Much has been said about ‘brainstorming’ – and much actually misses the point!
Brainstorming is “a group problem-solving technique that involves the spontaneous contribution of ideas from all members of the group,” and is an excellent way to teach your staff how to think more creatively, constructively, deeply, widely, strategically, consistently and a variety of other adverbs that you’d like them to be able to do when they think through the issues and implications they face.
But when they don’t already know how to brainstorm effectively, what’s a boss to do?
- You can brainstorm FOR them – This is how most bosses do it. Rather than coach, mentor, teach, or show how to analyze and assess, most bosses just answers all the questions and surface all the options themselves. Staff’s role is to just back and wait. Does this work? Well, up to a point, yes it does – if by ‘yes’ you mean it brings everyone up to speed on a topic. But if you think it through, you’ll realize that this particular approach actually teaches staff how NOT to think, how NOT to wonder, and how NOT to consider much on their own. Why? Because the boss is already doing all the work (and seems to WANT to do all the work) so staff says, ‘Fine, YOU do it, then.’
- You can tell them to brainstorm by THEMSELVES – For more advanced teams, this is actually the choice of choice. But many work groups honestly don’t know where to start or don’t know what to do when the nay-saying kicks in. So for this lesser experienced teams, not much really gets accomplished when the boss just throws an issue ‘over the wall’ like that. In fact, many teams will procrastinate, if not entirely ignore your request, in hopes you’ll either forget about it or will revert back to brainstorming FOR them once they’re reminded.
- You can brainstorm WITH them – The idea, here, is to help them get started by framing the issue, providing a possible implication, and then encouraging THEM to identify additional implications, instead of just waiting for you. (Sure, you likely already have some really good ideas, but delegating is not about what YOU know or can conjure; it’s about helping them access what THEY know and what THEY can conjure. So, please, resist the temptation to be the smartest person in the room.) Too, since brainstorming is more about surfacing ideas than evaluating them, it’s important to show how to create a ‘safe place’ for staff to flex their mental muscles in this new way. Your job is NOT to discount – or let anyone else discount – someone else’s ideas – the evaluative/vetting stage comes later. At this point, your job is to simply keep things from getting bogged down.
Increasing the Flow of Ideas
Here are some quick and easy ways to keep the dialogue going:
- say you’ll brainstorm together, but they need to go first
- for every 2-3 ideas they they come up with, offer no more than one of yours
- make sure new ideas build prior ones rather than rejecting them out-of-hand
- encourage wacky thinking – the more outrageous the better! – and enjoy a good laugh at the outrageousness
- encourage the ‘quiet’ people to contribute as well (“What might we be missing, Mary?” or “What are you thinking, Steve?”)
- don’t fear silence – sometimes people need time to think and gather their thoughts
- if you think they’ve stalled, get them to move around, change chairs, stretch, take a break, doodle – whatever helps reinvigorate the mood
- and don’t lose track of the fact that the goal, at this point, is idea GENERATION, not option prudency. (There’s time for that later.)
Practice, Practice, Practice
If your staff has trouble brainstorming, you may want to INCREASE the amount of brainstorming they do. As people tend to engage more readily with issues that are already relevant to them, tell them you want to help them practice. Then ask them problems they’re having, what opportunities they see, what they’re worried will happen next and suggest you all just kick around some possibilities. Or you could just do it in stealth mode, by asking them, more readily, for THEIR views on a problem or opportunity that’s on your radar.
Remember, the point of the exercise is to get them comfortable with thinking out loud, more insightfully, more strategically, and in increasingly nuanced ways. So start with something other than your Number One high-profile priority. Brainstorming is a skill and to develop fully, skills must be practiced.So don’t worry if it’s slow-going at first. That’s natural.
Learning, after all, is an iterative process – one that brainstorming can definitely facilitate!