Set the Table for Strategy and Innovation by Bringing Back Real Brainstorming

Brainstorming too often becomes the narrow view of a few (very) vocal people. Time to switch it up, create some truly effective strategies, and kick start some real thinking time, Ted Rubin argues, by opening the floor up to everyone.

Strategy is definitely not dead, and it also doesn't have to be as complicated as some people would like you to believe. The nuts and bolts of how strategy is created and innovation unfolds, however, could definitely use a fresh look for many businesses. In many meeting rooms, the same story plays out over and over. A few vocal talking heads in the room completely control the flow of the conversation (before, during, and after), and of course their ideas are what wind up dominating the meeting. Then, at the end, the vast majority of the group leaves without getting a chance to share their thoughts in any type of meaningful way. A classic ‘brainstorming session’ where NO brains are storming.

If you're one of the people in the room who's never able to get a word in during a meeting (or embarrassed or afraid to do so), then of course you're not going to feel as invested in the strategy that comes out of that meeting! And… so many valuable insights and ideas will be left unspoken. If you want to create effective strategies, you need to create a culture where all stakeholders are encouraged to contribute their thoughts (i.e. brainstorming).

True brainstorming = diversity of thought

Brainstorming is a great concept that occasionally becomes twisted when a few members of a strategy session dominate the conversation and feel that their ideas are the only ones worthy of discussion. But that's not real brainstorming. It's more like a lecture, where the audience is expected to listen in silence, and maybe share a sentence or two of their own thoughts at the end.

Think about the last time you tried to share what you thought was a good idea, advice, or simply some knowledge you have gained over the years, with your teenage child. Remember how quickly they cut you off, the disdain they showed for what you had to say, and the way they made you feel totally unvalued. That is basically how management makes most employees feel when it comes to new ideas... And brainstorming solutions and/or new paths. 

The entire point of brainstorming is to gather ideas from diverse sources, discuss them, and let the best ideas rise to the top. You can only do that if the floor is truly open to everyone, and every member of the meeting is encouraged to share their thoughts.

Needless to say, that doesn’t cut it. The entire point of brainstorming is to gather ideas from diverse sources, discuss them, and let the best ideas rise to the top. You can only do that if the floor is truly open to everyone, and every member of the meeting is encouraged to share their thoughts. Your employees have a ton of front-line insights that can help shape your strategies, but only if you're willing to hear what they have to say.

How do you encourage people to speak up? Start by listening and taking their ideas seriously. Don't dismiss new ideas out of hand, and don't try to corral everyone in the brainstorming session into focusing on the same few ideas, from the same few people. A good brainstorming session is one where everyone gets a chance to speak, and nobody feels like their contributions are being ignored.

Engage, listen and learn

If you want to encourage the flow of ideas – in brainstorming sessions and otherwise – then you need to empower your employees to contribute to the conversation. Listening is a big part of it, but so is asking questions. Your employees, mentees, and anyone else you share ideas with want to feel like their opinions have value, and there are few better ways to show someone you value their opinion than by asking them to share it.

So it starts with engagement, interaction, and learning. That's all stuff that you can accomplish in a brainstorming session, or in smaller, one-on-one conversations throughout the day. But remember that it's not all talk. When you're setting a strategy, there will ultimately come a time to make hard decisions, and that's when you lean on all the feedback you gathered while engaging, listening, and learning.

Some of your new strategies will probably work great, while others will fizzle out. That's okay, too. Being able to adapt, learn, and set a new course is a huge part of turning strategy into success. It's a process of constant evolution, and new ideas will emerge over time. It all starts with creating a culture that empowers your employees to speak their mind, and genuinely listening to what they have to say.

Ted Rubin

Ted Rubin is a leading social marketing strategist, keynote speaker, Photofy CMO/advisor, MC/host for Brand Innovators Summits… Speaker, Author, Provocateur Ted is our resident rock star.

Read more from Ted or connect with him on Twitter @TedRubin.

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Ted Rubin

Ted is a leading Social Marketing Strategist, Keynote Speaker, Brand Evangelist,
Acting CMO of Brand Innovators and Co-Founder of Prevailing Path