R&D Manager; “Alright, so who has an idea they want to share for how to improve on our beta version? Anything goes. Let’s brainstorm.”
Team Member #1: “I think that the best way to build Version 2.0 is to add in three new features, like voice-to-text, that are available as a paid add-on as part of our free-mium model.”
Manager: “Okay, that’s one thing to consider. Any other ideas”
Team Member #2: “How about one feature is free and the other two are paid add-ons?”
Manager: “Okay, same idea. Great idea.”
Team Member #3: “Maybe we should go with four features, two free, and two paid.”
(Silence from the other three team members)
Manager: “Alright, well, that was all pretty similar, but very productive. Let’s go with four features and vote on the free versus paid split later. Great meeting everyone--Version 2.0 here we come!”
Aren’t you glad that you have never been a part of a brainstorming session where only one idea is discussed and nothing truly innovative ends up getting broached? Oh wait, we all have? Okay then. Well, that’s a bummer for everyone—research and development teams, entrepreneurs, any company trying to gain a competitive advantage through products and services, etc.
How and why do we end up having meetings like the one above? What do we need to consider and what can we do differently to avoid that situation?
When It All Began
Advertising executive (and eventual business guru) Alex Faickney Osborn is often credited with formally introducing the technique of brainstorming back in 1938 as a judgment-free way for sharing ideas. His primary goal was for his advertising group to initially reach the highest quantity, rather than quality, of ideas. In turn, his strategy was for his team members to defer judgment until all ideas had been laid out and then come back to them with a critical eye in a second stage of the process. Many of us know, however, that meetings can quickly turn into ones like the vignette above, so below I’ll delineate some of the factors that inhibit effective brainstorming (i.e., the factors to consider so you can follow in old Ozzy’s footsteps).
Ozzy prioritized creating a judgment-free zone for his brainstormers because he didn’t want their sharing of ideas to be inhibited by fear that their ideas would be criticized or that their status within the team would be diminished if they said the wrong thing. In the lingo of workplace psychology, we would say that he prioritized “psychological safety." Research follows intuition here and demonstrates the importance of creating such an environment in order to encourage employees to feel free to share and try out new ideas. Too often, intentionally or not, we express cynical or disapproving judgment, which not only suppresses more ideas from being shared in the moment, but also can create an unfortunate precedent that discourages and suppresses ideas from being shared in the future. It is important for you to think how you currently create (or suppress) a psychologically safe environment for your employees — Do you criticize or encourage ideas soon after they are shared? Do you circle back to say why you did or didn’t move forward with someone's idea? What kinds of expectations do employees have for speaking up during group meetings?
Too often we express judgment, which suppresses ideas from being shared in the moment and discourages ideas from being shared in the future.
Time is the Essence
Not to be confused with time being “of the essence.” In fact, quite the opposite. Trying to reach an effective result or solution in a hurry is unlikely to yield a high-quality result (and if you are in a hurry, simply making a decision rather than hastily brainstorming might be a more appropriate method). Even Ozzy, in the earliest days of brainstorming, knew that the process required time and patience rather than a frantic urgency. In his structure, he allowed for two sessions: the brainstorming session followed by a session for idea review and selection. Beyond the simple absolute sum of time, though, is the way in which time is used. Time can be used for individual and group brainstorming, and you should consider allowing members of the group to alternate between the two. In other words, brainstorming asynchronously. For example, if individuals spend time thinking on their own before coming to a group session, it may limit that pigeon-holing that can happen when we latch on to ideas we hear from others that inhibits us from then thinking outside of the box; on the other hand, a group session first can get the juices flowing before individuals take time to think on their own. You could also allow for multiple individual session in a row or group sessions in a row so that there is time for ideas to incubate in between without constantly changing the format.
The Write Before the Storm
At the most basic level, brainwriting, as it is known, can entail the documentation of a group’s ideas on a large post-it note. As simple as this method sounds, we often don’t prioritize the importance of group members paying attention to other’s ideas, and this method can help. More often, we rely on the aesthetic of brainstorming—the chance to say ideas out loud in a group setting—instead of actually giving credence to each idea. Ozzy knew the importance of writing ideas down from the get-go and recorded every one of his group’s ideas for later review. At a more micro level, you can allow individuals to write down ideas and then pass them around for others to build off of those ideas. Keep passing, keep building, let it come back to the originator of each idea, and open up the group session from there (or try a group session first OR alternate multiple times between types of sessions!). Not only can this method efficiently produce more complex ideas than those originally proposed, it can also serve as a clear way for individual members to feel as though their ideas have been validated. Keep in mind that while this can be accomplished through pen-and-paper writing, you can also leverage technology to facilitate the process via electronic brainwriting and storming.
Mish and Mash
You want ideas, lots of ideas, and a wide variety within those ideas. For this, a wide variety of perspectives can be a driving force. Think beyond simply putting together people with different demographic characteristics, though. Think about bringing together group members who have a wide variety of skillsets as well as a wide variety of roles within your organization (be it people in different roles horizontally and/or those with different roles hierarchically). Ozzy loved the idea of combining ideas, and bringing together multiple perspectives can layer unique ideas into an innovative output. These brainwriting techniques can be used to build on ideas by, for example, passing written ideas around a group to uncover new perspectives and new ideas.
Remember, with all of this, being intentional about the way your groups and teams brainstorm will allow you to learn what works best for your organization. There are many factors to consider and eventually you’ll find your perfect (brain)storm — Ozzy would be proud!
To talk more with Daniel about how to build supportive workplace cultures, you can shoot him an email at Daniel@IMshore.com.