Storms can be powerful forces that leave no stone unturned. Brainstorms should do the same. Here’s how to transform your team meetings from tame to tempest.
Entrepreneurs: are your brainstorming sessions breaking new ground for your business, or breaking the bank? Ineffective meetings will cost $399 billion and 24 billion lost hours in 2019. That translates to business professionals spending between two to three hours a week (around 13 days a year) in fruitless sessions. And among these wasted efforts are brainstorming sessions which fly off track and rarely yield a good idea, much less a great one.
Effective brainstorming relies on three key things: space, time, and confidence. And as leaders, how much our team trust us to listen to them is the most important ingredient in a successful exchange of ideas. The location leaders choose and how long the team brainstorms can also make or break a productive session.
Keep it short and sweet … or go much longer
Brainstorming takes imagination, but it also requires focus. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, executive coach and M.D. Srini Pillay explains how focusing for too long kills collaboration, while timing things right can lead to increased self-awareness and the ability to better imagine creative solutions. So, how long is too long? That’s the leader’s call, but they generally have a choice of two models.
The first is the time-sensitive storm. We start by informing our team well in advance that a brainstorm is scheduled and what we hope to achieve by it. This will streamline things and cut down on awkward on-the-spot silences. As an example, a team of five could then be allotted a few minutes each to present any pre-prepared ideas.
That’s about 15 minutes. Add another five at the end for any new thoughts based on the presentations, and brainstorms can be very efficient. Every team is different, of course—and the shifting demands of a day can make brainstorming windows longer or shorter. Just keep in mind this TED-Talk rule if time is against you: people start losing focus at the 18-minute mark.
The second brainstorming model goes (a lot farther) in the other direction. In this framework, major sessions can last for hours or even days, so leaders need to ask their team how interesting they find the office. Frankly, I’m betting they won’t see too many raised hands … which means you may need to take the longer sessions elsewhere.
Set the right scene for a storm
When choosing a site for a brainstorming session, leaders should consider holding it somewhere informal. New surroundings should offer something for everyone, and the atmosphere should stimulate fresh angles and discovery. Teams who see the same setting day in, day out may well find their thought patterns run on fixed lines.
Leaders who take long brainstorms off the beaten track can spark that little something extra, and science backs this up. For example, architecture critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen, writing for the Association for Psychological Science, notes research showing how our environment can positively influence prosocial emotions and our sense of commonality with others. Leaders looking to boost brainstorming should be aware of this strong link between location and imagination and choose a relaxing environment that spurs collaboration.
Retreats are an excellent way to stimulate ideas and loosen up work-weary brains. The best retreats also provide a facilitator who can help maintain energy and focus for the duration of the session.
Speak before you think
That old saying—“Think before you speak!”—gets reversed for brainstorming success. And a quality session can’t start until every team member is confident that they can speak and be heard. Otherwise, the same old talkative characters will dominate the proceedings.
Leaders should positively encourage quick, free speech from all. Some people may be shy or confused about things, and others might downright dislike each other. That last issue can see good ideas ditched simply because the “wrong” person suggested it, or bad ones implemented when the “right” individual speaks. Leaders should set the tone by encouraging universal input before, during, and after brainstorms, and make it clear that all contributions have merit.
Respect and document everything
Leaders can implement a round table approach by going around the room one person at a time. This prevents crosstalk and gives everybody their shot. While the field of ideas should be open for all, one person should be designated as a record-keeper. This ensures all suggestions and any firm actions get documented and distributed to everyone after it’s over.
An important truth is that not every idea will be a game changer. However, what may seem worthless now can be a foundation to build upon later. Leaders should treat every suggestion with receptive respect. Doing this sends a clear, positive signal to the room.
Leaders who dismiss things out of hand or negatively critique ideas can make the next speaker reluctant to contribute, creating an atmosphere of negativity and closing off avenues which could lead to a better business. Remember that the best brainstorms are explorations that teams undertake together.
How I help teams talk and connect
It’s hard to rank any tool for success above open, constructive communication. It gives employees confidence in themselves and their teammates while giving leaders insight into the minds of their team—including their own. That’s a superpower that can uncover some fantastic ideas.
I’ve been a trained moderator since I was 16 years old. Today, I combine my decades of experience with the Entrepreneurial Operating System® to help teams reconnect and realign. It’s my job as an attentive facilitator to help leaders ensure that every idea is heard, and the right ones are developed to further the mission.
The skills I teach by realigning teams and forums are designed to be very practical; they can be taken straight from the retreat and into the office. And building on this foundation of open communication provides a lasting template for powerful brainstorming sessions in the future.
Schedule a meeting with Cesar today to learn more about maximizing your meeting potential and structuring your business to live life by design