Do you ever find when you try to generate ideas and suggestions in your team that it’s the same people that dominate the conversation? Their suggestions may be good (or not), but are you getting all you can from the team? Are some people not offering valuable ideas and input because either they’re not confident that their ideas are any good, or they’re worried about other people rejecting them?
In this article, I’ll be looking at what prevents people from joining in the conversation and why this is such a problem. I’ll also be explaining the ‘Silent Brainstorm’. No, this isn’t some new form of corporatese; it’s a way of getting more people actively involved in generating ideas and making it safe for them to do so.
But First, a Little Rant
Those who know me will be aware that my background is in local government. I’ve lost count of the number of times now when I’ve talked about brainstorming and somebody has asked “Are we allowed to say that now? I thought it wasn’t something we couldn’t say any more.”
Being sensitive with the language we use so we don’t cause inadvertent offence or distress is important. Language continues to change as years go by and what was acceptable yesterday is understandably not ok today. The term ‘brainstorming’ is said to have negative connotations towards people with epilepsy. The truth of the matter is that the term never had any routes or connection with this medical condition. I have never in my twenty years of teaching met anybody with an issue with this word. The term ‘brainstorming’ is from the notion of firing off ideas as they come to us, before we assess and judge their merit. It’s purely a creative process. For these reasons, I will continue to use the term, but do get in touch if you feel differently.
The Problem with Ideas
Perhaps the biggest problem with ideas is that they are often incomplete, unformed, and untested. We often look at an idea and on face value reject or accept it. That decision is often very quick. If, at the first instance, the idea or speaker doesn’t seem credible we reject it without consideration or listening to its full explanation. Arguably, it’s often our view of the speaker rather than the idea itself that’s the cause for rejection.
We’re taught at school and from our parents that we must consider the consequences of the things we do and say. We’re taught that we must therefore Think and Judge before we Speak (TJS). In most situations this is good advice. It leads to responsible behaviour and intelligent conversation and action. However, when we do this when needing to be creative, it’s an idea killer.
Many ideas that we quickly reject are possible to implement or could be adapted and built on to become something enormously valuable. What we need to do is to stop ‘Thinking, Judging and Speaking’ and start to ‘Think, Speak and then Judge‘(TSJ).
Revising the Brainstorming Session
Before looking at the silent brainstorm session, let’s take a look at traditional brainstorming and remind ourselves of how it should work. It’s a lack of understanding of how to set up and manage this properly that that prevents many such sessions working well.
- Define your purpose – Think of what you want to gain from the meeting.
- Choose your participants – The group should be large enough to stimulate interchange, yet small enough to encourage participation. Groups of five to eight people work well.
- Choose your environment – People generally think more creatively when taken away from their usual work environment. Our work environment reminds us of the structures and rules in which we are normally bound. The more different a brainstorming session can be from a normal meeting, the easier it can be to move from TJS to TSJ. Pick somewhere comfortable, where you can talk without interruption. Make sure there is flipchart paper and pens available.Consider asking people to dress informally and take off their ties and jackets. It may be that talking over a drink or meeting in a picturesque spot helps loosen people up and prepares them for creative thinking.
- Seat the participants side by side facing the problem – By sitting side by side (perhaps in a horse shoe arrangement) nobody can hide at the back. With all eyes focusing on the problem, the physical reinforces the psychological, and it promotes the mental attitude of all tackling the problem together. By sitting opposite one another, people tend to respond personally to one another and look to gain agreement or approval, or even look at undermining those who threaten them. By facing the problem, everyone is encouraged to focus on the problem rather than the people around them.
- Clarify the ground rules – If the participants don’t know one another, start with introductions then follow up with the ground rules. This must include the no-criticism rule. If ideas are shot down because they don’t appeal to all participants, the implicit goal becomes one of advancing ideas that no one will shoot down. If instead we allow wild ideas, and even those outside of plausibility, the group may then go on to develop those ideas into something that can be implemented, or new ones that nobody would have considered otherwise.Other possible ground rules might be that names are not attributed to ideas or that the discussion is to remain off the record. Ask everyone for confirmation that they agree to abide by the ground rules.
