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Breaking the “Same-old Solution” Mold when Brainstorming: The SVP Advisory Team Model

Posted by cleveland

By: Ryan Chamberlain and Emily Troia

At first blush, the process of collaborative brainstorming seems simple enough for a nonprofit to organize. Put a bunch of people in a room, give them a problem to solve, and have everyone throw out ideas like spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks. However, this system can result in the same people with the same experiences trying to solve the same problems and coming up with the same solutions. Avoiding this “group think” is one reason Social Venture Partners (SVP) Advisory Team (A-Team) sessions are unique and especially impactful approach to collaborative solution finding.

The four major components that help make SVP’s distinctive A-Team brainstorming sessions a success are the following: 1. Integrating Unique Skills with Unique Challenges, 2. Establishing Target Areas for Improvement, 3. Establishing Goals and Resolutions, 4. Creating Measurable Results.

A group of SVP Partners recently engaged in the A-Team brainstorming process with Investee Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank’s Executive Director and Kids’ Book Bank (KBB) board members. The group’s goal was to probe a pressing issue the organization faces—how to diversify its book-supply source.

Integrating Unique Skills with Unique Challenges

The SVP Partners joining in the KBB A-Team Session came from diverse professional backgrounds with wide-ranging skillsets including supply-chain management, executive-board coaching, and human resource management. Combining multichannel areas of expertise is key to the SVP model. Some Partners hailed from industries and specialty areas that, at first glance, were less in line with the KBB model. However, this “outsider perspective” increased the breadth of solutions envisioned. Also present were Partners who have worked closely with KBB in the past; these individuals provided a depth of understanding of KBB and its dynamic.

Establishing Target Areas for Improvement

KBB’s Executive Director, Judy Payne, framed for the group her organization’s challenge—diversifying her organization’s source of books. While there is not currently a book shortage, taking a proactive stance to ensure a future inflow of its most precious resource is the prudent path KBB is taking. Payne also requested, if possible, for SVP to help KBB map out a plan of execution and strategies for implementation. An initial action item discussed was the possibility of book-collection bins. The group began to discuss costs and logistics of this solution as well as other diversification-channel possibilities. However, a Partner realized the group was getting ahead of itself; he pointed out, “We’re trying to solve a diversification problem, but we don’t know what the goal is. It’s very hard to know how dramatic a step to take because we don’t know whether it’s a thousand books a month or twenty thousand books we should be getting to.”

Establishing Goals and Resolutions

The group then took a step back and clearly defined the goal of collecting 20,000 books each month outside of KBB’s current source as the metric of success in accomplishing true diversification. With the problem better defined and a clear goal established, the focus shifted to strategies to attain this goal. Again, the blend of SVP Partners who had worked with KBB in the past were complemented by Partners who were bringing new eyes to the organization’s workflow. One Partner brought a fresh perspective and his expertise in supply-chain management to the session offering insights on how to manage a diversified workflow and resource management and even offered to tour the KBB warehouse to improve efficiency and mitigate potential waste of time, money, and books.

Creating Measurable Results

With the problem identified (diversification of book inflow) and goal crystalized (20,000 books per month from alternate channels), the final step in the A-Team session was establishing concrete activities that KBB could build-out and reliable metrics for measuring success. In the end, four initiatives were identified. Book collection bins were kept as a good solution. The second idea included creating a book drive toolkit to enable large companies and organizations to easily donate books. The next action item involved contacting multiple online booksellers for their overstock—an expansion of KBB’s current model of collecting book overflow from a single online store. And the final action item consisted of reaching out directly to children’s-book publishers to inquire about receiving their overruns.

The KBB A-Team session resulted in far more than the same-old pieces of brainstormed spaghetti stuck to an overfamiliar wall. The dynamic, professionally-diverse group of SVP Partners and KBB representatives broke up the risk of “group-think,” broke down the problem, and broke ground on potential concrete solutions. The SVP model for brainstorming has helped nearly forty Cleveland-area nonprofits over the past 17 years. It has been used with organizations of many sizes and with widely-varied areas of focus. While its recipe is unique, its principles are easily adaptable and scalable for any group seeking to increase the impact of their advisory sessions.