Innovation is the elusive Holy Grail for many leaders. While coming up with new ideas is essential to their organization’s long-term success, too few give enough thought to the process they use to encourage creative thinking.
Group brainstorming sessions—one of the most common methods—are often sold to employees as fun, yet many would almost prefer getting a root canal to attending them.
That’s because most organizations aren’t very good at leading these events, says Mitchell Lewis Ditkoff, co-founder of Idea Champions, a consulting and training company in Woodstock, N.Y., who writes a blog on innovation for the Huffington Post.
And let’s face it: It’s a tough audience. In the business world, employees tend to be left-brained—that is, dominated by the logical, rational part of the mind. They often prefer spreadsheets and action plans to open-ended creative thinking.
“Spending time contemplating what people might refer to as ‘blue sky possibilities’ irritates most left-brainers,” Ditkoff says.
Here are some common brainstorming blunders to avoid:
The facilitator isn’t properly trained. Frequently, company leaders will draft someone on staff who isn’t skilled at leading a brainstorming session, says Ditkoff, who wrote Awake at the Wheel: Getting Your Great Ideas Rolling (in an Uphill World) (Morgan James Publishing, 2008).
The facilitator should have a clear understanding of what the objectives are and what outcome is expected by company leaders. While he or she doesn’t need to be an expert on the topic, the individual should have done enough research to guide the conversation, Ditkoff says.
Department heads aren’t the best choice. They’re too invested in the status quo to weigh new ideas in an unbiased fashion, and their very presence will discourage employees from offering certain ideas.
“A good facilitator goes in with an open mind, believing that there is something we don’t yet know,” Ditkoff says.
The right person for the job also needs to be adept at calming left-brainers’ fears by giving them a mental road map of where the process is going.
The participants aren’t prepared. Often, employees rush into the session without finishing the necessary pre-session work or becoming sufficiently informed about the topic. Corporate leaders need to set the tone, explaining why the session is important for the organization.
The right employees aren’t invited. It’s commonly held that bringing in employees from different departments or newcomers to the organization helps provide new perspectives. “If everyone views the problem the same way, you’re not going to get any fresh, original ideas,” says Ken Hudson, an Australian facilitator and trainer who authored The Idea Accelerator (Allen & Unwin, 2011).
But in-depth expertise on the topic may be just as important as diversity of thought in generating innovative ideas, according to a recent study by Sarah Kaplan, a professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto.
Thus, a combination approach that includes both outsider insights and insider expertise and research might be a good idea. “If brainstorming is not preceded by the investment in deep knowledge, breakthroughs are harder to identify,” Kaplan says.
The question or problem being explored is unclear or off-target. The facilitator should spend time before the session talking with the organization’s leaders to get to the heart of the problem they wish to solve. It’s not always what it first seems. The narrower the question to explore while brainstorming, the better, Hudson advises.
The scheduled time isn’t sufficient. Facilitators frequently fail to leave enough time to help the group evaluate the ideas and choose which ones to pursue, Hudson and Ditkoff agree.
Lack of follow-through. Too often, team leaders get busy and action on those good ideas is delayed—if it occurs at all. That leaves employees disillusioned and less inclined to share their thinking in the future.
Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor for HR Magazine.