Imagine being a fly on your customers’ walls. You’d be able to hear everything they say, and you’d finally learn what they really, honestly think of you and your company’s service. Or what if you could be privy to your peers’ thoughts and insights on how your company can be better, leaner and stronger? In both scenarios you’d gain tremendous insight into ideas for improving your business. Back in the real world, in theory, you may be able to get similar benefits from brainstorming. (Even if I did have a flock of flies with tiny microphones that I could send out to eavesdrop, I’m pretty sure I’m not prepared to deal with the legal ramifications.)
But there may be one tiny problem: Brainstorming sessions almost never work as well as we want them to. Someone may get defensive. Another person may feel like they have to self-edit and explain or rationalize every idea. Junior members of the staff may not feel comfortable airing their ideas in front of the boss. Managers might not feel good about sharing an idea, only to have it shot down. Sometimes brainstorming sessions can go awry and don’t yield what we really want. It may leave you feeling stuck: You want to harness the amazing power of your staff, but may find you're unable to do it in a practical, productive way.
A Brainstorming Method That May Help
We need interaction and fresh ideas to thrive, and many of us work hard to actively cultivate methods for collecting useful feedback. I've found this brainstorming method to be helpful. You assemble your team and explain the goal of the session. Maybe you have a manufacturing problem and defects are causing problems in the painting process. Or perhaps there’s a dip in sales for the month of June every year, and you want to get ahead of it this year and maintain the growth you’re seeing. Whatever the trouble, consider presenting the facts and asking your team how you could solve the problem. Being thorough and direct—and making it clear what you hope the outcome of the session will be—may help you get the solutions you want to hear.
Next, consider encouraging your team to ask any qualifying questions they may need to understand the scope of the problem:
“Which products are affected?”
“Does it happen all the time?”
“Do we always post big numbers in May?”
“Could it have something to do with the end of the school year?”
Answering all of their questions, and making sure your staff understands the problem, can be helpful. Consider assigning one person to be the timekeeper. During this brainstorming method, as the boss you’ll want to be able to hear clearly, but you aren’t allowed to participate in the process in any way. No head shaking. No groans. No reactions at all. I’ve found situating yourself in the corner of the room, facing the wall to be helpful in keeping your reactions away from your team. And here’s a secret: In my group, if the person leading the session can’t control their reactions, we get to throw a pen at their backs. Childish? Yes. Effective and strangely satisfying? Also yes.
But there’s a reason for this madness. Since you’re not interacting—unconsciously encouraging some ideas and discouraging others—the discussion may be more likely to meander on its own. Thoughts may wander and drift, influenced by input from the group. With this brainstorming method, concepts and solutions can build without an agenda from the top. It’s the freedom to express ideas without worrying whether the boss is going to like them that may help open the group up to consider everything. A multiplicity of perspectives can yield a goldmine of ideas. With this brainstorming method, you may get creative, innovative solutions you never dreamed of, all because you turned away.
When time is up (or the discussion is no longer productive), you can turn around with your list of new ideas. You may also want to include in your notes any thoughts or questions you have throughout the process, as they may be helpful as you refine the raw materials your team develops. While you’re working through your list of ideas, you may want to bring in a team member or two to clarify or help push harder on some of the ideas to arrive at a solution.
Done properly, brainstorming can be one of the single most effective tools for problem solving. Turning your back can help put your team to work.
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