How to have better meetings: The case against brainstorming

BL Magazine, November 2016. Original article p76-78.

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How to have better meetings: The case against brainstorming

Everyone is prone to groupthink – even the boss. There are better ways for truly getting the best ideas out of people, because true innovation is often borne out of moments of quiet.

If you want your team to solve a problem, lock them in a room with a whiteboard and a pizza and don’t let them out until they have something – that’s the conventional wisdom. Brainstorming remains a go-to method for inspiring new thinking, and it sounds great: by creating a relaxed environment, people can throw ideas around and see what sticks. Except there’s a problem: brainstorming isn’t actually all that effective.

It’s a blow to companies that see themselves as dynamic operations where everyone’s always available, but there’s a myriad of research on this topic that argues for the opposite approach: give people some quiet! And only then, after some alone time, put them together to share their ideas. The problem with brainstorming is groupthink: people tend to fall into behavioural patterns in groups that have more to do with social dynamics than with innovation. It also doesn’t help that we’re drawn to people who sound confident, and there’s no evidence that the loudest person in the room is also the smartest.

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The groupthink phenomenon can happen at any level of an organisation, including at the top where you may think people would know better than to fall in line without merit. “In terms of a company board, groupthink means the way disparate ideas are less forthcoming because people start to think of things in the same way,” says Richard Sheath, partner at Independent Audit, the specialist corporate governance consultancy focusing on the effectiveness of boards. “They see things through the same lens, and over time they start thinking in the same way – rather than what they should be doing, which is bringing their different experience and skills to the table.”

This conundrum holds a clue as to why brainstorming, or group decision-making, remains so popular: it makes people feel connected. In her excellent book ‘Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’, Susan Cain cites research studies where participants in brainstorming sessions often believe their group performed much better than it actually did. Writes Cain: “Group brainstorming makes people feel attached – a worthy goal as long as we understand that social glue, as opposed to creativity, is the principal benefit.”

Add to this the tendency of some people to do or most of the talking, while others sit quietly, and the appeal of brainstorming meetings to drive innovation starts to lose its lustre. Cain references studies that show how we perceive talkers as smarter than quiet types: “We see talkers as leaders. The more a person talks, the more other group members direct their attention to him, which means that he becomes increasingly powerful as the meeting goes on.”

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screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-13-26-59In order to ensure no one railroads a meeting, you have to understand the dynamic of the group and be well prepared, says Ian Churchill, CEO of digital workflow software specialist BigHand. “When you get to know a group of people, you recognise their strengths and weaknesses. You have to make sure you engage the people who have a depth of knowledge, over those who just have a strong view.”

Churchill, who’s in charge of about 150 people, thinks large groups aren’t actually very efficient when it comes to solving problems: “I don’t particularly like big meetings. I think you get more done with four people than with eight.” Gathering a few people means they’ll be strongly motivated to solve a problem, says Churchill – that probably won’t be the case once the numbers grow. “Plus the bigger the group, the more challenges you have with strong personalities.”

Having good ideas is not solely reserved for those with the gift of the gab, so a key task for the person leading a meeting is to encourage participation from people who’re naturally more quiet. “There are some really smart people out there who’re quite shy, or who get intimidated by loud people,” says Mike Thorpe, now a director of the Janders Dean consultancy in Jersey after eight years with Ogier Fiduciary Services.

The most important person in the meeting is the one who’s leading it, says Thorpe, as he recalls how he recently saw ITV newscaster Alastair Stewart moderate an event at the Institute of Directors: “You could tell he has years of experience. He was very authoritative, knowing when to let people talk, and when to shut them up.” The smartest employees are sometimes the quietest ones, says Thorpe – they’re the people who just get on with their work: “Where companies have good moderators, or good leaders who allow them to speak, that’s when you get the most out of them.”

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Richard Sheath concurs that effective chairing is key to getting the most out of a meeting. “You need an awareness of what each individual is able to contribute to the discussion, and give them space to do so. This can particularly apply in situations with different nationalities around the table,” says Sheath. He points out how some cultures value assertiveness more than others – the same can also be true for gender. But it’s important not to be dogmatic about how meetings are run, says Sheath: “With time constraints, and a sense of needing to give everyone an opportunity to comment, it can become a bit of a go-around-the-table. … It can become a collection of disconnected comments, rather than a discussion of a particular theme.”

As different personality types have varying approaches to discussions, leaders need to be aware in order to get the best out of people. “Extroverts think out loud and on their feet, they prefer talking to listening, rarely find themselves at a loss for words, and occasionally blurt out things they never meant to say,” writes Susan Cain. “Introverts, in contrast, … listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation.” Each type bring different strengths: perhaps the best example of how powerful this combination can be is how it took extroverted Steve Jobs working with introverted Steve Wozniak to create Apple.

To maximise the chances of hearing also from the quieter members of staff, it helps to prepare them, says Mike Thorpe: “If you want to get something specific out of a meeting, and you know the person you need to [speak] is a quiet person, you give them a heads up. … Tell them, ‘I’m going to lead you into it.’” Thorpe emphasises the importance of setting an agenda for meetings: why are we doing this? That includes taking a moment to wrap up at the end, and make sure you got what you wanted out the meeting. This is the opposite of brainstorming sessions that end up with pizza-smeared post-its all over the walls, but the research backs it up: the best ideas come when everyone has a chance to contribute, not just the loudmouths.

Leading by example
What happens if the leader is a quiet type too? Ian Churchill is reluctant to describe himself as an introvert – the term is often misunderstood to mean shy, and that isn’t a positive trait for a CEO. But Churchill is more than happy to describe himself as someone who listens: “I recognise I have a set of skills that are different from the other members of the team. … To lead and make decisions you have to assimilate a selection of opinions, and then distill down what is the right way.” This is true for any leader regardless of their personality type, and Churchill thinks the stereotypical ideal of a larger-than-life CEO has started to disappear. “You have to engender respect to become a leader; you have to earn respect rather than demand it. But I don’t think you necessarily have to be charismatic to do so.”

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