Leading a Brainstorm? Then You’re Doing It Wrong.

Brainstorm Session SmallI recently had the pleasure of facilitating a couple of brainstorms with the team at The Great Company, a dynamic organization that’s changing the way Los Angeles-based creatives in the media community work, collaborate and office together.

Confidentiality prevents me from getting into detail about what the teams at each of these sessions were brainstorming against, but I can tell you it’s a pleasure to have a roomful of smart, articulate, creative and boldly expressive people on hand, because the results can be practically pyrotechnic.

Sparks! Fire! Brilliance that builds upon brilliance! That kind of thing.

Me? I had practically nothing to do with the final results.  And that’s a good thing.  I facilitated, rather than led, the conversation.

See, one problem occurring fairly often in brainstorming and ideation meetings is the drag weight that too much leading can put on the process.

I know. I’ve been guilty of it more than a few times in the past.

It’s only natural that strong leaders want to lead, or that an assembled team wants to find a direction, a road through the wilderness, and stick to it without surveying the whole landscape.

Yet the most powerful asset you’ve got in the room is the assembled brainpower, disparate P.O.V.s and varied and dynamic experience of everybody on hand.

To move forward, throw out the compass

Hewing too closely to a specific direction, or letting one person keep the conversation inside stringent parameters or steering it toward a narrow focus, can mean you’ve wasted an opportunity to take flight in new directions, come up with provocative insights, and – not least of all – build a collaborative culture.

The person playing emcee at these meetings has to act as a facilitator, first and foremost, a helpmate for the team as they make their individual contributions, dive into unplumbed depths, and make the synaptic connections between themselves that result in fresh concepts.

The powerful leader – the boss, the startup founder, the department manager – bringing their own strong attitude or prevailing point of view into a meeting can (and I’ve seen it happen too many times) put a damper on all that give-and-take.

The brainstorm winds up being less about exploration than about ratification of existing approaches.

It’s why that person is often a better contributor if invited only to the second phase of an efficient brainstorming process.

The first? The “divergence” where wild-eyed invention and off-track thinking is encouraged.

The second, “convergence” phase is where that creativity gets poured into buckets, honed into solutions, made pragmatic and practical.

That’s where leadership has its impact, because it’s been given good raw materials to work with, and it knows how to take big ideas the last mile toward real-world execution.

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