Brainstorm Recommendation: Don’t Use a Group

Virtually every week of the year I have a group of employees in a room all working on a task: to redefine what they’re doing today by painting a picture of what they could be doing tomorrow. Due to the limited time together, teams try to get as much done as possible. The exercise I hate leading the most is the group brainstorm. Why? 1) Because most people can’t do it and 2) The team wants to finish the tactical part right afterward.

Great ideas can’t be forced. Great ideas don’t have a single iteration. They aren’t instant. Great ideas don’t come from everybody. So why do we expect good results from short brainstorming exercises? Because you can get some pretty good ideas. They may not be game changers but most can be run with immediately. They don’t take a lot of feasibility or work to implement. Good is good enough.

It actually works okay for average to slightly-above average teams. You can survive and even have a small win every now and then. You won’t be a pioneer. You won’t achieve real breakthrough. The following example may seem simplistic, but it’s the essence of what I see work really well in the work world too.

Fifteen years ago I worked with a group of ten teenagers as a director for a musical dance routine. They would first compete at the state level and if did well enough would go to the national level. We had done it the previous two years before with limited success. The first year we somehow made it to nationals but didn’t do well there. The second year we didn’t make it to nationals. This third year I didn’t want to do it. It’s a lot of work and a lot of responsibility rests on the director, especially with a bunch of teens.

Here is what I did: I gave them the picture of what we wanted, what we were looking for and what we could achieve, and then gave them the reins. Of the ten members, one’s creativity stood out. (It’s no wonder he is in a creative field as a fashion videographer now) He came up with an unexpected accompaniment song. The theme flowed naturally from there. I had a couple of ideas for key “wow” moments during performance. That guy always pushed it to the next level. During our preparation for competition he constantly added new ideas. We built off each other, adding one great element after another as the team rehearsed it.

The team dominated at the state level, easily taking first place. Before nationals the routine was further enhanced. In the end, they placed fourth in the nation, a far cry better than anything in the past. The whole group had to execute flawlessly, but I attribute the key creative aspects to just two people, myself as the director and that one member. We did things no one had imagined before, feeding ideas from each other. It took time and it took building from one initial idea.

I have found that group brainstorm activities almost always hinders excellent ideas. The truly great ones get shot down by the self-identified realists. Realists are needed but not at the creative, imagination points. My advice: take them out and add them later. Also, don’t expect greatness from a single session. Iteration is critical. One impossible, crazy idea can loop around and around until a legitimate, amazing idea comes out. Give the creatives some space and time.

The next time you gather a group of employees in a room to brainstorm, remember these examples. If you’re after average or slightly-above average, go ahead with the group over a specified time. If, however, you want a game changing idea, isolate the creatives and give the idea some time to percolate.

Stop Asking Your Employees to be Creative

In my early days of studying leadership, one of the most rewarding yet most unsettling things I heard was “work in your strengths.” Leadership guru John Maxwell hammered that concept home time and time again in his books. Being creative is one of those areas. Before my exposure to leadership teaching, I felt I was always taught to work on my weaknesses. I can think way back to when I was and being graded. Penmanship was a subject when I was in school. We were taught first to print and then later to write cursive. My cursive was terrible. No matter how hard I tried, I would never get a good grade.

For years, it was the only class that I never earned an A, yet I stressed about it the most. Ditto for English in high school. Classes that required math or memorization however, I excelled in. I preferred science topics the most as they combined the two in the most intriguing way to me. I played with Legos, built forts in the yard and in the woods and owned a telescope. If an activity or assignment required organization or involved teeny-tiny details, I wanted nothing to do with it. What if I had become an English teacher or a font creator? It probably would have been disastrous. Today, since almost all communication is typed, cursive is obsolete and misspelling is almost impossible (unless you use Siri). Fortunately, I followed what I enjoyed and became an engineer.

However, my weaknesses still nagged me and every performance review hammered the weaknesses home. I fretted and stressed about those weaknesses until I studied leadership in my late 20s. Suddenly I didn’t worry about my weaknesses anymore. I focused purely on my strengths and had people beside me who loved and excelled at the things I did poorly. They were fulfilled and so was I. Together teams I led tackled impossible projects. My career took a new trajectory and I loved it. I felt great. Being saddled with having to fix things or try things that I was weak in was paralyzing. That’s why I cringe when I see articles and posts with tips and tricks on how to “help your employees be more creative.” Not everyone is naturally creative. Sure, each person has some creativity, but you want the people who thrive on creativity. Most people could scrawl a circle with a stick body and represent a person, but some people can create photo-realistic images of people.

When it comes to thinking about new ways to do things, the goal shouldn’t be to make all employees innovative; the goal should be to put innovative employees in positions that define the future. If you’re looking for people for improvement projects, don’t expect all employees think creatively, instead use creative employees on projects that love that type of thinking. Look for the people that think divergently to come up with solutions. Use the convergent thinkers to get the job done. And please, please, don’t ever try to get your entire organization to think creatively, you may just be reminding too many people about that elementary penmanship class.

Ask Questions Like a Child

A couple of months ago, my youngest was back from college on her winter break. As a sophomore, she is deep into the learning cycle. We were out spending time together one day and she was probing my knowledge on a work-related topic with one question after another. I was engaging in a meaningful conversation that was transferring knowledge without me thinking about it.

Suddenly, she said to me “I’m sorry, am I asking too many questions?”  That thought had literally not crossed my mind. Every day that I’m with clients, I get question after question so it didn’t seem that weird to me. What was it that made my daughter say that? I reflected on that and realized that it’s quite different having a five-year-old and a nearly 20-year-old. we expect 5-year-olds to ask questions like “why is the sky blue?” Apparently there was some stigma, that as an adult she couldn’t ask a series of questions in a row. I told her that she absolutely wasn’t and to never stop asking questions. I told her to ask as many as you need to. I think others struggle with this too.

You can’t extract wisdom from experts in their field without asking big, tough Qs. As a teacher and adviser on innovation and its process, people are always asking me things as if they are lawyers trying to get me to prove something; however, very rarely are they asking meaningful questions like my daughter was asking that day.  I have a great explanation most of the time. I don’t always and when I don’t, I say so.

Organizations that ask the right set of questions gain significant experience and insight into innovation and receive a corresponding cultural benefit to their organization. Ones that ask no questions or the wrong type of questions remain stuck, unwilling to learn. Innovation demands this curiosity. Take advantage of subject matter experts. Ask deep, probing questions. Really want to learn. Don’t act like you know it all, you don’t. Asking them arms you with an competitive advantage and consent you and your organization apart. And like my daughter moving forward, never apologize for asking too many.