forward toward a creative solution.

   In creative problem solving we usually talk about the (4P+T) model. T for tools, tools can be thought as the glue that holds the 4 Ps together. The 4 P´s represent the following attributes, which are key to creative problem solving:

  ·P for person, there is clear evidence that individuals vary in their styles of producing original ideas and that creativity like sport abilities can be trained and developed;
  ·P for process, it has bee shown helpful to follow a series of process steps for problem solving, some guidelines have been develop, a key guideline is the need for periods of divergent thinking (producing many alternatives) followed by a period of convergent thinking (selecting some few for further elaboration), the value of using a process is actualised when problem solving with groups;
   ·P for product, there are some features of the final result of the problem solving process that can be leveraged to obtain a more effective outcome, the product can be an artefact to be designed, a (action) plan to be implemented, an organisation to be changed, a vision to be described or it can be itself a process, it has been found that deliverables which are either things or processes have common features that can be exploited in order to make them more novel and valuable; and
   ·P for "press", this is the organisational culture that acts as the immediate environment for the other Ps, organisations and communities can stimulate/support or kill creative thinking.

   This model can be very useful to keep in mind either when you are working alone or while facilitating a group of problem solvers as in a Vision Conference. Each of the five elements can impact on each of the others and this interaction could have positive or negative effects. In any problem solving session, you should ensure that some emphasis has been allocated to all five elements. When a group is stuck or even not producing results effectively, the answer usually lies in only one of the five elements - so decide, or ask the group if the difficulty lies in the tools, or in the process, or in the press, or?

   Mental locks

   To be creative you have to be open to all alternatives. This open mindedness is not always possible to meet because all humans build up blocks or mental locks in the maturation and socialisation process. Some of those locks have external causes, such as family environment, the educational system, and organisational bureaucracy. Other blocks were internally generated by our reactions to external factors or by physical factors. A key to improve your creativity is to get aware of your locks and do something about them. While everyone has blocks to creativity, blocks vary in quantity and intensity from person to person. Most of us are not aware of our conceptual blocks. Awareness not only permits us to know our strengths and weakness better but also gives the needed motivation and knowledge to break down these blocks. These mental locks can be perceptual, emotional, cultural, environmental, and intellectual.

  Perceptual locks are obstacles that restraint us from clearly perceiving either the problem itself or the information needed to register the problem. It is well known that our eyes can deceive us in observing some figures. Our perceptions are not always accurate.

   Emotional locks restrict our freedom to investigate and manipulate ideas. They prevent communicating our ideas to others. These locks are also called psychological barriers and are the most significant and prevalent blocks that impede innovation. Fear of something new is a common characteristic of many individuals in the developed world.

  Cultural locks are adapted by exposure to a given set of cultural patterns. The culture of the industrialised countries trains mental playfulness, fantasy and reflectiveness out of people by placing stress on the value of efficiency, effectivity and moneymaking. Taboos and myths are predominant blocks to creative behaviour. Therefore, it needs courage to be creative in a culture that does not support creative changes.

   Environmental locks are imposed by our near social and physical environment. Creative persons have usually had a childhood where they were free to develop their own potentialities. It has been documented that organisational climate can be a barrier or a stimulus to creative activities.

  Intellectual locks are caused by conservatism and lack of willingness to use new approaches. The same approaches, the same tools and the same persons are tackling the same problems for years. Persons with intellectual locks are usually very negative to changes and are fast to criticise new proposals.


   There are a variety of abilities that characterises a creative individual. Four of the key abilities will be discussed in this section as well as four tools to enhance them in concrete problem solving situations. They are: Fluency, flexibility, originality and elaboration.


   Fluency is the production of multiple problems, ideas, alternatives or solutions. It has been shown that the more ideas we produce, the more likely we are to find a useful idea or solution. To have too few alternatives is not a good thing in problem solving specially if you have to be innovative. There are many tools for producing ideas, alternatives and solutions. Several researchers have shown that training and practice in these tools does result in a better fluency.

  One creative tool, which has been used widely with big success for generating many ideas, is Brainstorming. The tool is directed to generating unconventional ideas by suppressing the common tendency to criticise or reject them summarily. In a Brainstorming session no criticism is permitted, and freewheeling generation of a large number of ideas and their combination and development are encouraged. Brainstorming is founded on the associative premise that the greater the number of associations, the less stereotyped and more creative the ideas of how to solve a problem will be.

