Before we begin, a confession: I absolutely despise group brainstorms.
My feelings are not well-actualized in real life. Despite my dislike, I've participated in hundreds of them, facilitated many, and subjected my own poor teams to more than I'd like to count.
But my continued participation has done nothing to ease the white-palmed panic and frustration I experience during every one. The very objective of these ideation free-for-all - to let go of inhibitions, free the creative mind and publicly vomit out as many half-baked thoughts as possible - makes my guts shiver and vision go blurry.
This, of course, is all normal. For an introvert.
And that, of course, makes reactions like these very normal - because introverts statistically make up at least a third of the workforce (and up to one half).
There are many ways that group brainstorms can go awry or be unproductive. But three strategies I've adopted to ease their strain on my introverted teammates can actually increase their effectiveness for everybody, since the same tools increase overall focus, preparedness and structure. The key is to reduce the deer-in-the-headlights aspects of these sessions with preparation, reflection and order:
1. Share a concise brief.
Great ideation begins with a clearly stated problem, as well as any non-negotiable constraints for its solution. Instead of sharing this information in your session, circulate a short brief several days before it's scheduled.
This "framework for ideation" should simply and clearly state the objective of the brainstorm ("Client X has tasked us with naming an eco-friendly alternative to a toxic but effective industrial cleaner"), useful constructs for creativity ("Cleaner is blue in color, smells like rain, and is derived from birch trees"), and any major constraints for thinking ("Cleaner's name should not involve an "Eco-" prefix; for example, "Ecoclean").
For introverts, early access to these brainstorm objectives will soothe the anxiety of being put on the spot - and everyone will benefit from the clear communication of the task at hand.
2. Kick off the brainstorm with 10 minutes of silence.
Taking a page from the Amazon toolbox, schedule time at the beginning of the brainstorm for attendees to review the brief and any other brainstorm materials, like market data, in silence. This simple task can sound like a bad use of time, particularly if you trust your team to truly arrive prepared. However, quiet meeting kickoffs, as opposed to verbal ones, give meeting attendees the chance to reflect on the task at hand, instead of just hearing about it.
This short but important opportunity for critical thinking helps introverts prepare their thoughts, and gives everyone the chance to freshly contextualize the brainstorm's objectives, fine-tuning the focus of the meeting.
3. Alternate between impromptu and ordered responses
Brainstorms often involve a rampage of shouted ideas and rapid-fire sticky notes. This impulsive style of sharing thoughts is perfectly fine, but research has shown that extroverts are more likely to participate, while more introverted personalities hold back.
Address these different group input styles by occasionally isolating important questions related to the brainstorm's objective, then going around in a circle to gather input, individual by individual. This maximizes group exposure to more diverse ways of thinking about the problem, and can extract thinking that might have otherwise been held back.