“Why don’t you all brainstorm on employee engagement during the post-lunch session on the second day of our conference?”, the CEO suggested while leaving the meeting.
The HR Chief was in his line of sight. The door closed behind the CEO and everyone sank in their chairs. The HR head too was eager to leave, “I will send a kick-off note for the brainstorming session. Tomorrow 3 pm is fine? Yes?”
Of course, everyone knows that brainstorming is a tool for thinking creatively. But if one had to guess what brainstorming means from this little episode, it can be any of the following:
1. You ‘order’ brainstorming when you are not interested in a subject or task
2. Brainstorming is a trick to deal with boredom
3. It is a go-to-trick for those who can’t think on their own
4. It is a great way to show that you are keen on collaboration
5. You can impress everyone with how well you engage people
6. It is smart way of kicking the can around
It would have been honest and straightforward on the part of the CEO to just call the HR Head and say: “Look, I have no clue to what this employee engagement is about, except that it sounds good. I never had time to think of my engagement with whoever I worked for. Why don’t you convince me that it is really good and how this can be achieved in our organisation? If I am convinced then we can decide to use it as a theme…”
It is obvious that we need to be clear about the reason for brainstorming. It is just one of the several methods used to aid creative thinking or just improve thinking. Other methods are questioning (why, how, what, when, why not), coming up with alternative ‘models’ for the situation, and so on. (Several books by Edward De Bono explain creative thinking techniques.)
Brainstorming is based on the principle that ideas beget ideas. When someone comes up with a refreshingly different idea, it challenges our thinking. It helps us get out of our routine thought-processes, and we start getting more and more ideas. If this process is allowed unhindered, it gathers pace, like a snowball. So many ideas can come up that you may find it difficult to keep track of them. If this happens, you are doing well. While this might seem strange, even if a person throws around a terribly dull idea it can can trigger a round of ideas (some more exciting).
A moderator is necessary for such thinking sessions — discussions that meander into nothing should be avoided. It helps to keep individual contributions brief. It is good to get rapid fire or staccato responses. No idea should be criticised or rejected. A thorough log of every idea — silly, stupid, bizarre, outlandish, impractical, costly, over-ambitious, pathetic, unconventional, against perceived wisdom, too idealistic, or too innovative — should be maintained. Circulate the log among the participants.
Proper logging gives confidence to every contributor that she/he has been heard and that her/his idea is not wasted. It is good to delink ideas from their respective creators. All ideas then become common properties, making it easier to group, reword, replace, and reject some of them in the next step.
Break The Patterns
Arranging the thinking session in a different place is a good idea. You can ask some people to get up and exchange seats with others. Ask people to switch to different ‘thinking modes’ — from narrative to graphic forms like flow diagrams, Venn diagrams, or block diagrams, from graphic to bullet points, and so on. See if it is possible to include customer or vendor representatives, experts, or thinkers from unrelated fields.
Breaking thought patterns is the key. Our brains love fresh air! Coffee and cookies should do the rest!