As the Manager, should you be present in the Brainstorm meeting?

team-808761_1280You want to hold a meeting with the team you manage in order to generate some really creative ideas. You would like the group to challenge assumptions, think differently and come up with plenty of radical proposals. Here is the dilemma. You naturally want to lead the meeting but should you be in the room at all?

Unfortunately for managers,  your presence in the room can inhibit people. With you there, it is very hard for your team to switch from normal meeting mode to creative brainstorm mode. You want them to confront the current conventions and generate unorthodox ideas. But some of these hidden factors might be at play:

• Too much deference and respect for authority (you!)
• Fear of looking silly
• Fear of rejection
• Not wanting to look disloyal or insolent
• Dislike of conflict or argument

You tell them that anyone can challenge anything and make any suggestion. They nod in agreement but they are waiting to see what happens. Someone suggests something strange and you immediately point out why that might not work. People read the signals and you are straight back into a conventional meeting with little chance of the wealth of radical ideas you were hoping for.

What can be done about this? Here are three practical ways to overcome the problem of manager in the room:

1. Hand over the meeting to an external facilitator. It is hard for the manager to change from their normal management persona into a creative cheerleader. It is much easier for a facilitator to get people to think and act differently. Bring in someone from an entirely different function or business and tell them the outcomes you want e.g. we want to find three new ways to cut waiting times and improve customer service. Then let them run the meeting and you take a back seat.

2. Use brainstorm methods which depersonalise the ideas and encourage radical thinking. The Nominal Method and Pass the Parcel are two such techniques. The ideas are pooled. Everybody has to contribute and bizarre ideas are encouraged and mandated. In many business meetings the noisiest or the most powerful people dominate the discussion with the lower-status people quiescent. If you select the right type of brainstorm method you can overcome these issues and ensure that everyone contributes ideas and helps in the selection.

3. Leave the room. I facilitated a brainstorm meeting for a marine engineering company. We started by discussing some of the key challenges and the broad types of solution we needed. The Managing Director then left the room. He was a very intelligent, forceful and dynamic character. He was smart enough to know that if he stayed in the meeting he would not be able to stop himself from leading and shaping the discussions. Two hours later he returned and we presented a short list of ideas. He received them enthusiastically and helped define the next steps in terms of responsibilities and resources.

The brainstorm meeting requires a different structure, culture and process from a normal meeting. If the manager leads a brainstorm then all too often it slips back into a conventional meeting with conventional thinking. Force some different thinking with a different location, a different approach and a different meeting leader.

More details on all my brainstorm methods in How to Generate Ideas – available on Kindle



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