A colleague of mine recently posted this brilliant but anonymous quote on Facebook and it has stuck with me ever since. It speaks to a profound truth about the relationship between creativity and collaboration. There is something magic that happens when groups of diverse and curious individuals come together around issues. I’ve seen so many cases where a creative synergy develops when ideas and solutions form that none of the group could have come up with individually.
While the notion of brainstorming is far from unfamiliar, the reality is that many corporate brainstorming sessions are far from effective. I bet you’ve experienced this personally. To understand the keys to making common creativity work, it’s worth understanding where the notion of brainstorming originated. The idea was created by Alex Osborne of the global ad agency BBDO (he is actually the O in the name). The original purpose for brainstorming sessions was to address the tendency of people, in ad agencies and other businesses, to be hesitant in sharing ideas for fear of ridicule or reprisal. The idea was to create an environment where people felt safe to share any and all ideas with the goal of allowing the collective creativity of a group to flourish. The idea aimed to allow the group’s creativity to steer discussions towards options and insights that may otherwise never have seen the light of day.
Experienced ad man Patrick Hollister suggests that good facilitation is key to ensuring that brainstorming truly unlocks the collective creativity of a group. He outlines a range of principles for facilitating group brainstorming sessions that I believe are relevant in any business context:
1. The facilitator must go into a brainstorming session from a position of strength. They must be sufficiently experienced and well-regarded so as to be held in high esteem by the group. That said, the facilitator’s personal power must not be so great that they dominate, stifle or control the discussion.
2. The facilitator’s primary role is to foster inclusive and constructive conversation. It is their job to ensure that every person has the chance to be heard and to monitor the tone of discussions. The first hint of sarcasm and criticism needs to be dealt with swiftly if discussions are to stay open and constructive. Ground rules and penalties should be established regarding unhelpful or hostile behaviour, such as time-out or a $5 ‘cynicism fine’ which gets donated to charity. It needs to be established at the outset that titles, status and reputation (good or bad) are left at the door.
3. The facilitator needs to have a clear plan beforehand outlining the goals and direction of the session. Good brainstorming is not simply a stream-of-consciousness exercise but needs to be directed by a clear sense of why the group has come together, what the problems they’re seeking to address are, and how they’ll know when they have achieved the outcome.
4. The structure of a brainstorming session is also important. Hollister suggests a general rule of thumb where the first 10% of time is dedicated to setting the purpose and ground rules for the meeting. The next 50% of the session is spent generating ideas followed by 25% of session time discussing the ideas and voting on ones that ones that deserve further attention or expansion. The final 15% of the session is about deciding on a set of clear actions for moving forward. Notice that a good brainstorming not just about idea generation but a plan for taking action. Hollister’s recommendation is that brainstorming sessions go for no more than two hours and that the group should consist of no more than 8 people.
5. The final and most important aspect of a facilitator’s role is that they remain neutral. All ideas suggested are captured and evaluated by the group – not filtered by the facilitator. Even if someone in the group has a ludicrous idea, it’s important the facilitator captures it because a failure to do so will be perceived as a criticism or rejection that will quickly discourage others from sharing.
Leveraging the diverse perspectives, insights and ideas of a group is an invaluable process for an innovative business. When facilitated well, these sessions of brainstorming can become sites of common creativity that will provide ideas that could not have been imagined elsewhere.
Who knows… among these could well be the gem of your next breakthrough innovation.
Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.
He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and has written 5 bestselling books. To order Michael's latest book "How to Prepare Now for What's Next", click here.
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 Collister, P. 2017, How to Use Innovation and Creativity in the Workplace, Pan Macmillan, London, pp.150-155