Problem child? It’s the problem parent who can really screw up a brainstorming session.

When you lead a group ideation session sometimes it’s good to anticipate the potentially difficult players in advance to head off the problems.

There are many types of problem children who could mess up the process. Here I’m going to talk about a trouble maker who is not necessarily a problem became he or she can’t play well with others.

But more than that, it’s their mere presence that often presents a problem because of where they are on the org chart, not who they are as individuals.

I speak not of the problem children, but the problem parents, if you will. The big cheeses. The bosses. The heavy hitters.

These are the people who, because of their positions, wield all kinds of influence on the brainstorming process, whether they intend to or not. It’s best to handle that potential dysfunction in advance, to head off any possible issues before they happen.

Here’s what I do. I call together all persons of rank a few minutes before the actual brainstorming begins and speak to them as a group. I don’t single out anyone. I don’t pull aside any single individual. I remind them, as a group, if they’re not already aware, that their very presence in a brainstorming session might put a damper on the process.

I mean, we’re looking for new ideas here, friends. By definition, new ideas are unproven. It’s not easy volunteering a truly new idea in front of the boss, no matter how open a corporate culture might be.

So in my little pre-brainstorming pep talk I tell these executives, “It’s not you, personally. It’s your position.” Could it be them personally? Sure. But it’s easier to speak to their positions, so it’s not a personal thing.

Here are my simple executive coaching tips:

1) Hold back early – don’t volunteer too many ideas to quickly

2) Don’t judge others ideas in the early going

3) When you volunteer an idea, make sure the first one is a little far out

Let’s look at these little pieces of advice in detail.

1) Hold back early

Leaders in business usually become leaders because they’re smart and quick. Most of them probably have 25 new ideas before the whistle blows to start the ideation session. But if they speak up early it does two things. One, it directs the flow of ideas in their team. And, two, it sets the bar. After that the others aren’t on a zero-based mission to find fresh ideas, now they’re trying to fulfill the vision they think the top player started.

2) Don’t judge too early

These smart and quick high level execs are maybe even smarter and quicker when judging other’s ideas.

Yes, they might be right on when they judge a new idea volunteered by an underling to be less than brilliant. But by voicing that evaluation early on in the brainstorming process they are likely to shut down that individual for the rest of the session. Maybe shut down others as well. There’s plenty of time to judge ideas later.

3) Make sure your early ideas are “out there”

Again, all truly new ideas are unproven. Even the best new ideas may sound more than a little silly the first time they are articulated. And that’s okay. More than okay, it a very good thing.

Well, nothing sets the silly bar like having one of the big wigs in the group volunteering a space-shot of an idea. It gives all others permission to think more broadly. And, heck, it just might be brilliant.

In the over 1,000 brainstorming sessions I’ve facilitated I can tell you the silly ideas are a lot closer to brilliant than the “smart” ideas.

The next time you put together a brainstorming session, if the leaders are part of the group, give them these simple pieces of advice and you’ll have a better session and better ideas.

© Tom Monahan

Tom Monahan is the founder of Before & After Inc., a company that works with major marketers and ad agencies worldwide, including Target, Virgin, Novartis and Unilever, among others. Previously, Monahan was founder and Executive Creative Director at ad agency Leonard/Monahan, an incubator for creative talent in the 1980s and ’90s. Monahan has published The Do-It-Yourself Lobotomy under the Adweek imprint, was advertising columnist for Communication Arts for over a decade and was the youngest creative director written up in The Wall Street Journal’s long-running “Creative Leaders” series.

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