Any CEO or manager knows brainstorming is a major collaboration tool that elicits a slew of creative ideas from enthusiastic participants. But because it can often turn combative when ideas get shot down with criticism from other participants, some managers settle for its tamer version, soliciting ideas in writing. How can effective leaders optimize brainstorming exercises and practice the excellent facilitation skills of leaders that encourage animated discussions and minimize the hostility? Have a clear purpose for your meeting and stick to that purpose. Set clear guidelines prior to the brainstorming meeting. Finally, a few distinct facilitation skills (leadership and communication skills) can avoid the heated discussions.
Facilitation Skills of Leaders
Have a Clear Purpose and Limit
Emphasize the time limit when sending notices to your team and they’ll show up eager to contribute. Why? They’ll appreciate that your meeting promises to be different from the meandering kind that goes every which way and extends on and on.
Open the meeting by stating what you expect to accomplish by the end of the set limit. Better yet, make finishing the brainstorming session on or before the agreed time a part of your goal. I’ve been in a meeting that opened with everyone energized and the manager so enthusiastic that’s he forgot the time. The meeting ran close to 5 hours! It ended with everyone exhausted and thinking up an excuse to avoid the next meeting. You don’t want that, right?
Set Clear Guidelines
Rules are accepted by children as a fun part of any game to mark progress toward winning, but your team may view rules as burdensome constraints. Instead of rules, introduce meeting guidelines as tools to accomplish the goal within the time period. Few will object to a meeting with a time limit.
After stating the goal and time limit, distribute the brief written guidelines. Let each read in turn, one guideline at a time, repeating if needed until everyone has taken a turn. By reading aloud, they declare understanding and agreement. The use of “we” and “our” gives a sense of ownership to all present.
Facilitation Skills of Leaders – Examples and Guidelines
- We remember our Purpose.
Example: Our purpose is to gather 15 to 20 ideas for an advertising/PR campaign to promote product X. We will do this within 3 hours.
- We will not monopolize the group’s time and attention. We will yield the floor to others.
- We will not interrupt when someone is talking. We will give them our attention. We will not engage in cross talk.
- When giving feedback about another’s idea, we will make “I” statements, not “You” statements.
Example: “I feel our clients may misinterpret that change of refund rules” instead of “Your refund rules stink.”
- If we feel the group is going “off-track” we will ask for a pause so the group can re-align with the purpose and the guidelines.
Heated Debate or Lackluster Response
While avoiding a hostile atmosphere where people’s ideas get blown to bits, you don’t want to end up in the other extreme where everyone’s being diplomatic and always concurring. Implement these steps to maintain everyone’s creative sparks while brainstorming.
- Dedicate the main part only to getting 15 to 20 ideas. Assign one person to list them. No remarks are allowed at this time. This avoids negative, knee jerk reactions.
- Ask the assigned person to read what’s on the list and another to re-state the idea. This catches misunderstanding of ideas.
- Spend the rest of the meeting to discuss the suggestions, eliminating the non-workable ones and ranking the best ones. This encourages lively debate while remembering the guidelines.
- Be quick to acknowledge merits of ideas. If tempers flare, pause. Then ask protagonist A to state how he understood protagonist B’s case, and vice versa. Disagreement can often be traced to semantics.
Your team may be suffering from brainstorm aversion or fatigue. When you succeed in activating their enthusiasm for this valuable exercise, it’ll be a rewarding leadership experience, on several levels.
Michelle Riklan is president of Riklan Resources and an instructor for The Leader’s Institute® in the Northeast region. She is based in Trenton, NJ but she also teaches in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and other Northeast cities.