METHOD IN PROGRESS: This method is incomplete. Please try it out and suggest improvements!

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When you have a large group of participants, and a set of subject-matter experts, how can they best be combined to optimize creative output? Last night at Hack for LA's Mental Health event, I tried out a combination of methods: lightning talks and brainstorming.

The event was focused on mental health data and how technologists, government, and their partners can better use it to address the mental health crisis. As several of the speakers mentioned, mental health is also a major contributor to the homelessness crisis occurring in Los Angeles.

Mike Valle  delivers his lightning talk

Mike Valle delivers his lightning talk

We started the event with an introduction to Civic Hacking from Vyki Englert of Compiler.LA, and quickly moved into the lightning talks. Each lightning talk (5 minutes or less) was followed by a quick period of Q&A from the crowd, also 5 minutes or less. After the speakers had finished, we moved into the "firestorm" part of the method.

The participants were separated into four groups (since we had four subject-matter experts) located in corners of the room at ImpactHubLA. This provided space enough for conversations of normal volume to proceed without interfering with other groups.

After separating the participants, we started the firestorm: 12-minute long sessions with each of the subject-matter experts. The experts took questions from participants, and started brief conversations. These conversations were recorded by scribes and facilitated by volunteers in each group. After each 12-minute period, the subject-matter experts rotated to start new conversations with new groups.

La Tina Jackson  and a participant discussing during the firestorm

La Tina Jackson and a participant discussing during the firestorm

We concluded the event by thanking our participants and experts, and gathered the scribe notes. Ideally, these notes will provide insights as to what projects Hack for LA might prioritize in 2016, with an obvious focus on mental health and utilizing mental health data.

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OBJECTIVE: Generate ideas by introducing sources of great knowledge (SMEs) to thoughtful inquiry.

PARTICIPANTS: Unlimited for the panel, 5 to 10 per SME recommended for the firestorm section of the exercise.

TIMELINE: 10 minutes for lightning talks and accompanying Q&A per SME. 10 - 12 minutes per SME recommended for the firestorm section of the exercise. 3 - 5 minute break between SMEs for groups to discuss.

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  • Prepare a meeting space for each SME/group
  • Ensure each group has a volunteer facilitator
  • Share group interaction rules with volunteer facilitators:
    • Stay engaged (opt-out activity)
    • There are no bad ideas
    • Everyone speaks and listens
    • Keep comments Post-It note in length


  • Introduce the method to the crowd, including time constraints to set expectations, before beginning
  • Start lightning talks and ensure both SMEs and Q&A sections stick to time
  • Count participants off for groups after Q&A with last SME ends
  • Move participants and SMEs into their first groups
    • Volunteer facilitators explain interaction rules before starting first round
    • Ask for a volunteer scribe within each group for each round
    • Conclude conversation around 12 minutes
    • Volunteer facilitators gather feedback from group participants until the next SME is ready to engage
  • Rotate SMEs through groups until they have spoken to each


  • Gather notes from facilitators and scribes
  • Analyze collected artifacts

What do you think of this method? What needs to be improved? How can it be more clearly explained? Please email us your feedback!

Tim Phan  facilitating one of the SME/participant groups

Tim Phan facilitating one of the SME/participant groups

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About the Author:

Ethan Bagley is a service designer, facilitator, philosopher, and many other things. He lives in the greater Los Angeles area with his wife and dog, and travels the world solving problems as a part of EB Advising. When he’s not creating solutions, he’s volunteering with Hack for LAAtheists United, and other mission-driven organizations.