Wednesday, September 1, 2010

9 Steps To A More Successful Brainstorming Meeting

In the course of my time teaching and managing people, I have become very interested in how to make conversations more conducive to creativity and innovation. Although there are no general ways to guarantee that a conversation or meeting will lead to new and creative results, I have identified at least nine steps that can turn an ordinary brainstorming meeting into an innovative and interesting one.
  1. Develop a Non-Standard Context. All too often managers and other employees are accustomed to interacting in very specific and structured ways: some people are used to talking, others to listening, and everyone wants to be recognized for their particular areas of expertise. To truly encourage creativity it is often very useful to introduce a context in which people have very few expectations, such as having a session in an unusual space like a hallway or kitchen, or encouraging people to play devil's advocate to their own ideas. One of my favorite ways to encourage creativity is to open up a meeting by presenting a problem and then asking, "What's the craziest way anyone could solve this problem?"  
  2. Ensure Everyone is Beginning on the Same Page. Knowledge is power, and power can be used to quash discussion. It is important that everyone start from the most even playing field possible. If there are facts that a decision must be based on, it is useful to distribute those to all the participants ahead of time. Further, if a range of solutions is clearly "wrong," that should be known ahead of time too. One can always choose to ignore some of these considerations within the meeting or discussion, but no one should feel that she or he is walking into a "mine field" in which some of their answers will be criticized for being wrong for reasons they could not possibly know ahead of time. 
  3. Remove Boundaries. In normal conversations, especially in a workplace, there are many conventions about how we interact with other people. People in authority generally demand some respect from those beneath them, new people in an organization who are unaccustomed to the conventions and expectations can often sound timid or out-of-touch, and experienced employees can be trapped by preconceptions about what their jobs are and what they are entitled to say. The first step in getting a group to truly foster creativity is to remove many of these boundaries. People in authority should let others take the lead; new employees should be encouraged to talk if only because their ideas have a better chance at being genuinely new, and more experienced employees should be challenged to think outside of their particular job functions or roles. 
  4. Provide Structure. Even if one removes ordinary boundaries in a discussion, it can be very useful to impose novel or extraordinary structures in a discussion. No one can produce productive solutions to specific problems in a vacuum, and forcing people to look at problems in new ways can lead to new approaches and fresh ideas. For instance, ask people to think about the problem as someone else in the room would, or to look to a parallel problem in a very different environment, or ask participants to change sides in the middle of an argument. Creative rules often create creative solutions. 
  5. Accommodate a Wide Variety of Styles of Thought. Some people need silence and preparation to develop genuine creative solutions, while other people need to hear lots of ideas and enjoy jumping into the discussion suddenly and unexpectedly. Some people demand logical precision in their thought, while other people like to think in metaphors. One of the main challenges in fostering creativity in a meeting is developing a way of interacting that allows each person to participate effectively. Often just recognizing the differences in the room can be a cathartic exercise. 
  6. Actively Listen. In my experience, this is the single most important rule in encouraging creativity in a discussion. No one learns anything new in a meeting if they do not spend time listening to other people, and yet very few people are careful listeners. Listening involves not only passively hearing what other people are saying, but more importantly, it involves finding ways to interpret those utterances constructively. For instance, when I ask people to come up with the craziest possible solution to a particular problem, I am often surprised at how even the craziest ideas have a great deal of structure to them, and can be quickly developed into a constructive solution, provided that one pay attention to those details. 
  7. Let Participants Own Their Ideas. The paradigms of creative individuals are artists at work in their studios, producing original books or paintings that express their particular viewpoints on the world. The connection between personal expression and creativity is strong. Hence, it is important to make people feel in control of their own ideas at a meeting, or when they seek to further develop or implement them. When a person feels responsible for his or her own idea's success, that person is more likely to be emotionally engaged with that idea, and there will be an added incentive to bring the idea to completion. 
  8. Empower People to Develop their Ideas. Coming up with new ideas is just the first step when innovation is the goal. Providing the infrastructure for evaluating ideas, for developing them, and monitoring their progress is critical. People often fail to recognize just how much work and time it takes to bring an idea to fruition, but that is where the real work lies. Anyone can come up with a great idea; it takes true genius to bring it to fruition. 
  9. End with Clearly Defined Next Steps. This is basic good business practice, but it is particularly important when a creative discussion ends that there be clearly defined next steps. This is because the particular context that produced these ideas may be difficult to replicate, and when people take up non-standard roles in a discussion, it may take serious thought to redistribute the components of those ideas to the right people in the organization who have the expertise and abilities to bring them to completion. Everyone should leave the room knowing what steps are being taken, that the right people are taking them, and understand the criterion for the success or failure of those steps. 
These are just some general ideas on how to structure a brainstorming discussion that is conducive to the creative and innovative development of new ideas. It is worth keeping in mind that this is only one of the contexts in which new ideas develop. In particular, in some stages of the development process a great deal of structure is needed, requiring managers to do what they should do best: distribute complicated tasks among the right people in the organization and at the right times to get them done. At other times, it may be more useful to have a passive way of gathering information, such as a designated bulletin board or wall. Nevertheless, if you find your company or organization is suffering from a lack of new ideas, occasionally implementing some of these steps in a meeting may help.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Do Non-Profits Have a Unique Metaphysical Structure? (Repost from September 13, 2008)