   However, nothing in Brainstorming is directed at changing the assumptions or paradigms that restrict the generation of new ideas. This is an excellent technique for strengthening fluency, fantasy, and communication skills. It is a good idea to have a facilitator to prepare and warm-up the Brainstorming session, to lead and support the session, and to evaluate the whole process. This tool gives the possibility for the group to use more than one brain achieving a synergetic effect. Generate a multitude of ideas and some of them will be truly useful, innovative and workable. Asking individuals for inputs gives them an increase sense of importance and produces an atmosphere for truly creative and imaginative ideas to surface and be acknowledged. Brainstorming can be used for a wide diversity of problems: vision generation, strategy development, planning, policy, organisation, leadership, staffing, motivation, control, and communication.

  However, this tool is not appropriate for broad and complex problems demanding high-qualified expertise and know-how. Some of the ideas produced may be of low quality or obvious generalities. Brainstorming is not a good idea for situations that require trail and error as opposed to judgement. Brainwriting is a form of non-oral brainstorming to which the basic brainstorming rules apply. Participants sitting in a circle, write down their ideas for solving a given problem and pass their papers to their neighbours in the circle, who then brainstorm the ideas for a specified period, say five minutes, and then pass the papers to the next person.


  Flexibility is the ability to process ideas or objects in many different ways given the same stimulus. It is the ability to delete old ways of thinking and begin in different directions. It is adaptive when aimed at a solution to a specific problem, challenge or dilemma. Flexibility is especially important when logical methods fail to give satisfactory results.

   Looking at modern paintings requires flexibility, they demand looking from different perspectives in order to see different objects, images and symbols. Seeing persons or objects in the clouds requires the flexibility of seeing concrete shapes in cloud formations. Flexible thinking provides for changes in ideas, detours in thinking to include contradictions, differing viewpoints, alternative plans, differing approaches and various perspectives of a situation.

   A family of creative tools, known as verbal checklists, has been developed to enhance flexibility in the creative process. Usually this is a checklist of questions about an existing product, service, process, or other item to yield new points of view and thereby lead to innovation. The idea behind the verbal checklist is that an existing product or service can be improved if one applies a series of questions to it and pursues the answers to see where they may lead. The main questions take the form of verbs such as Modify? Or Combine? These verbs indicate possible ways to improve an existing product or service by making changes in it. Then you will add definitional words to the verb, for instance combine ideas, combine appeals, combine purposes, combine units, etc.

   Another important tool for encouraging flexibility is the use of provocative questions. These questions will open up a situation to a broader and deeper direction of thinking which otherwise might not be produced or considered. They demand to think about ideas or concepts they have not thought about previously. Some provocative questions can be:

   What would happen if: water tasted like whisky? Cats could bark? Women could fly? How is: A PC like a ship? A flower like a cat? A sunset like a lake? A car like a fork? What might happen if: It never was Sunday? It was against the law to be perfectionist? People were not creative? Image what might happen if: By law it was forbidding to have children? Cars could fly? Men could have children?


   Originality means getting away from the obvious and commonplace or breaking away from routine bound thinking. Original ideas are statistically infrequent. This is probably due to the fact that a creative thinker must be comfortable with being different or belonging to a minority, usually being alone. In addition the original thinker must be able to withstand the ridicule and scepticism, which will be directed toward his/her ideas and himself/herself. To enhance creativity we have to be respectful of unusual or crazy ideas or alternatives. You can train your own creativity by producing; let us say one original idea every week.

   Originality is a creative strength, which is a mental jump from the obvious. Original ideas are usually described as unique, surprising, wild, unusual, unconventional, novel, weird, remarkable or revolutionary. You need courage to be creative, because as soon as you propose a new idea, you are a minority of one. Belonging to a minority is unpleasant. We have to be more respectful and supportive of originality and creative thinkers.

  Creativity research has shown that the individual who produces a large number of alternatives is more likely to produce original ideas. A well-run brainstorming will usually produce many original ideas. Moreover, many art media (clay modelling, drawing, painting, performance, etc.) are conductive to the expression of originality.

   Picture Stimulation is a very popular technique used to provide ideas beyond those that might be obtained using brainstorming. The members of the group will look at a set of selected pictures and relate the information gained from the picture to the problem, otherwise the rules of brainstorming should be followed.

