Meeting Resources: Articles
Why Brainstorming Sometimes Fails...and how you can make it work for your team
How often have you seen this happen? Someone (maybe you) announces the start of a brainstorming session in a team meeting. Suddenly some team members avert their eyes; others shift uncomfortably in their seats or exhibit other body language that – loosely translated – says, “Get me outta here”! After a few half-hearted ideas have been generated, the session fizzles. On to the next agenda item. It’s not an uncommon scenario.
Long heralded as a prime technique for generating out-of-the-box solutions to problems (or for exploring opportunities), brainstorming often leads to failure and frustration on the part of team contributors. As a team leader, what can you do to prevent your colleagues from tuning out of what can – if handled skillfully – be both an energizing and productive group activity?
Back to brainstorming basics
OK, let’s have a quick review of the basics – the must do’s for running a brainstorming session. Start by focusing the group on the topic. Then establish – and write on a chart – a clear goal for the session (e.g., “to generate at least six workable ideas for improving our hiring process to reduce the number of bad hires by 20%”). And always reinforce the rules which are:
- All ideas welcome
- No such thing as a stupid idea
- No evaluation of ideas allowed
- Build on the ideas of others if you wish
- Aim for quantity not quality
Yet even when teams follow these rules to the letter, brainstorming sessions can still be frustrating or – even worse – de-motivating to the group.
Making brainstorming work
Here are five suggestions to help you fire up your next brainstorming session and truly tap the collective creativity of your team:
- Check out your culture: Does your team culture encourage people to put their inhibitions on hold and to be courageous enough to articulate ideas no matter how wacky or nonsensical they may first seem? If yes, then brainstorming is for you! But, if your work environment is one characterized by high blame, low trust, cynicism or risk avoidance, you may want to consider another approach to team problem-solving.
- Get really clear about the problem: Seems obvious, doesn’t it? But you’d be surprised how many teams sit around wasting countless hours trying to generate ideas for the wrong problem or opportunity. No amount of inspired brainstorming or facilitator excellence will help in this case. For example, if sales are down, you might spend many frustrating hours figuring out how to boost sales. But if the REAL problem is that your product has a serious technical defect, then you need to focus your brainstorming efforts on the root cause rather than the symptom.
- Start with a warm-up: No athlete hits the track without doing some warm-up exercises. Team members getting ready for a brainstorming session need to do the same. Try some word games, quizzes or your favorite ice breakers. They won’t take long; and they will get the cerebral juices flowing.
- Follow through: Nothing is more de-motivating to a team than not hearing what happens to their ideas. Even if the team’s ideas prove ultimately to be unworkable, at least keep the members informed and be sure to thank them for their efforts.
- Try some variations on the theme: We tend to think of brainstorming as a group of people in a conference room offering up a list of unfiltered gems of raw ingenuity while a frantic scribe attempts to capture the ideas on a whiteboard. Trouble is, not everyone’s brain works this way. Some people need time to think. Some are just too shy to engage in this kind of verbal soccer match. As a result, 80% of the ideas often come from the same 20% of the people – leaving a big slice of “team brain” untapped. Alternative methods of brainstorming – such as Anonymous Brainstorming, Brainwriting or Reverse Brainstorming may help you reach that other 80%.
Think back to the teleconference meetings you have managed or attended in the past month. How many really met their objective? How many were a waste of your valuable time?
Kelly, a Project Manager at a North American Fortune 500 company, recently told IWCC:
"I often feel that I am wasting my time in teleconference meetings. Between latecomers, people talking over each other or, even worse, two people dominating the entire meeting, we quickly lose sight of the objective. And, discussions are difficult to follow. I know that I am not the only person who is frustrated with these meetings. Others tell me they are simply tuning out.”
You have no doubt experienced many of the same challenges Kelly faced as a teleconference manager or attendee. You probably asked yourself the same question Kelly asked, “How can I prevent these problems in my next meeting?”
It really is quite simple. First, consider if teleconferencing is your best choice. Then, decide which facilitation and communication skills will help you produce the best results.
When is teleconferencing your best choice?
Let’s face it; teleconference meetings are here to stay. They save your company both time and money. If facilitated well, they can be your best choice when you need to connect with your team to:
- Solve a problem or resolve a roadblock;
- Follow up on a critical report or other business document; or
- Discuss an issue when everyone is geographically dispersed.
How can you produce the best results?
Effective facilitation and communication skills are the key to managing a productive teleconference meeting. With the right tools and skills, you can conduct a meeting that meets your team’s objective and obtains the best results. Try applying these best practices in your next teleconference meeting.
Handle latecomers: The best way to handle latecomers is to try to prevent the problem before it happens. Start by sending out an action agenda to all attendees before the meeting. Include:
- The meeting objective
- A list of attendees
- The expected duration
- Who is responsible for each of the agenda item
Then, one day before the meeting, send a reminder e-mail or memo to all attendees highlighting the importance of starting the meeting on time. Remember to include the telephone access number and codes as well as all teleconferencing call procedures.
But what happens if, despite your planning, you still have a latecomer? The next time someone joins your meeting late, wait for a suitable break in the conversation to invite the latecomer to briefly introduce him/herself. Then, return to the discussion. Try to avoid recapping what the latecomer has missed unless it is essential to the discussion. Otherwise, you risk losing the flow of the meeting and frustrating the other attendees.
Create working agreements: Working agreements outline how you will work together as a team. Develop a list of good meeting behaviors that will help your teleconference run smoothly. Use this list to create your team’s working agreement.
- Your list could include behaviors such as:
- Join the meeting on time
- Choose a quiet location
- Come prepared (read materials in advance)
- Introduce yourself before you speak
- Participate openly
- Avoid side conversations
- Speak one at a time (do not interrupt)
- Stick to the agenda
- Avoid external interruptions
- Focus on the meeting (do not try to multi-task)
If you meet regularly, this list can be a standard tool every team member applies.
Manage the group dynamics: If you manage the group dynamics well, you will eliminate many of your team’s communication challenges. Here are a few hints to get you started:
- Discuss and agree upon acceptable meeting behaviors.
- Draw on your list of attendees to encourage participation and ensure everyone has an opportunity to contribute.
- Stimulate discussion by directing question/comments to specific individuals or locations.
- Use a signal to alert attendees that you need them to stop talking and allow you to take the floor. (At IWCC, we find a bell works well.)
- Provide frequent summaries and recaps of actions, next steps and discussions.
George Bernard Shaw once said, “The greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” To make sure everyone has the same understanding of what has been accomplished during the teleconference meeting, close your meeting by summarizing the action items, responsibilities and next steps.
When teleconferencing is the right medium for your meeting, take time to help your attendees prepare for the meeting and establish some acceptable ground rules for communicating. You will be well on your way to getting full participation and producing terrific results!