Better brainstorming: How to inspire group creativity

employees brainstormingAs Sigmund Freud observed, groups bring out the best and the worst in people.

As a result, group brainstorming meetings can become productive drivers of company innovation or simply a waste of company time.  

In many cases, the difference comes down to the type of personalities in the room (see box below) and how the person running the session manages them.

To avoid your next brainstorming session from being hijacked by disruptive employees, follow these steps from SmartStorming, a new book on the brainstorming process:

More isn’t always better. The simplest way to avoid problematic personalities is not to invite them in the first place.

Also, if you think employees won’t be candid or creative with senior managers in the room, be honest with the bosses. Explain that participants may be intimidated by their presence in the room. Invite them to join the group at the end, when ideas have been developed and selected.

Establish rules of the game. Some popular and effective rules:

  • Suspend all judgment
  • There’s no such thing as a bad idea
  • Go for quantity, not quality
  • Embrace wild, audacious ideas
  • The origin of the idea is irrelevant

Impose a short-talking moratorium. If a participant is dominating the session or being overly negative, shift gears and introduce a nonverbal exercise. Example: Ask everyone to silently write five ideas and then read their favorite aloud.

Segregate strong personalities. Divide the group into three smaller teams. Deliberately assign any disruptive personality types to the same team. Surprisingly, strong personalities often get along with one another in a productive way.

Engage in silent idea voting. Evaluating and selecting ideas can become problematic when strongly opinionated people assert their preferences or biases. As a result, the process can devolve into a Darwinian contest for favorites.

Instead, use a silent voting technique to eliminate coercion and level the playing field for all to vote.

You can use various tactics: a secret ballot; show of hands; Yes/No or Green/Red voting cards, etc.

If the big boss is participating in the voting process, ask him or her to kindly postpone voting until everyone else has finished. This will help minimize the chance of his or her opinion swaying the group.

Invite a dream team, not the usual suspects. A dream team group would consist of knowledgeable individuals who possess a collaborative, can-do attitude—even if they are typically far removed from the project at hand.

Shaking things up can have a dramatic impact on a group’s ability to collaborate freely and build upon one another’s ideas. That’s how innovative solutions are born.

5 personalities that will sabotage your meetings

While meetings and brainstorming sessions can generate great results, it takes only one bad seed to turn these sessions unpleasant and unproductive. Here are the most common offenders, according to a new book, SmartStorming. Use the tips in the article above to help neutralize these disruptive people:  

  1. Attention Vampires. They always want to stand out, be in the spotlight and be the center of attention. They can smother a brainstorming session by dominating the conversation, excessively pushing their ideas and sucking the life out of the whole group.
  2. Idea Assassins. They love to shoot down ideas … anyone’s and everyone’s. Under the pretense of being constructive, they find flaws, poke holes and pick apart promising ideas—yet they offer few unique thoughts of their own.
  3. Dictators. These totalitarians feel they are the only ones with good ideas. Everyone else’s contributions need to conform to theirs or risk being shot down. Managers sometimes unknowingly become Dictators in brainstorming sessions, not on purpose but because they try too hard to control the process.
  4. Obstructionists. They overcomplicate conversations and bring up extraneous facts or considerations that derail the flow of the group. Obstructionists overthink, overspeak and dead-end otherwise promising sessions.
  5. Social Loafers. These people rarely participate in the generation of new ideas or contribute much of substance. They usually sit back and let others do the heavy lifting.