   Photo excursion uses the same principles of picture stimulation but instead of using prepared pictures for stimulation, participants are required to leave the building walk around the area with a (Polaroid or digital) camera, and take pictures of possible solutions or visual ideas for the problem; when the group reconvenes, ideas are shared. Another related technique is the Object Stimulation tool where instead of pictures a variety of different objects (e.g. a hammer, a pencil, a board game, etc.) will be used. Sometimes you can use words instead of pictures or objects, an associate them to your problem.

   There exist a number of computer programs that can be used to generate alternatives and otherwise add creativity to the problem solving process. They will include a huge amount of words, phrases together with many idea-associations that are linked to several thousand questions. The words, phrases or questions, randomly selected, will provoke ideas and associations that have to be relate to the problem in question.

  Originality can also be enhanced by analogies and metaphors. An analogy is a comparison of two things that are essentially dissimilar but are shown through the analogy to have some similarity. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which two different universes of thought are linked by some point of similarity. In the broadest sense of the term, all metaphors are simple analogies, but not all analogies are metaphors. Nature is a good source to provide analogies. Poetry is a good source of metaphors. Similes are specific types of metaphors that use the words "like" and "as" - for instance, the wind cut like a knife; his hand was as quick as a frog´s tongue, he sees like a condor and digs as fast as a mole. They too can be used to suggest comparisons that offer solutions.


   Mind Mapping is a visual and verbal tool usually use to structure complex situations in a radial and expanding way. A mind map is by definition a creative pattern of relate ideas, thoughts, process, objects, etc.

   Any person from 6 to 100 years can learn to use the technique. The principles are few and easy to understand. The best way to learn it is by practice. After short time you will do it automatically. If it is difficult for adults because they are used to think linear and take notes in a linear way (using the left hemisphere of the brain). To make mind maps you have to draw ideas from the centre of the paper and move in a radial and parallel way, to do that you have to use both your creative and your logical brain. With some experience you develop your own style, your own pallet of colours, your own symbols, your own icons, etc.

   Mind Mapping contains usually the following elements:

   ·The subject or the problem that has to be studied or analysed will be placed in the centre of the paper;
   ·It is used keywords (names or verbs) to represent ideas, as far as possible only a word is used in a line; ·The keywords are connected to the centrum through a main branch and sub-branches;
   ·Colours and symbols are used to emphasise ideas or to stimulate the brain to identify new relations; and
   ·Let ideas and thoughts flow free; avoid too much evaluation during the period of elaboration of the map.

   When I construct a mind map, I will start from left to right building main branches in a circular way. Then, I will continue drawing sub-branches moving in a circular way until the whole sheet of paper is fill up with ideas. That is, I have been moving following an expanding spiral pattern. Then, I will move in the reserve way following a contracting spiral pattern supplementing the map with new ideas. These spiral movements provoke the interplay between the creative and the logical brain to be able to combine holistic thinking with particular details of the subject or the problem in question.

   Mind Mapping has been applied to many areas:

  ·To take notes during an interview or a lecture;
  ·To attack a planning problem;
  ·To deal with any problem;
   ·To take notes while reading a book or an article;
   ·To make transparencies for a lecture;
   ·To plan a party or a trip; and
   ·Many other applications use your fantasy.

   Divergent and Convergent Thinking

   Experience has shown that it is recommendable in a creative process to start with a divergent thinking to produce as many ideas or solutions as possible and thereafter to switch to a convergent thinking to select the few most promising ideas. This is usually illustrated in the form of a diamond.

   Some of the rules for divergent thinking are:

   ·Imaging, reframe and see issues from different perspectives;
   ·Defer judgement, criticism or negativity kills the divergent process, be open to new experiences;
   ·Quantity breeds quality, to have good ideas you need lots of ideas;
   ·Hitchhiking is permitted, it this way a synergetic effect can be achieved;
   ·Combine and modify ideas, in this way you can create many ideas;
   ·Think in pictures, to create future scenarios you can even essay to simulate potential solutions;
   ·Stretch for ideas, imaging ideas beyond normal limits; and
   ·Do not be afraid to break paradigms, avoid destructive criticism, and add value to the challenged concept.

