An important technique for elevating the quality of the output of brainstorming sessions is to stop doing the things that degrade quality. That's good news, because not doing something rarely costs much. In Part I of this series, we looked at changes to make before the session starts. In this Part II, we examine changes in the conduct of the session itself.
- Maintain psychological safety
- If we want people to contribute fresh, potentially radical ideas, they need to feel psychologically safe. Safety is the degree to which group members, as a whole, believe that personal risk-taking will not lead to harsh judgment of the risk-taker by the group. The brainstorm structure provides safety by prohibiting evaluation of contributions during the session.
- Evaluation If we want people to contribute
fresh, potentially radical ideas,
they need to feel safecan come in many forms: ridicule, derisive laughter, incidental comments prefatory to making contributions, and so on. Ruthlessly enforce the nonevaluation rule.
- Ensure that scribing is fair
- The scribe's duty is to capture honestly the contributions of participants. Honest mistakes do happen, but a pattern of biasing the record of contributions eventually causes some to object. If biased scribing continues, some will simply stop contributing.
- Intervening when this happens is the facilitator's duty. The matter can be so delicate that recessing for a private chat with the scribe might be advisable. If interventions don't work, replace the scribe. If the facilitator fails to intervene when a scribe intervention is needed, have a private chat with the facilitator.
- Have enough scribe capacity
- When some scribes cannot keep up with the pace of contributions, they compensate by omitting some contributions, condensing them, or combining them with others. When this happens, contributors can feel devalued, and some will stop contributing.
- If the scribe is slow, and can't speed up, replace the scribe. If the contribution pace is too rapid (a wonderful problem to have), add an additional scribe.
- Name contributions descriptively
- When we name contributions to refer to them in conversation, using the contributor's name risks interfering with psychological safety when others contribute alternative ideas, or when someone credits the wrong contributor.
- To refer to a prior contribution by a name, use something descriptive of the contribution, rather than the name of the contributor.
- Allocate airtime fairly
- In some brainstorming sessions, a few individuals dominate. Reticence on the part of others can result.
- The few individuals who are dominating might be simply uninhibited, eager, well-meaning souls. If so, try a polling technique. Go around the group repeatedly, restricting each person to either making just one contribution, or passing. The more difficult situations relate to individuals whose intent is to prevent others from contributing, or who insist on evaluating the contributions of others: "I already said that," or "We tried that," or "That will never work." Address these difficult situations proactively by establishing behavioral norms at the outset, and by intervening, perhaps privately, in the case of repeated norm violations.
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