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Trick or Treat: 5 Ways Your Company May Be Scaring Away Innovative Ideas

SmartStorming Trick or TreatScary creatures and evil spirits are fine on Halloween night. But they have no place in your brainstorming sessions, where they're sure to terrorize everyone in the room and thwart any fresh, innovative thinking. Here are some tips for how to exorcize the most disruptive brainstorming demons.
 
For most of us, the arrival of Halloween evokes childhood memories of trick-or-treating, jack-o’-lanterns, ghosts, goblins, witches and black cats—and staying up late to watch horror movies like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street.
 
Although the spooky traditions of “All Hallow’s Eve” aren't widely celebrated in the business world, they can provide us with 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. And any impeding forces that get in the way must be dealt with swiftly and handily.
 
Here are 5 warning signs that entity influences may be negatively affecting your organization’s best thinking and creative problem solving abilities—influences that need to be eliminated. 

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

    Unfortunately not every leader is so benevolent or puts the best interests of his or her group first. For every evolved and masterful Yoda-like leader, there is a Darth Vader lurking in the conference room. These 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 knew a Dungeon Master who would squash creativity by asserting at the start of every brainstorm session, “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 getting shot down. Nothing will kill a group's idea generation effort faster than negativity and judgment creeping into the session. If participants’ ideas and insights are repeatedly criticized or dismissed, they will feel self-conscious about sharing their thinking, for fear of being viewed as foolish.

    Ask yourself, how much negativity and judgment is seeping into your brainstorming sessions. It’s the role of the leader to maintain an ego-free zone. The fastest, easiest way to do that is to introduce a few “rules of the game” before generating ideas. 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” help establish a safer, more open and supportive environment in which new and innovative ideas can emerge.
     

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

    Without big-picture planning, a sound process, active, well-trained leadership, and idea-spurring techniques, productive sessions are virtually impossible to achieve. Instead, efforts are expended in vain, time drags on, and participants stagger out of the session feeling like zombies.
     

  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 to avoid inviting to a session.

    Attention vampires—They always want to stand out and be the center of attention. They'll suck the life out of the whole group.

    Wet blankets—These pessimists see flaws in every idea voiced; they dampen the enthusiasm level of 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 shot down.

    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 who 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 they see one? Believe it or not, in many organizations, it’s not as simple and straightforward as it may seem. 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, always predetermine 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, and then consider what qualities an idea needs to achieve that goal.

How to exorcise the demons in your innovation process
 
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.
  • 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 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.