- Brainstorm – Once the ground rules have been agreed, let your imaginations run riot. Think of the problem from all angles and deliberately throw in some extreme or wacky ideas. This will generate a sense of fun which will relax people, encourage others to put forward wild ideas, and may spur off some really useful solutions.
- Record the ideas – Write all ideas down and don’t question them, except perhaps to check what people mean so you can record their ideas accurately. Don’t try to interpret their ideas. If in doubt ask them to tell you what to record and don’t get drawn into a discussion about them. Record the answers on a large A3 sheet of flipchart paper and use different coloured pens. Colour stimulates the creative side of the brain.Recording the ideas on flipchart paper not only means that you can store and use the ideas later, but it allows the team to see their accomplishment, reduces the tendency to repeat, and stimulates further ideas.
- Star the most promising ideas – After brainstorming, relax the no-criticism rule. Use the group to establish which ideas are worth further consideration or development. You are not trying to select ideas at this stage; the idea is to whittle them down. Mark each idea for development with a star or asterisk.
- Invent improvements – Look at each of the ideas you have stared and get the group to think about ways of improving them. Consider using the idea in different ways, how it can be made better and more realistic. Preface constructive criticism with “What I like best about this idea is… Might it be better if…?”
- Organise a time to evaluate ideas and decide – Before breaking, draw up a selective and improved list of ideas. Arrange a time for deciding on which of those ideas to take forward or any actions that you want to implement straight away. Be sure that any actions have owners and either target completion dates or a date for reporting progress.
So what’s ‘silent brainstorming’ then? Silent brainstorming is a variation on the theme. The work necessary before and after the brainstorming session is the same as above, but the major difference is that nobody is allowed to talk. Here’s how it goes…
Stick three or four sheets of A3 flipchart paper on the wall with blu-tack. Give everyone a marker pen and write the name of the problem in the centre.
Tell everyone that they may not talk. They must write their ideas on the wall and connect them to the problem with a line. As ideas are generated they can connect new ideas or variations of ideas off other people’s suggestions. Tell them to write any and all ideas down and don’t worry about how practical they are (TSJ).
If the group is fairly large you can write the problem up in more than one place so people don’t have to jostle to get their ideas written down.
As you can see, the concept is still the same. It’s about getting ideas down thick and fast, and to suspend judgement at this stage. Once you get on to the next stage where you star the ideas most worthy of development, people can speak again.
Traditional brainstorming should still be part of your creative tools at work. Silent brainstorming is just another tool. Here are its advantages over traditional brainstorming:
- You can accommodate larger groups of people by having a large wall of paper (between five and twelve works fine)
- It makes people get out of their chairs and the different approach to thinking may stimulate more creative ideas
- It’s more anonymous. Participants don’t have to say their idea aloud, so don’t have to worry so much about other people judging them
- It tames the overbearing and quietens the obsessive talkers. Those people who may have been obstructive or overbearing in traditional brainstorming sessions are no longer focusing on how they can draw attention to themselves. Instead, their efforts are spent on writing their ideas down just like everyone else. They are forced to take an equal position in the group and it keeps their over-active egos out of the way.
- It’s fun! Nothing sparks creativity more than having fun. Use this while you’re working and deliberately put down some wacky ideas to help encourage other people’s creativity.
Get into Action Exercise
Silent brainstorming is a simple variation on the theme. It seems to me that the main reason why traditional brainstorming can be unsuccessful is either because the facilitator is not good at establishing and maintaining the ground rules, or that they haven’t created a comfortable enough environment for everyone to participate in.
So here’s the challenge – I want to hear your feedback and comments on this. Next time you have a problem that requires a new or creative approach, give silent brainstorming a go. I think you’ll find the results very rewarding. Do come back and let me know how you got on and if you have any comments, thoughts or feedback, I’d love to hear them.