This post is one in a series from a presentation on Creative Slip-Ups: The 11 Most Common Mistakes in Brainstorming. The introduction to the series is here.
The slip-up: People get too close to their clients, their issues, and worst of all, their politics.
There’s a well-known phrase in creative circles. The more you know about something, the less creative you are. (You might recognize it as a variation of the popular phrase from the Tao Te Ching: The more you know, the less you understand.)
Contradictory to common belief, the more a person learns, the more likely they are to be constrained by what they know. Knowledge mixed with ego creates knowledge beyond rebuttal. They know what they know, so there is no other answer.
Once a person becomes too close to their knowledge and fixed in their thinking, brainstorming is impossible. Emotional proximity means no objectivity. Worse, as they’ve depleted their own creativity, they begin to prevent it in the people around them.
Slip-Up #9 is often difficult for the person to realize or admit. They believe they and their knowledge are indispensable. They think playing devil’s advocate saves time and energy. They believe their most valuable role is playing the great protector to their boss, a senior executive or a client. But what kind of asset prevents new ideas?
The only remedy is a break. For the worst offenders, it’s a clean break. For everyone else, it’s stepping aside to let someone else look at the problem. It reminds me of something my friend Marilyn said. A mother of four extremely active boys, Marilyn keeps her sanity by hiring a babysitter for one Saturday night every month. Sometimes you need to let someone else take care of your kids for you.
Change “kids” to “ideas” and you get my point.
The solution: Let someone else brainstorm for you.
Any mother will tell you it’s not easy leaving behind the kids for the night. You need to leave instructions for the babysitter. The parallel is writing a creative brief that is concise, informative and positive. Go over the brief with the team before you surrender your baby. Make sure everything’s clearly
understood. Once you have agreement, it’s time for you to depart and let them surprise you with their creativity. Now, that said …
Probably my least favorite creative phrase, “think outside the box” is used more often as a one-way challenge than for inspiration. Based on the research of Norman Maier (go here), it means to break through one’s assumptions of what’s possible. To use it effectively, you have to apply the phrase to everyone, including yourself. It’s pointless to tell your team to dazzle you with their creativity when you remain closed off from new possibilities or re-thinking your perspective on an old situation.
Just as important as the brief, agree on the criteria that you’ll use to select the best ideas. Don’t use the vague standard – I’ll know it when I see it – because it’s very possible you’ll be in the wrong mindset to be objective. For suggestions on criteria you might use, see my earlier post on Creative
More than a traditional meeting facilitator, a brainstorm facilitator has additional training in creative problem-solving, specifically how to draw out ideas and concepts by inspiring and engaging people’s imagination. A facilitator can be even more valuable in situations where the senior person needs to take a step back from the situation because a good facilitator …
- … is unencumbered with politics. As the cliché goes, they see opportunity in every difficulty, rather than difficulty in every opportunity.
- … brings fresh eyes to the project. They can help others see something new within the obvious.
- … energizes with their vitality, particularly if the senior leader (or the entire team) is worn-down and frustration by the situation, environment or personalities involved.
- … is balanced and neutral. He/she can ensure that not only are all voices are heard, but that each is given fair merit.
Just like finding the right babysitter, you need to find a facilitator you can trust. Part of that trust must be based on the concept that the facilitator – outside of the meeting room – will challenge your assumptions and opinions. He or she cannot be a cardboard cut-out of yourself. Their role is NOT to mandate your ideas or criticize other’s ideas.
If this is a regular issue in your organization, train someone internally to take on the role of creative or brainstorm director. It’s a valuable skill for the
right temperament. The key is whether or not you have the right person in-house already. Go to an earlier post – The Ten Necessary Qualities of a Brainstorm Facilitator – for more detail.
Sometimes the problem is your team is as deflated and jaded as you are. Brainstorms become an exercise in diminishing returns. It’s time for new thinkers. The most viable option I’ve tried is a list of local “trouble-makers” who you can call in for external help. I have a list of 25-30 people who I know can be called up in a pinch to help brainstorm. On my list are women who’ve gone off on maternity leave. Free-lance consultants and writers. People who work in parallel industries. Food stylists and photographers. Artists in general are excellent too, particularly if you use them to lead
idea/art jams. Use your network on LinkedIn and Facebook to identify potential personalities locally.
What other tactics have you tried to bring in fresh blood for brainstorming?
Previous slip-up: We too often listen to our negative inner voice.
Next Slip-Up: People avoid risky ideas.