Your team has been tasked to solve a tough problem or to come up with a breakthrough idea or new opportunity. How will you attack the challenge? What’s your go-to creative tool?
In many team collaboration scenarios, the instinct is to get everyone together for a big, freewheeling brainstorming session and see what comes out of it. That is one way to go. But it’s not necessarily the best way. And on its own, it’s not likely to get you to the boundary-pushing ideas and solutions you need.
Why Doesn’t Brainstorming Work?
When leaders look at team collaboration as a way to spark creativity, brainstorming is often one of the first things they’ll think of. The members of the project team will gather around a conference table, set a timer and spout their first thoughts about a topic while some poor soul diligently takes notes. The whole point of the exercise, they’re led to believe, is quantity of ideas, not quality.
Eventually the timer goes off. People stand up, pat themselves on the back, congratulate each other on their creative thinking, and then file out of the room.
And then what happens?
In plenty of cases, nothing. No one ever goes back to the brainstormed list of ideas (if they can even find it) and does any deep thinking about what to do with all that stuff.
But there are other scenarios that can play out, as well. The assumption with brainstorming is that you’ll come up with tons and tons of ideas, many of them off-the-wall and wacky, while a few of them might end up being the kernel of a groundbreaking solution or opportunity. Unfortunately, though, people don’t always leave those collaborations feeling exhilarated by all the creative thinking they’ve done. Sometimes, they realize that what they’ve come up with is only an incremental improvement over the status quo—one or two steps away from what they’ve already been doing—not the breakthrough, next-level ideas they expected.
In both scenarios, the group may come up with lots of ideas. But neither team is closer to the big, groundbreaking solution, something that can only be found in quality ideas, not in sheer quantity of them. But here’s the paradox of creativity: The process of getting to quality ideas doesn’t start with generating fewer ideas. Quantity and quality go together. The secret is having an ideation process that sparks thinking outside the team’s existing continuum—and then another process to filter the ideas through.
How to Encourage Collaboration that Produces Next-Level Thinking
So, how do you “spark” the kind of creativity that will push the team outside its comfort zones? One example comes from the work Herrmann Asia’s Michael Morgan did with the marketing team of the Australian arm of global liquor giant Brown-Forman. (Download the full story here.)
“My basic philosophy,” says Michael, “is that the human brain is absolutely useless in coming up with ideas, but brilliant at making connections.”
Ask a team to come up with 20 ideas for decorating a birthday cake, he says, and most will struggle to come up with five or ten, much less any that are what you’d really call “breakthrough.” But give them the same directive, along with a book of Ripley’s Believe it or Not stories to look through for inspiration, and you’ll end up with much more interesting results.
More than just brainstorming, his idea generation techniques are designed to stimulate people to find different ways to define issues and then come up with ideas by making connections. He also emphasizes the importance of taking the step upfront to clearly define the issue, because in a typical brainstorming session, he notes, people rush into idea generation and can end up solving the wrong problem.
Another way to take the team’s thinking to the next level is to encourage “creative contention.” Think of this as a good kind of conflict—we need friction to ignite creative sparks. Using a tool like the HBDI® can help you design highly creative teams by bringing together a diversity of thinking preferences. But collaboration is still key: Having a shared vision, fostering trust and communication, instituting a process that makes it safe to contribute, and putting clear and measurable goals in place are critical. You have to create the right environment for productive conflict to happen.
Make Those Ideas Pay Off
Ideas, in and of themselves, aren’t the answer. For effective team collaboration that leads to the breakthroughs you’re looking for, have the team review all four of the following filtering questions to create and deflect ideas:
A. What will we do? Think big about what you want to accomplish. Stay open to any idea, no matter how outlandish or outrageous.
B. How will we do this? Create a clear mental picture of what the outcome will look like, and then storyboard your idea. List, in order, the concrete tasks required to produce the outcome, with due dates.
C. Who will do this? Don't adjourn until someone owns each task on your list. Projects work when people make promises to follow through and then keep their word.
D. Why are we doing this? Ask the tough questions at critical points: Are we on track? Would a different creative approach work better? Are we still aligned with our mission?
There’s more to sparking creativity and team collaboration than brainstorming. Think differently about the process, and your team will reach breakthroughs you never imagined.