By Gale Mote / Guest Editorial
Suggestions for improved brainstorming is a very common request among professionals working collaboratively together to solve a problem; develop a solution or outline strategic options. The belief, of course, is that more innovative ideas will come when everyone is contributing and feeding off one another’s insights and experience.
The reality is that brainstorming reaps its intended rewards only when those involved feel safe and valued as they participate in the process. If team members are holding back, the return on investment is significantly reduced.
It is critical that all participating feel their ideas were heard, considered and understood. It is simple, in theory, and extremely difficult in practice. Think about a recent meeting where people were trying to share opinions and ideas. How were people responding to one another? Were some people buried in their smart phones and laptops? Were ideas soaked rather than stoked? Did others try to analyze every aspect of an idea to the point that it prevented other ideas from coming forward? Did one or two people dominate the dialogue? Did some simply not trust whoever was in the room and therefore remained silent?
Here are some practical tips to share with colleagues to help ensure the time and effort spent brainstorming and collaborating pays positive dividends.
First, establish the difference between brainstorming and decision making. Brainstorming and dialogue proceeds decision making. Remind the group that the goal is to get all of the ideas, issues, concerns, options, etc. out first before beginning any analysis, debate or calling for action. When someone begins getting too down into the weeds analyzing a suggestion, let them know it is premature to start decision making until we have all of the options on the table. Interject a comment like, “I believe we are starting to cross over to decision making now. How do we stay on track with our brainstorming?”
Next, work to establish a few guidelines and expectations to make participants feel safe and allow the process to flow seamlessly. Show appreciation for ideas by making sincere, positive comments to those who risked sharing. “Thanks for bringing that suggestion forward. I appreciate your unique perspective.” Demand 100 percent of everyone’s undivided attention. If this means limiting technology in the meeting, do it. Ensure that ideas have a chance to blossom before they are dismissed. I use a guideline where team members need to share one thing they appreciate about an opinion brought forward before they can share their own. Use the word “and” rather than “but.” Use “I” statements, not “you” to avoid personal attacks.
It helps to structure the discussion so everyone stays actively engaged. Techniques like round-robin brainstorming, affinity diagramming, brainwriting and past-the-problem keep everyone present and attentive. Sometimes it will be necessary to do some gatekeeping to allow the quiet ones to have a voice and prevent the outspoken ones from driving the conversation. “I appreciate your insights, Greg. I’m concerned that I have not heard from everyone in the group. Let’s open this up so we can hear everyone’s perspective.”
Do not underestimate the subtle messages in how the meeting room is setup. I prefer a round conference table or a u-shape so all participants can see one another. If the leader is participating, ensure that she is not sitting at the head of the table. With larger groups, it will be necessary to break into smaller groups (five to seven) to create a comfort level for all to weigh in. In smaller groups, I will sometimes use “partner shares” to get the dialogue flowing. Some people do not want to speak openly in front of a large group because of the dynamics in the room and/or their own personal communication preferences.
Listening is essential to effective brainstorming. Refer back to comments made earlier by other team members, using their name and watch how it makes people feel. “I want to refer back to Sara’s comment about our support services staff.” Asking clarifying questions shows interests and helps to make connections between ideas and generate new ones. Be patient; do not allow interruptions or people talking over one another.
Lastly, setting a target can actually help to stimulate more and creative ideas. Let’s say you have two different groups of five people. You ask one group to come up with as many ideas as they can on different ways to use a paper clip. You tell the other group that they are to come up with a minimum of 25 different ways. You give both groups the same amount of time. The team with the target will usually always outperform the group that had no goal. Setting a performance challenge stimulates creative and innovative thinking.
Brainstorming is an essential skill to improve quality, customer service, productivity, teamwork, employee engagement and a wealth of other challenges facing business leaders today. To be effective, everyone’s voice must be heard, considered and understood. Building the interpersonal skills necessary to listen and support one another while properly structuring the session will result in really great ideas, supported by all and grounded in high energy. The light bulb is on.
Gale Mote is a trainer, organizational development catalyst and coach in Cedar Rapids. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.