   Some of the rules of convergent thinking are:

   ·Be systematic, find structure and patterns in the set of produced ideas;
   ·Develop ways to evaluate ideas, assess qualitative and quantitative measures of ideas;
   ·Do not be afraid of using intuition, this is the way how most important decisions are taken;
   · Avoid quickly ruling out an area of consideration, take your time or better sleep on it;
   ·Avoid idea-killer views, try the impossible, do not be afraid to clash against a wall it is not sure that the wall will always hold;
   ·Satisfy, do not expend to much time in looking for the optimal solution of an ill-structured multi-criteria problem,
   ·Use heuristics, use common sense and experience based rules; and
   ·Do not avoid but assess risks, it does not mean being blind to risks, for serious consequences be sure to have a contingency plan.

   As we have seen the Vision Conference contains phases of divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking produces as many solutions as possible within the available time. The participants will vary in the way they prefer to produce ideas; some will do it by association others by unrelated stimulus to enhance fluency, flexibility and originality enhancing the elaboration of ideas. Convergent thinking on the other hand requires from the participants to use skills in reality testing, judgement and evaluation to choose the one or two best options from a number of possibilities.

   It is not unusual that in a group some members will very easily diverge, that is build a list of alternatives, while others will converge very fast by trying to select the best solution from the list and the rest will be passive not knowing what is required of them. Therefore the need of a facilitator that designs a clear and visible process map to align the group. Usually the facilitator does not select the participants of the group; very fast he has to identify the profiles of the participants. A more deep discussion of creative problem solving can be found in Vidal (2002a).


   The Vision Conference was develop as a strategy to develop visions in a form of ideas or projects for developing an organisation or a community. The design of the conference task embodies the principles of creative problem solving while the social organisation of the group expresses the principles of facilitation of responsible participative democracy.

  The Vision Conference is characterised by three main aspects:

   ·The focus in group dynamics while other approaches focus in methods or approaches for task solving as the steering factor, this is the case for example of the Delphi technique;
   ·The Vision Conference is grounded in modern concepts of creativity and the facilitation of creative problem solving processes; and
  ·The Vision Conference emphasises collective work and collaborative learning through the interaction of the participants with the aim of learning how to build, sustain, and develop responsible participative communities.

   We have learn to design, manage, and evaluate Vision Conferences, the next task is to essay to answer the question: What did we learn from this experience? This is the field of the systematisation of praxis. To systematise is to describe, structure, and reflect analytically the development of a practical experience, see further Vidal (1991, 2003). Finally, an application of the Vision Conference to organisational development can be seen in Vidal(2001) and to planning in primary schools in Sørensen and Vidal (2002).

   Since March 2002, the DOC has now develop to a very important organisation for the whole LEADER+ program not only in Denmark and in the whole North Europe. Very soon, November 2003, we are running a similar Vision Conference organised by DOC where the main focus is national and international cooperation.


Couger, J.D. (1995). Creative Problem Solving and Opportunity Finding, Boyd&Fraser publishing company, Danvers, USA.

Geenwood, D.J. And Levin, M. (1998). Introduction to Action Research, Sage Publications, California, USA.

Rosenhead, J. And Mingers, J. (2001). Rational Analysis for a Problematic World, Second Edition, J. Wiley, Chichester, UK.

Sørensen, L. And Vidal, R.V.V. (2002). Soft Methods in Primary Schools: Focusing in IT strategies, International Transactions in Operational Research, Vol. 9, N. 2, pp. 141-152.

Vidal, R.V.V. (1991). The systematisation of Practice, in M.C. Jackson et al., Systems Thinking in Europe, Plenum Press, NY, pp. 443-448.

Vidal, R.V.V. (2001). Facilitating Organisational Development - The case of the European Tapestry Forum, Working paper, IMM, Technical University of Denmark, p. 18.

Vidal, R.V.V. (2002a). Creativity and Problem Solving, Lecture Notes, IMM, Technical University of Denmark, p. 59.

Vidal, R.V.V. (2002b). LEADER+ i Vestsjællands Amt - Et Visionsværksted, Udviklingscenter Odsherred, Nykøbing Sjælland, Danmark, p. 26 (in Danish).

Vidal R.V.V. (2003). From Action to Learning: The systematisation of alternative consulting experiences, AI&Society, to appear.

About the Author

Autor: René Victor Valqui Vidal
Dirección: IMM, Technical University of Denmark. B.305, 2800 Lyngby, Denmark
Correo electrónico:



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Fernando González-Laxe. (Universidade da Coruña)
Venancio Salcines. (Universidade da Coruña)
Andrés Blancas. Instituto de Investigaciones Económicas (UNAM)
Editor Asociado para America Latina:
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