Brainstorming at lightning speed

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About a hundred of us have come to a free demo of a mental workout entitled Creativity for Logical Thinkers. Bailey is also our facilitator at the demo.

The Mind Gym is a training company whose particular brand of development - based on sessions lasting 90 minutes - has won it a number of blue-chip clients, including banks and investment houses, since the company was launched last year. Workouts are offered on about 60 different subjects.

The session at the conference is just 45 minutes long and takes us on a high-speed brainstorming course. Creativity and logical thinking are not incompatible, we are told. The key is to have an open mind but a structured thought process, and to defer judgment - so that people are not afraid to make outrageous suggestions.

We start with a quick example - objective: 'Invent a new pizza'. First, we define the things you might normally do new toppings, different base, price based on toppings, and so on. Then we are told to think of as many opposites or variations of each characteristic as we can sweet toppings, no toppings, toppings inside the base, toppings under the base, cold toppings, square base, crispy base, no base, price based on time of day, flat-rate price, and other variations. Filled crust pizzas were invented by a process similar to this, Bailey tells us.

By the end of our 45 minutes we have been through the same exercise with two other challenges as well: 'Recruit people from top business schools' and 'Invent a replacement for the Millennium Dome'. Some way-out ideas are suggested, including kidnapping MBAs, and an underwater park for disabled people on the theme of tea (or something like that).

There is no time for evaluation here, but the point of the process is clear. It has been great fun and the audience is buzzing.

A few weeks later and another Mind Gym facilitator, Giles Ford, promises another audience 'more info-tainment than rocket science'. This is a session on 'Getting Things Done' and we are in the offices of the PR agency Countrywide Porter Novelli. The firm is using a series of workouts to reinforce its core values, in this case,'initiative'.

We start off with a test designed to reveal how much we procrastinate, followed by a brief spiel about being proactive.

'What stops us getting things done?' Ford asks. The group shouts out answers: 'Scared of getting it wrong', 'Daunted by the prospect of something difficult', 'Too busy faffing about with other things'. Ford sympathises, peppering the conversation with examples of his own inadequacies.

Then it is time for a group exercise. We are divided into five groups, each with a particular 'barrier to action' to focus on: complacency ('I could do this any time I want') avoiding discomfort ('Doing the sums is really boring') fear of failure ('What if it doesn't work?') emotional barriers ('I just can't face it') and action illusion ('Let's make a list').

We have 10 minutes to draw up on flip charts what our designated barrier is, how it makes us feel and what solutions we propose. Then each group presents its findings to the others. One of the interesting things for Ford is how readily we include 'get some help' in our solutions - a fact he puts down to the group being all women.

Later, we each pick something we have been putting off, work out why, and draw up an action plan. (A week later, I have done my long-procrastinated task, following two tips in particular: devote five minutes to the task, and then decide if you want to devote the next five minutes to it - and think about how you will feel once it is done.)

As Ford says, it is not rocket science. But the founders of the Mind Gym, Sebastian Bailey and Octavius Black, who is also the managing director, make no great claims to originality. What they have done is to reformat and repackage existing ideas in a clever and practical way.

Companies can book one 'workout' at a time, or run a few sessions over the course of a day that employees choose according to their interests and workloads.

'Time is a real commodity and it gets worse the more senior you get,' says Antonia Cowdry, vice-president for organisational development for Deutsche Bank, an early Mind Gym client. 'We've used them as part of team-building exercises and also in a pure training context. Their USP [unique selling point] is the variety of courses.'

From a company's point of view, the brevity of the sessions makes the training cheap and increases the chances that its staff will want to attend. From an individual's point of view, the format offers instant gratification - self-improvement in the time it takes to have a meeting.

Such courses do not impress everyone. But the formula is a seductive one in today's high pressure, development-conscious workplace, and Black sells the concept masterfully. Should he ever create a module called 'Get great PR for your company', book it straightaway.