Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Brainstorming Sessions: Purpose and Facilitation

Actions to take: Use brainstorming sessions as a tool to help your team anticipate change. During the meeting: 1) Respond positively to any ideas and comments your employees make. Nothing gets a no. 2) Prepare questions in advance to ensure that the meeting doesn't stall. 3) Set ground rules that help your employees understand expectations for how to participate in the brainstorming session. 

A brand new process is rolling out at your organization in 6 months. You know it will cause a major shift in how most of your team will be doing their work. You don't have many details. How do you prepare your team? We've already talked about announcing before you implement any change. Since you're light on concrete information at this time, that strategy might feel inadequate. The other great tool at your disposal: call a brainstorming session. 

When done correctly, you get two major benefits out of a brainstorming session: ideas from the team and engagement from the team. The first one is what you might call the "surface-level" outcome. It is the obvious, stated purpose of a brainstorming session. Some of those ideas will indeed be useful once the change comes. 

The second benefit is often the more meaningful one. We've got a big change coming in 6 months. It is going to disrupt things. People's workflows will get pushed around—no one can be on autopilot anymore. We need employees to start thinking about this now, not 5 months and 3 weeks from now. If you don't do anything, the team will worry about it, sure. But most people won't engage in any kind of meaningful planning until the change is at their doorstep. A brainstorming session will push them to consider exactly how the change will impact them personally and what they might need to do about it.

That explains why you call a brainstorming session to anticipate change. Here's how to conduct one. Follow these three guidelines, and the sessions you lead will be more successful than any others you've participated in.

  1. Nothing Gets a "No": Brainstorming is not about making decisions or debating. It is about generating ideas. In our post about meeting topic purpose, we touched on this. Say "yes" to any ideas or thoughts your employees have. The purpose of this session is simply getting your people to participate in thinking about the change. You want to reward participation in any form. You don't have to spend 10 minutes fleshing out a bad idea. Just say "great!" and move on. 
    • Furthermore, do not let others pick apart those ideas. When an employee hears an idea that clearly won't work from their perspective, the natural reaction is to speak up about it. Cut them off in a friendly way: "We'll worry about how feasible these ideas are later on. For now let's just come up with as many as possible!"
  2. Prepare Specific Questions: Brainstorming sessions fail when they are too open-ended. People need a starting point for their thoughts. Even better is to have multiple starting points that you can run through one at a time. A few other tips:
    • Have your own answers to most of your questions, especially the early ones. "Lead by example" is an evergreen buzz-phrase for managers. Here is an opportunity where it is especially helpful. You'll get the ball rolling if the session stalls at first. The team will eventually follow your lead.
    • Start off with questions that you know that other people want to talk about. For instance, maybe your folks who deal with inventory are already complaining about this or that issue. Start off by asking what problems the change will create or solve relating to inventory management.
    • Have at least one question that relates directly to each unit or function of your team. Ensure that every person on your team contributes at least one idea during the session. Literally call on them if you have to. Plenty of people will passively wait for a meeting to end if you let them. We are going to guarantee that every single member of the team thinks about this change at least a little bit.
  3. Set Ground Rules: You know that we don't shoot down ideas and that everyone participates during brainstorming sessions. Make sure your team knows that too. If you explain in advance, the session will go much smoother. For instance, when an employee starts going over all the problems with the last idea, you need to cut them off and move on. You want to do it in a way that doesn't feel punitive and maintains the positive energy in the room. With a ground rule stating "Nothing Gets a No", the nay-saying employee will understand why you shut them down. They might feel a little dinged for having broken one of the rules, but they'll bounce back much more easily than if you shut them down for "no reason" (after all, they likely thought they were contributing useful information). 
    • Some managers don't like official ground rules in meetings, finding them overly stuffy and dictatorial. If that is your stance, no problem. Give a minute or two explanation of how you run your brainstorming sessions. Explain the behaviors you expect out of the team, just don't call them rules.

I have called brainstorming sessions when I had virtually zero information about the impending change. It has had major benefits in my career. This post has explained the benefits to your employees. The value extends beyond that. With big, uncertain changes, the management team almost invariably calls a meeting to decide what to do about this change. If you have done a brainstorming session about it already, you will have thought about the change much more than your colleagues. You will have the benefit of your whole teams' thoughts behind you. You are very likely to contribute solutions that will get implemented beyond just your team. 

Start using brainstorming sessions as a change management tool. You'll get your team prepared, you'll contribute to successful implementation of the change within your unit and beyond it, and you'll look good to your colleagues and superiors. 

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