Helping Participants Generate and Evaluate Ideas

In general, the best options are those that are future-oriented and consider the interests of all participants.

Key Talents for Better Public Participation, Part 12

A common practice in all kinds of participation settings is generating, refining, evaluating and ranking ideas. Two skills are particularly helpful for supporting these activities: brainstorming and visioning to generate ideas, and using ABC standards to evaluate ideas.

Brainstorming and Visioning

Some participation opportunities will directly center on generating new ideas and information, while others may only need to generate ideas as one of the steps in the process. Generating ideas is sometimes called ideation, especially when it is done online. Whether done in online or face-to-face settings, ideation relies on brainstorming and visioning.

The term “brainstorming” was popularized by Alex Faickney Osborn in his book Applied Imagination. Since then, practitioners and researchers have updated and improved upon his approach.

Brainstorming is now a very common way to help groups identify creative solutions to problems or issues. At its heart, brainstorming combines informal problem solving with lateral thinking and fun. During the brainstorming process, groups are encouraged to develop as many ideas for addressing a problem as quickly as they can.

Visioning is very similar to brainstorming. However, it is more future-focused. Instead of asking people to come up with ideas for problem solving, it asks people to look to some point in the future when the problem has been solved and generate ideas about what the situation looks like without the problem being present.

The steps of brainstorming and visioning are similar and simple. The facilitator prepares the group by explaining the process and the rules, presents the problem or issue to be addressed and guides the discussion while reinforcing five simple rules:

  1. Don’t evaluate or criticize ideas; defer judgment.
  2. Quantity is the goal; the wilder the ideas, the better.
  3. Record each idea.
  4. Building upon or combining ideas is OK.
  5. No one owns any idea.

The actual process of brainstorming and visioning can be done in several different ways. Facilitators can use an unstructured approach, where participants offer ideas in no particular order and as ideas come to them, or a round robin approach, where participants take turns offering ideas.

In settings where the issue is sensitive, facilitators might use an anonymous alternatives approach, where participants are given index cards on which to write their ideas. In settings where the issue is divisive, facilitators might ask participants to “be somebody else” and offer ideas from that particular perspective.

For more variations on brainstorming, visioning and other ideation techniques, see: http://www.mindtools.com/brainstm.html.

Using ABC Standards

Once ideas are generated, they usually need to be evaluated. As suggested by the rules of brainstorming and visioning, it is important to defer evaluation until the ideation process is over. During the evaluation process, the group should work through the ideas together, all the while building agreement and resolving concerns.

In general, the best options are those that are future-oriented and consider the interests of all participants. In some cases, additional evaluation criteria – or standards that define the qualities or facets of a good solution – may be needed. Using and defining “A-B-C standards” can be particularly helpful:

  • A – Is the idea/option Achievable? Is it workable, practical and feasible?
  • B – Is the idea/option Believable? Is it at least somewhat realistic and will it be acceptable to all or most parties?
  • C – Is the idea/option Cost-effective? Is it affordable and fiscally responsible?

Additional standards can be added as necessary. For example, participants may want to add standards that help assess whether an option is legal, fair, environmentally friendly and so on.

Once the standards are in place and agreed to, participants can begin evaluating ideas. Some basic, proven steps in evaluating options are:

  1. clarify all ideas;
  2. eliminate duplicate ideas;
  3. eliminate ideas if everyone agrees; and
  4. cluster related ideas.

Once this is done, then the ideas can be tested with the group. To do so, each idea should be assessed against the standards or evaluation criteria established by the group and against the interests of the group members (does the option satisfy or harm any important interests?). Ideas that do not meet the standards and/or do not satisfy interests should either be modified or eliminated. The remaining ideas should be further discussed to identify areas where there is agreement and concern and possibilities for modification to address concerns.

Read other blogs in this series:

Part 1: Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation

Part 2: Building Coalitions and Networks

Part 3: Cultural Competence and Engaging Youth

Part 4: Recruiting Participants

Part 5: Communicating About Participation

Part 6: Managing Conflict

Part 7: Providing Information and Options: Issue Framing

Part 8: Providing Information and Options: Sequencing Discussions and Writing Discussion Materials

Part 9: Managing Discussions, Blog 1 of 3: Facilitating Face-to-Face Groups

Part 10: Managing Discussions, Blog 2 of 3: Recording and Online Moderation

Part 11: Managing Discussions, Blog 3 of 3: Ground Rules and Feedback

Portions of this post were excerpted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy by Tina Nabatchi and Matt Leighninger. Copyright© 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.


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