Companies & Industries

How to Lead Better Brainstorming Sessions


Coaxing along great ideas means formulating the right mix of team members and enticing quiet folks to speak up, says Harvard's Julie Gilbert

Posted on Now, New, Next: May 4, 2009 2:03 PM

Inspire your team to innovation! Sounds easy, right? Just schedule a meeting, title it "innovate new opportunities" or "strategic alignment" or one of those types of titles. Get your team together, kick off the meeting with a vision of the future, and unleash the brainstorming. Capture the good ideas, action item the next steps, and hit the ground running!

But have you ever really taken a step back and watched the dynamics in the room? Do you truly have the right set-up and the right leadership to get the biggest ideas in motion? Are you really opening up dialogue, or are you somehow ensuring that the same people that always talk are still talking—while others are remaining silent, sitting on ideas that could blow open the industry?

If you are only hearing from the same people, those that feel safe speaking, you are not going to likely reinvent or innovate much of anything. You do not have a culture or an environment where everyone gets their ideas on the table. And, even worse, those individuals that are remaining quiet are likely sitting on the very best ideas.

Three quick process checks can help: Who is in the room? What is your brainstorm process? What is your leadership body language? Let's break them down:

1) Who is in the room?

What is the gender diversity in the room? It should be 50/50 male female if you want to represent your consumer base in any industry

What are the experiential levels in the room? You should include individuals just entering the workforce as well as those that have been in their career for some time.

What is the ethnic diversity in the room? It should represent your global consumer base.

Do you have consumers in the room with you? Invite your customers to the table of business invention.

2) During the brainstorming process, who gets to speak?

Do you call more on those people you know best? Spread your attention around.

Does each person get a chance to speak, or do you just automatically open up the room to whomever wants to talk? Make sure that you give each person a chance to write down their ideas— then go around the room to hear from each person.

If you don't understand a person's response, don't just move on to the next person. Stop and ask them to clarify their thinking for you.

3) What is your leadership body language? Ask yourself:

Do you look each and every person in the eye?

Do you unconsciously ratify—say, by nodding at them—the ideas that are most in line with yours?

Where do you stand? Who are you facing?

Many people may think all this is just "overthinking." However, have you ever been in a room and had no eye contact from the leader or sat through meetings where the same favorites were called on and applauded again and again? Have you ever finally had the courage to submit an idea, only to be ignored or, worse, have the leader publicly shoot down the idea without asking you for more insights? How eager did this make you to engage again? Alienated employees withdraw their mental capacities and energy from these meetings—and that costs their companies.

Without diversity, without great leadership, and without a safe culture of innovation, you will get either fall behind or continue to make "one step ahead" moves that will limit your growth.

Provided by Harvard Business—Where Leaders Get Their Edge

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