Remember the last time you were in a brainstorming session. Maybe you all sat down to address a specific challenge, like “We need to increase revenues” or “Competitor XYZ is eating our lunch and we have to react”, or maybe you had something specific, like “We need to reduce costs in this office by at least 30%”, or maybe you had no challenge at all – it was just a general brainstorming session to come up with new ideas.
Typically, the room has whiteboards and markers, or flipcharts, or those cool giant post-it notes you can rip off and stick to the wall. On the more structured meetings, the presenters write out the goals, create a little “parking lot” area on paper, maybe frames up the beginnings of a task (or the much more dynamically named but exactly the same, action) list.
The person who called the meeting then gives out the challenge, and then makes that requisite statement which you hear at the beginning of all brainstorming sessions.
“We want to hear all ideas, no matter how seemingly dumb or impossible or crazy or out-of-the-box. Everything is on the table.”
I’ve heard that statement so many times. I’m sure you have too – or at least a variation of it.
After that, there is a pause. Typically, the first one to throw out an idea is someone who has been bottling it up for a long time – just waiting to throw it out there. These are usually not the decision makers (note that the decision makers in the room usually wait until the non-decision makers make their ideas public before they step in with a variation of an idea already out there, or just commentary on the ideas already out there. One wonders if they have their own ideas sometimes.)
That idea is noted and written down. Then more are advanced. Usually, they are not really disruptive, new ideas, which is ok, I suppose, because you didn’t really ask for that, you just asked for “anything” or maybe “anything which might help solve the problem”
Eventually, if the group gets going, you might actually get some really good stuff. The group starts gelling, bouncing ideas off of each other. Idea after idea piles up, and if you’re lucky, something completely new and radical might surface, typically from someone who was waiting for the right moment to blurt it out.
It’s at this point, when the idea is sitting out there, finally in the open, where everyone in the room looks at the most senior person in the room for their reaction.
And, tell me if you’ve heard this one before, he or she says “Let’s not go there.”
Typically the idea will cause a huge amount of heartburn somewhere in the current company, but possibly open up new markets, and new spaces for growth. Usually, it will also handily solve all or part of the initial problem.
But of course, this is why you hear “Let’s not go there.”
At this point, you may as well pack up and leave. By “not going there”, you missed the whole point of the meeting. By “not going there”, you told your people that “yes, there are ideas that are dumb, that are unthinkable. When I said ‘everything is on the table’ I didn’t really mean it”. You’ve basically told them to stop innovating, before they’ve barely started.
If you’re going to say “Let’s not go there” then you shouldn’t even bother with the meeting at all.
The whole point of innovation is “going there”. If you are not willing to, then don’t waste your time, your employee’s time, or their goodwill. Every time you ask for ideas, you must be willing to accept and honor those ideas, no matter how far out you may think that they are. No matter how damaging they may be to your current cash flow or revenues or costs, if they have the ability to transform your company, they are at least worth listening to.
— image by darkday