Better Brainstorming: Asking the Right Kinds of Questions

Better Brainstorming: Asking the Right Kinds of QuestionsBy now most all of us are used to taking part in brainstorming sessions, getting the whole team together to facilitate new ideas, suggest solutions for particular challenges and, develop a vision for going forward. When we adhere to a set of particular practices, brainstorming can be highly productive and move the team ahead by leaps and bounds in a very short period of time. Extroverts and introverts alike can find brainstorming sessions exhilarating and because of their collaborative nature, these meetings can do lots to foster connection and increase a sense of ownership and satisfaction amongst team members.

When certain guidelines are not adhered to, brainstorming can lead to internal disputes, emotionally-charged competition, and even a loss of morale.


Build First, Edit Later

Avoid judging anyone’s input as good or bad. Everyone’s input is inherently good and act accordingly. People who feel criticized will often shutdown and doing so isn’t exactly a choice but an automatic protective, hard-wired response. So it’s best to designate a particular amount of time to just capturing as many ideas as possible. If needed, have someone help you get everything on the white board, put the emphasis on getting as many ideas down as possible. Don’t worry about the quality of those ideas (yet).


Language

It’s important that the person who facilitates the brainstorming session is aware of the often subtle yet powerful evocative nature of language itself. Words have direct meanings, shades of meanings and a slew of connotations and associations they bring with them. Different people will respond differently based on the words used in the questions they’re asked. A good rule of thumb is to avoid words that intrinsically make a judgement call such as good/bad or right/wrong. In fact, using such words tends to lock most of us into a binary mode of thinking and we’re not looking for black or white solutions but for truly innovative solutions and approaches.


Instead, ask questions using words that are not judgment biased.

For instance, asking “How can we solve this problem?” automatically presupposes that there is a problem. The existence of a “problem” may indeed be something everyone on the team agrees with but the mere mention of the word also triggers pattered behavior. Middle management will likely hear “problem” and think that’s something they need to solve. Other team members may feel fearful or defensive and that’s not conducive to getting the creative juices flowing.

Alternative questions might be: “How can we solve this challenge?” The word “challenge” inspires a sense of challenge in many of us. Other people will respond better to language that is value-neutral: “What can you tell us about this occurrence (phenomenon, situation, thing)?” Their response will often include answers that crack through the binary modality of good/bad or yes/no which is where we want to go.


Explore the Flip Side

Let’s say you do use the word “problem.” Let’s say your team is pretty dern results oriented and driven. Well, flip those pat questions on the head. Why not ask: “What’s right with the problem we’re currently facing?” Ask “What do we not want and what does that look like, really?” Invite everyone to describe the unattractive, unwanted end in visceral detail. Then take those “unattractives” and flip back to putting the emphasis on what you all collectively do want and you’ll find a clearer picture emerges.


For example:

What our worst website looks like:

  • Awful, boring copy that’s just like everyone else’s.
  • Cheap stock images that look like everyone else’s.
  • Hard to navigate with lots of buried pages and links that go nowhere.
  • No recognizable brand or image.
  • Utterly depressing and something to be ashamed of.

The Flip Side:

  • Original copy that’s different from everyone else’s.
  • Great looking images that are different from everyone else’s.
  • Easy to navigate with minimal well-directed links and pages.
  • A memorable brand and image.
  • Uplifting, inspiring, something to be proud of.

By now most all of us are used to taking part in brainstorming sessions, getting the whole team together to facilitate new ideas, suggest solutions for particular challenges and, develop a vision for going forward. When we adhere to a set of particular practices, brainstorming can be highly productive and move the team ahead by leaps and bounds in a very short period of time. Extroverts and introverts alike can find brainstorming sessions exhilarating and because of their collaborative nature, these meetings can do lots to foster connection and increase a sense of ownership and satisfaction amongst team members.

With a little planning and awareness, brainstorming sessions can be highly productive and can foster a collective vision and mission for the team that’s downright infectious. When we keep the focus on providing a space and time for team members to contribute and be as creative and out of the box without fear of judgment or reprisal, we are in effect, giving them room to grow, express themselves and to take part in the big picture. Ask questions with the purpose of getting around bias and judgment and jostling input from people with different sensibilities and communication styles and you’ll be looking at a much more fulfilling outcome.