If it is your responsibility to call people together to solve a problem, then whether this is presented as a brainstorming session, just part of a meeting, or an ad hoc discussion at your office door, you need to set a tone and guide the group to a useful conclusion.
There’s a lot of cross currents to navigate. It is among the most challenging and rewarding tasks a leader can have. It is part of how you can create an innovation culture.
Encourage multiple points of view
Compare these conversations:
You: Let’s go for Chinese.Me: No, how about pizza.
You: Let’s go for Chinese.Me: That’s good. Or pizza. We haven’t had pizza for a while.
Some of you may be rolling your eyes. The point I am making is that the “encourage disagreement” mantra we hear about preventing group-think and resigned consensus makes it sound like every meeting needs to be a quarrel. I prefer the “yes and” mindset that says we honour each others’ ideas even as we introduce our own.
The starting point of any effort to come to a solution needs multiple ideas. Each idea could either be implemented or inspire the idea that will be.
Clarify your goals and constraints
Make sure those who are engaged in problem solving with you know what you are looking for. It can be open ended if that’s what you want – let’s think about a new product line, but even that would normally be accompanied with boundaries like using the same materials and techniques as our current product line, or that will appeal to our existing customer base.
The same applies to your constraints. You owe it to your team to tell them if the ideas you seek need to fit within financial or staffing limitations, or if, for example, a particular market is off limits because it will compete with a partner.
Not clarifying this up front will result in wasted time and quite possibly generate ill will, since the ideas that are put forth are quickly rejected by you as being out of bounds.
Leaders speak last
“Even people who consider themselves good leaders, who may actually be decent leaders, will walk into a room and say, ‘Here’s the problem. Here’s what I think. But I’m interested in your opinion.'”
You may find yourself holding an idea meeting hoping to validate the “great idea” you’ve already come up with. Check this impulse. Your team will quickly realize that you have your mind made up and can easily fall into the trap of giving you exactly what you want – validation – which is pleasant but not necessarily productive. Your idea may not be the best one that the group cold arrive at.
Once the goals and constraints are understood, let your team begin producing ideas. Thank the people who disagree with you. Ask questions to ensure understanding. But don’t weigh in until near the end.