A long time ago I read a book about group brainstorming – using group-think to solve problems and uncover new ideas and directions. I don’t remember the book or much that was in it, as is the case for the vast majority of business how-to books that I’ve read. My one take-away, though, was the concept of accepting all input during a brainstorming session without passing judgement on anything said by anyone.
Yeah, this is hardly a breakthrough when you think about it. As soon as you shoot down one idea, others are afraid that their idea will be similarly criticized and they clam up. This then sets off a domino effect of fewer ideas with even fewer add-on ideas which, in turn, completely kills any opportunity for the group to chain off the thoughts of others to come up with new or modified concepts.
As this un-remembered book suggested, it’s critical for the leader to just shut up, giving every idea its due (always a good idea to write it down on a white board of something to openly signify its value) and encourage everyone else to contribute, learn and grow. Gee, this idea of the leader shutting up at times comes up frequently. It’s too bad I suck at it.
As a flawed leader, I’ve made the mistake of shooting down ideas too quickly too often. As my kids point out today, even when I remain quiet, my face contorts in strange ways clearly indicating how incredibly stupid I think what I’m hearing is. So, even when I actually dig deep inside and make myself shut up, I really don’t hold back at all. My face gives away everything.
This might even be acceptable if, in fact, all the ideas I shoot down were actually bad ideas. The problem is that they often are not bad ideas at all. My reaction is based on my initial thinking about what has been proposed or, sometimes, just my initial understanding of it. Once I think it through, I often warm up to the idea. Although, by that time, I’ve usually squelched the discussion and killed any upside to the brainstorming going on.
You get the idea . . . When you’re in a leadership role during any type of brainstorming, it’s really important to sit back, smile and treat every idea like it was your own. Even better, like it was from someone that you would listen to even if they were saying something completely wacky (think Albert Einstein or Mahatma Gandhi). Encourage people to put forward the most preposterous idea possible and for others to add to those ideas. The minute you put up a wall, the traffic of new ideas will slow to a crawl and, eventually, disappear.
Unless you know everything there is to know (I doubt it), then you and the organization you run will be better off with as many ideas floating around as possible. After all, you still can think they’re stupid and shut them down later <g>.