Some people dread brainstorming sessions, but not for the reasons you might think. While offering up ideas for criticism and debate can be intimidating to some employees, the root of their fear stems from what's already sitting on their desks.
They know that whatever transpires from a brainstorm will inevitably find its way onto that never-ending, ever-increasing to-do list. And they aren't convinced that the time they're spending brainstorming might not be better spent on something else.
Although there's always work to be done, you can ensure that every brainstorming session is worth the time you've invested in it.
Create an Environment for Ideation
Recently, my team gathered for a brainstorming session to better define our "why." Everyone passionately contributed, and we came away with a direction that defines our culture and purpose.
Why? Because we continually tap into the collective brainpower of our employees to solve problems and develop original ideas and concepts, creating a space for people to be their greatest selves. As a leader, it's your responsibility to facilitate ideation in a way that isn't detrimental to actual work. That means setting up your entire team for success by creating the right environment--one that strikes a balance between work and ideas.
Here's my recipe for building a work culture that supports creativity:
Integrate Creative Thinking Into the Company Culture
From the mailroom to the executive suite, encourage all employees to share their ideas for improving and growing the company. To encourage creative thinking and efficient communication, DreamWorks Animation only allows people to work in teams of seven or fewer. This keeps its workforce of 1,600 people supported in a network of small groups where employees know one another well and feel comfortable creating and testing ideas in such a large company.
Ask the Right Questions Often
If you never ask, you'll never know the ideas or obstacles facing your team. Solicit feedback from employees in every department on what they need to succeed in their roles, and support them in their endeavors to find solutions. If you ask an employee how he can improve his role once, he might not have an answer on the spot. If you ask that question weekly or daily, it will instill a system of thinking about his work that will shine through in his daily activities and interactions with other teams.
Recognize and Reward Innovation
Even the smallest suggestions can have a huge impact on morale. So prepare yourself to not only act on ideas, but also recognize and reward those who bring them to your attention.
Research from the SHRM Foundation shows that managers with better performance management demonstrated 50 percent less staff turnover, up to 30 percent higher customer satisfaction, and 40 percent higher employee commitment.
Once you've established a culture where employees feel like they can balance their workload while still generating new ideas, your attention should shift to making each brainstorming session as productive as possible.
Facilitate a Successful Brainstorm
Adopting a culture of open communication and feedback is the foundation of every effective brainstorming session. If there's any fear of criticism, you'll kill the team's creativity. Here are a few guiding principles that should drive your brainstorm.
Provide a Structure
Unrelated issues can easily divert discussions, and while it may lead to exciting and viable ideas, you should review these at a later date. Start each brainstorm with a goal or intention, and develop an outline to keep the group moving in the right direction.
Without the pressure of time or money, your team can be left languishing during its brainstorming sessions. Use constraints such as deadlines or cost parameters to drive both creativity and productivity.
Removing certain options and limiting what's available can encourage your team to develop new ways to solve problems. For example, our company asked staff to devise new methods for nurturing customer relationships without the use of PR or paid marketing, which forced the group to think in new ways.
More vocal team members often dominate discussions, and their opinions can eclipse those of your quieter employees. To ensure all voices are heard, split brainstorms into two sessions: individual reflection and groupthink. During groupthink, ask members to present their ideas, and welcome suggestions to the discussion.
Different departments usually deal with complementary sides of product optimization. Putting members of these departments in the same room for brainstorms can provide diverse perspectives on issues and produce high-impact results.
Help Employees Prioritize
Our company uses a valuable exercise from Warren Buffett that helps our teams clearly identify and understand their big-picture goals, so they go into groupthink sessions with a sense of priority for every new project. The process includes these steps:
First, make a list of everything you hope to accomplish for the year. Circle the five things you want to address above all else. This will be your focus list.
Now, look at the remaining items. Your impulse is probably to put them on a secondary priority list. Instead, these items become an avoidance list. Focusing on these tasks can actually get in the way of accomplishing your primary goals.
If a new and better idea develops during a brainstorm, a less influential one drops to the avoidance list, and you're still left with only five goals to work toward.
This exercise provides your team with space to think creatively and produce fresh ideas.
Brainstorming sessions are about tapping into the collective brainpower of your organization to solve problems and develop new ideas, not slowing down your employees. If your employees recognize that their contributions won't just pad their to-do lists--or waste time they could have spent on their to-do lists--they'll bring an unparalleled amount of innovation.