Do emotions run high in your brainstorming sessions? Do you find that your team members are more interested in name calling than decision making? In this week's column, Peter Clark explains how to get your team to brainstorm without the storm clouds rolling in.
"I can't believe that you said something that stupid!"
Mary looked in alarm at Bill and George. They sat glaring, red-faced at each other across the conference room table. Mary had called the meeting to decide which platform to use for their new product - Windows or Linux. Normally, Bill and George got along well, but they had very strong feelings on this topic that prevented them from seeing any validity in the other's point of view. The initial amicable discussion had escalated to an argument, and the argument had escalated into a name-calling free-for-all, conducted at the tops of their lungs. Mary had to do something, fast!
All too often, decisions are made in just such a haphazard, ad hoc manner, where personalities and rhetoric often trump reasoned analysis. While this is a process for resolving issues, it is probably not the best method to follow if you want your project to be successful. I think that we would all agree that a reasoned analysis is a much more fruitful, if difficult, path to take.
Mary immediately adjourned the meeting. She then met individually with Bill and George and told them their behavior that morning was completely inappropriate. They both sheepishly agreed that they were out of line and promised to behave in the future. Mary realized that she would need to get them both to listen to what the other was saying instead of just reacting. She had recently read The Thinker's Toolkit by Morgan D. Jones, so she decided to try the Pros-Cons-Fixes analysis tool.
One of the problems with brainstorming sessions is that it is too easy for participants to shoot down each other's ideas. As Jones writes:
Because our compulsion to be critical is so strong, we tend, when we evaluate the merits of something… to focus on the negative aspects to the virtual exclusion of the positive. Negative thoughts can quickly overwhelm and preempt positive.
The first thing, then, is to make sure that ideas get a chance to live for awhile before we kill them. Therefore, when running a brainstorming session, do not allow any criticism during the initial phase of idea generation. Take whatever idea is presented, and uncritically write it down.
When you have exhausted the well of ideas, go back and list all of the pros for each of the options. A pro is anything that you can think of that supports the idea. You are not allowed to offer any criticism of the ideas or the pros that support the ideas.
When Bill and George arrived, Mary was waiting. For both Windows and Linux, she had drawn a four-column table on the large whiteboard: Pros, Cons, Fixes, and Issues. She explained the first step of the process to them: List all of the Pros for each of the options.
George started listing benefits of Linux: "Well, the operating system and the development tools are free." Bill almost exploded. "How can you say that!? You have to look at total cost of ownership!" Mary reminded Bill that they were only listing Pros for Linux right now. He sat down, and Mary continued to write all of George's Pros on the whiteboard. Then, she wrote down all the Pros for Windows.
Once you have listed all of the Pros, it is time to list all of the Cons. Again, the idea is to be uncritical when listing Cons. Avoid getting into discussions on any points. It is OK to clarify a point to make sure that it is correctly noted. It is not OK to argue against a Con or to