Entrepreneurial Leadership and Management . . . and Other Stuff

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Jul
20

Brainstorming – Don’t Shoot the Messenger too Quickly

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>.

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 July 20th, 2007  
 Will  
 Leadership  
   
 10 Comments

10 Responses to Brainstorming – Don’t Shoot the Messenger too Quickly

  1. Wusses I say. I’ve heard this so many times and it makes so much sense, that perhaps it’s time to question the validity of it. Will and I go way back and we have collaborated on many projects (when much younger), projects that during inception, resuled in many heated arguments over the approach. We were both quite passionate about our positions and were not restrained in disagreeing with the other. Instead of backing off on an initial suggestion though, it would make me muster all my energy in defending my idea, if I was unable to, then perhaps it just deserved to be shot down.

    It was not unusual for Will or me to switch sides on a particular idea, and in the end only the ideas that withstood our combined attacks survived.

    There is one important element though; the rejection is directed NOT at the person that puts out the idea, but at the idea itself. Anyone in the room is allowed to shoot down or champion an idea as they see fit. People are channeling ideas, once out in the room they are there for anyone to adopt, or not. Unfortunately, most people can’t help but personalize the process, which I think is where the problem lies. People want to have the winning idea. What should be engendered is wanting to have the winning arguments.

    I think it helps to have some contrarians in the room. Someone willing to champion the idea that is being torn to shreds, even if it was not their own. I like to think of it as two debating teams, where at a moments notice; one can switch side because you have good point to make for the other side.

    I think this “pass no judgment” form of brainstorming is just feel good junk.

    It’s Brainstorming not Brainspringbreezewaftingoverthefieldofflowers.
    Think rugby, the first goal of rugby is to inflict pain, on yourself or others it does not matter. Tear apart or defend any idea put out there, just make sure you have a good intellectual brawl in the process.

    It’s not so much the ideas that are important at the end of a brainstorming session, but the sum of all the pros and cons of each idea. If you’re not geared up for heated debate or argument, maybe you need not attend a brainstorming session.

    – John

  2. Wusses I say. I’ve heard this so many times and it makes so much sense, that perhaps it’s time to question the validity of it. Will and I go way back and we have collaborated on many projects (when much younger), projects that during inception, resuled in many heated arguments over the approach. We were both quite passionate about our positions and were not restrained in disagreeing with the other. Instead of backing off on an initial suggestion though, it would make me muster all my energy in defending my idea, if I was unable to, then perhaps it just deserved to be shot down.

    It was not unusual for Will or me to switch sides on a particular idea, and in the end only the ideas that withstood our combined attacks survived.

    There is one important element though; the rejection is directed NOT at the person that puts out the idea, but at the idea itself. Anyone in the room is allowed to shoot down or champion an idea as they see fit. People are channeling ideas, once out in the room they are there for anyone to adopt, or not. Unfortunately, most people can’t help but personalize the process, which I think is where the problem lies. People want to have the winning idea. What should be engendered is wanting to have the winning arguments.

    I think it helps to have some contrarians in the room. Someone willing to champion the idea that is being torn to shreds, even if it was not their own. I like to think of it as two debating teams, where at a moments notice; one can switch side because you have good point to make for the other side.

    I think this “pass no judgment” form of brainstorming is just feel good junk.

    It’s Brainstorming not Brainspringbreezewaftingoverthefieldofflowers.
    Think rugby, the first goal of rugby is to inflict pain, on yourself or others it does not matter. Tear apart or defend any idea put out there, just make sure you have a good intellectual brawl in the process.

    It’s not so much the ideas that are important at the end of a brainstorming session, but the sum of all the pros and cons of each idea. If you’re not geared up for heated debate or argument, maybe you need not attend a brainstorming session.

    – John

  3. Yeah John, I remember those days. Of course, you were almost always right and me, wrong 😉 Your comment is a great description that’s hard to disagree with in terms of how PEERS should work. I think that’s what the difference is, though . . . when peers interact, brawling is effective. The slugfest *is* the process and it’s a great one in which everyone has to understand their position further in order to defend it, as you’ve said.

    The difficulty comes about when there is hierarchy involved. A judgmental boss can prohibit such a healthy argument from taking place just because he/she is a boss in the first place. Most employees will have a natural fear or some reprisal if they become too aggressive. This might wane as the employee becomes more comfortable with an open manager, but it likely will never completely disappear.

    So, I completely agree with you in terms of how peers interact. I think the manager:employee relationship that exists in most places kills the effectiveness of the knock-down-drag-out argument, though.

  4. Yeah John, I remember those days. Of course, you were almost always right and me, wrong 😉 Your comment is a great description that’s hard to disagree with in terms of how PEERS should work. I think that’s what the difference is, though . . . when peers interact, brawling is effective. The slugfest *is* the process and it’s a great one in which everyone has to understand their position further in order to defend it, as you’ve said.

    The difficulty comes about when there is hierarchy involved. A judgmental boss can prohibit such a healthy argument from taking place just because he/she is a boss in the first place. Most employees will have a natural fear or some reprisal if they become too aggressive. This might wane as the employee becomes more comfortable with an open manager, but it likely will never completely disappear.

    So, I completely agree with you in terms of how peers interact. I think the manager:employee relationship that exists in most places kills the effectiveness of the knock-down-drag-out argument, though.

  5. 3M used to (maybe still does) have an interesting policy called “angels”. At brainstorming meetings, after somebody threw out an idea the next person had to be the angel for the idea and say something positive about it. In other words, the first comment after a new idea has to be positive to prevent the automatic shooting-down of ideas that sometimes happens in group environments.

  6. 3M used to (maybe still does) have an interesting policy called “angels”. At brainstorming meetings, after somebody threw out an idea the next person had to be the angel for the idea and say something positive about it. In other words, the first comment after a new idea has to be positive to prevent the automatic shooting-down of ideas that sometimes happens in group environments.

  7. Ben,

    I hadn’t heard that before. It’s a great idea. You really only need one positive comment to start the dominoes falling the right way. That technique also helps bring others into a discussion about what is being proposed by others, not strictly focused on their own ideas.

    Thanks.

  8. Ben,

    I hadn’t heard that before. It’s a great idea. You really only need one positive comment to start the dominoes falling the right way. That technique also helps bring others into a discussion about what is being proposed by others, not strictly focused on their own ideas.

    Thanks.

  9. 3M’S approach sounds great.I myself am constantly thinking crazy and wacky idea’s and the times i do open up and describe them, i find myself inspired by myself when someone approves. I think more companies should implement this idea as its those crazy ideas are the one’s which make crazy impacts.

  10. 3M’S approach sounds great.I myself am constantly thinking crazy and wacky idea’s and the times i do open up and describe them, i find myself inspired by myself when someone approves. I think more companies should implement this idea as its those crazy ideas are the one’s which make crazy impacts.