How do you do it? How do you work with a raw bunch of people who've sat through a brainstorming / save-the-planet session so many times before?
At this late hour, three things seem to be essential to walk away with something of worth.
1) Keep it real. If it's not relevant, if it has no translation, people will become disintereted (rapidly) and will scarce be engaged enough to offer their best. Their brains will go into cruise control - some sort of default 'boring seminar' mode - and the feedback will be trite and possibly tainted with annoyance.
2) Be focused and adaptable. There is some sort of agenda at work here, something you need to walk away with. So there's a purpose. But you're not going to beat it out of people, are you? You're not going to get at it by constantly tut-tutting, pulling people back into line, cutting people off because they're not behaving how you want them to behave. If your focus is sharp enough, perhaps you'll dare to chase a few white rabbits with people. It might not tick every box on your programme, but it might land you in a richer place instead.
3) Dare to be different. Have your own angle / quirky / cute way of putting the question out there. People learn to identify formulas, and are programmed to respond formulaically. So walk around the question and view it from a few different angles, then dare to give people new windows on old questions. Angles that personalise and that have some grounding in the concrete rather than pure abstraction are probably your friends. If you can find a new way of opening up a question without losing half the room, well done, you!
That's the extent of my reflection (tonight) on the process of getting something meaningful out of a roomful of people.
I sat in a session this evening over at my alma mater where the facilitator showed some grounded wisdom in getting useable information out of a bunch of people at the end of their working day. The lolly bowl was also well-stocked with some interesting and zesty things (point 4?).
(John, if you're reading, you chose well, and it worked. Hope the college enjoys some benefit from the exercise.)