How to banish attention vampires and other scary brainstorming bugaboos

For most of us, the arrival of Halloween evokes childhood memories of trick-or-treating, jack-o’-lanterns, ghosts, goblins, witches – and staying up late to watch horror movies like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Although the spooky traditions of “All Hallow’s Eve” aren’t widely celebrated in the business world, Mitchell Rigie and Keith Harmeyer, partners at SmartStorming LLC, point out that those traditions can provide interesting metaphors and analogies for some of the challenges organizations often face when trying to generate new ideas and drive innovation. “In a world where innovation is an essential ingredient for business success, the ability to freely and consistently generate fresh, new thinking is crucial,” says Rigie, coauthor, along with Harmeyer, of SmartStorming: The Game-Changing Process for Generating Bigger, Better Ideas.

“Ideas are the lifeblood of business,” adds Harmeyer. “Without them, you have nothing. So it’s important to eliminate any impediments to effective idea generation swiftly and handily.”

Here are five warning signs Rigie and Harmeyer offer that suggest entity influences might be negatively affecting your organization’s best thinking and creative problem-solving abilities – and what to do about them.

1. Dungeon Masters are running your brainstorms. “In an ideal world, the leader of a brainstorming group is inspiring, supportive, fair and open-minded,” says Rigie. “They encourage participation by creating a safe, supportive environment for sharing new and different types of ideas and perspectives.”

“Unfortunately not every leader is so skillful or puts the best interests of his or her group first,” adds Harmeyer. “For every well-trained and masterful Yoda-like leader, there is a Darth Vader lurking in the conference room next door.”

Rigie and Harmeyer explain that such “dark overlords of ideation” come in many different guises: some possess dominating personalities that rule and control their groups instead of inspiring and guiding them; others demonstrate an insatiable appetite for more and more ideas and relentlessly pressure their group to generate vast quantities without end. “We once knew a Dungeon Master who would squash creativity in every brainstorming session,” says Rigie. “At the start of the meeting, he would assert, ‘You know how they say there’s no such thing as a bad idea? Well, that’s not true. There are bad ideas. Ideas so bad they should never be spoken out loud. Okay, so what have we got?’ Needless to say, few participants had the courage to utter even one risky, unconventional and potentially innovative idea.”

2. The specter of negativity and judgment looms in air. That’s a dumb idea! We tried something like that before – it didn’t work! The boss will fire us for even suggesting a wild idea like that! Sound familiar? That’s the sound of fledgling ideas being massacred. “Nothing will kill a group’s idea-generation efforts faster than negativity and judgment creeping into the session,” says Rigie. “If participants’ contributions are repeatedly shot down, they will quickly feel self-conscious about sharing their thinking for fear of being criticized or viewed as foolish.”

How much negativity is finding its way into your brainstorming sessions? “It’s the role of the leader to maintain an ego-free zone,” says Harmeyer. “The most effective way to do that is to introduce a few rules of the game before generating ideas.”

The authors suggest establishing brainstorming rules such as, “Suspend all judgment,” “There’s no such thing as a bad idea,” “Go for quantity over quality,” “Shoot for wild, edgy ideas,” and “Nothing is impossible.” By having the group agree to such rules, you establish a safer, more open and supportive environment in which new and innovative ideas can emerge.

3. The session feels like a torture chamber. The reason many brainstorming sessions feel like a veritable “house of pain” is because they are poorly planned, loosely structured, have ill-defined goals and include few if any fresh techniques to inspire new avenues of thinking. The agony can be compounded by untrained leaders who allow group discussions to meander aimlessly or who fail to keep the group’s creative energy high. “When enthusiasm plummets, participants’ contributions slow to a trickle,” says Rigie. “That’s when those old, familiar ideas start getting recycled over and over again.”

“Without big-picture planning, a sound process, active, well-trained leadership and idea-stimulating techniques, productive sessions are virtually impossible to achieve,” says Harmeyer. “Efforts are expended in vain, time drags on and participants stagger out of the session feeling like the walking dead.”

4. Toxic personalities are invited. Who you invite to your brainstorm can dramatically impact the quality and productivity of the session. Not everyone you might consider asking to attend is capable of being a team player. In fact, some may even sabotage the group’s efforts with fiendish attitudes and devilish behaviors. Here are a few of the potentially troublesome personality types Rigie and Harmeyer suggest you avoid inviting to your sessions.

Attention vampires – They always want to stand out and be the center of attention. They’ll suck the life out of the entire group.

Wet blankets – These pessimists see flaws in every idea voiced and dampen the enthusiasm level in every session they attend.

Dictators – They love every idea … as long as it’s theirs. These totalitarians believe they are the only ones with good taste. Everyone else’s contributions need to conform to theirs or risk being executed.

Obstructionists – To them, nothing is simple or easy. They overcomplicate conversations and procedures and bring up extraneous facts or considerations that derail the flow of the group.

Ward off such evil influences! When considering whom to invite to your brainstorm, seek out individuals who possess a positive, can-do attitude and collaborative nature.

5. Carnage in the idea selection process. How easily can your group identify and agree upon a breakthrough idea when it sees one? “Believe it or not, in many organizations, it’s not as simple and straightforward as it may seem,” says Rigie. “If a group fails to predetermine what criteria define a good idea before it’s time to evaluate those ideas, the selection process can devolve into a messy, combative contest where promising ideas live or die based on the subjective assertions of dominating personalities, or the thumbs-up/thumbs-down whims of executive privilege.”

To avoid this type of mayhem, Rigie and Harmeyer suggest predetermining a set of selection criteria – those specific characteristics, attributes or benefits a winning idea must possess in order to successfully address the challenge at hand. “Just visualize as clearly as possible what the perfect solution or end result would look like,” says Harmeyer. “Then consider what qualities an idea must have in order to achieve that visionary goal.”

Twilight zone of irrelevance

The ability to continuously reinvent a product, service, process or value proposition is the key to thriving in an innovation-driven marketplace. The price for failing to do so is steep: you risk rapidly slipping into the twilight zone of irrelevance.

Continuous innovation demands a constant supply of fresh, new ideas. And brainstorming is the most widely used methodology for generating them. Take the necessary steps to ensure your sessions don’t turn into horror stories. Identify clear session goals; invite participants who possess a collaborative, can-do attitude; establish a few rules to eliminate negativity; select a leader who can inspire the group and create a safe, supportive environment; and predetermine a set of selection criteria to serve as a yardstick for measuring the merits of promising ideas.

By optimizing your brainstorms’ effectiveness, you will effectively eliminate any gremlins in your idea-generation process and will be confident that those game-changing ideas will always be there when you need them.

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One Response to How to banish attention vampires and other scary brainstorming bugaboos

  1. Sue Cardwell says:

    Ha ha! I recognise myself in a few of those monsters!

    But thinking about personality segmentations like Edward de Bono’s Six Hats, isn’t it better to consider how to bring out the useful skills of each ‘monster’?

    A good facilitator who sets the scene well can manage even dominant or wet blanket personalities, making sure that everyone brings their creativity into the open.