There are some obvious contrasts between for-profit and non-profit corporations. The basic philosophy of a for-profit company is clear: reduce operating costs, increase revenues, and thereby increase profits. In order to achieve these goals, most companies have three classes of individuals: the executives who set policy, the employees who do the work, and the management that ensures that the employees do their work and that the company succeeds in implementing the executives' policies. A well-run company with its unified purposes, efficient methods of implementation, and its clear system of responsibility has been one of the marvels of our age, and it explains the dominance of the corporate model throughout the world economy. Further, by focusing on profits, for-profit corporations are called upon to produce successful products and services, and this success or failure can be easy to track.

Although it is legally the case that a non-profit can have a very similar corporate structure to a for-profit company, with boards of directors, executives, managers, and employees, the philosophical structure is fundamentally different. By explicitly denying the pursuit of profit, corporations are denying the fundamental raison d'ĂȘtre of for-profit companies. As a consequence, many non-profits have goals that are less easy to define or track. For instance, a non-profit might be founded to increase awareness of an issue, but seldom are there viable ways of tracking how well it achieves this goal, or of comparing its current approach to other alternative approaches. A non-profit might be set up to pursue a religious, cultural, or charitable goal, but it may value the activity of pursuing that goal more highly than any specific product that is brought about.

And this may point to a fundamental metaphysical difference between corporations and non-profits: one tends to value an activity more than any specific product, and the other values the product more than the activity.

In both cases, however, the best run companies and non-profits can converge (See Economist July 15, 2010, "Profiting from Non-Profits"): both should be able to employ efficient means to achieving their goals, while at the same time valuing the activity highly enough that the activity itself can be a worthy goal. A corporation that provides good benefits to its employees, and that is sincere in its effort to produce a sense of responsibility and community among its employees, managers, and executives begins to converge on a non-profit model and to raise the status of activity within the organization. And a non-profit organization that is run efficiently, that offers its employees competitive wages, and has clearly defined goals and metrics, can be a lot like a for-profit corporation.

But the differences go further than this. Although this is not inevitable, anyone who has spent time working at a non-profit and a for-profit corporation may have realized that the culture can be quite different. Since for-profit companies are basically in existence for the purpose of making money, this infuses the culture of the individuals who make up that corporation, and you tend to get competition, a strong desire to advance, and basically, people are there to make money. The desire for financial gain among the individuals then transfers back to the company, and increases the drive towards profit. The reciprocal way that large-scale goals infuse small-scale actions and conversely small-scale actions lead to large-scale goals is an interesting philosophical feature of many group activities, and has been noted since antiquity. (Cf. Plato's Republic.)

Non-profits have a similar reciprocal system, but it is based on doing good. Since doing good tends to be a collaborative activity, or at least a non-hierarchical activity (i.e. each agent in the organization is capable of fulfilling the goal to a certain extent), it has the consequence that there is less competition within a non-profit, and it is less amenable to a traditional corporate hierarchy of authority and control. Now, of course, this isn't inevitable, but it does mean that there may be less emphasis on the rules and regulations that are at the heart of the success of a large for-profit corporation. People are less likely to be criticized for being late, less likely to have software on their computers that prevents surfing on the Internet or other similar security and efficiency measures, and people are probably less likely to be reprimanded or even fired for failing to produce good enough ROI. But since it can be argued that happiness is found in activity, it may very well be the case that non-profits tend to produce happier employees, especially if there is an emphasis on activity.

Does a non-profit company lose something when it aspires to be as efficient and effective as a corporation? I think it may well be the case that a non-profit would lose something under these circumstances. What do you think?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Fireplace in Maine

Synesthesia is the phenomenon in which one associates one sense with another. In its most extreme forms it is an involuntary neurological disorder that can be thoroughly unpleasant and potentially debilitating. However, there's a more general phenomenon that most of us can relate to. For instance, many people can be warmed or chilled by a visual impression. This thought was brought home to me this past week watching this video. I recorded it from my bed while staying in a room inside an inn in Maine. I was surprised that when I watched it on a fairly large screen in high resolution in my apartment, I actually felt as if it were warming the side of my body facing it.

Try the experiment, or even better turn out the lights, get under the covers, set the video on loop, and snuggle in front of this fire for a while. Instantly, you have a roaring fireplace in your room!