TeamSource Your Next Big Idea

December 19, 2012 | 
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TeamSource Your Big Idea

By , Contributor to Yesware

Two of the best perks that come with building a startup are working with dedicated talent at all levels of your organization and the ability to access that talent’s creative thinking in non-traditional ways.  

Part of the startup appeal is the concept that everyone has a seat at the brainstorming table, whether they are a VP, an executive assistant or a marketing intern; you never know where the next great idea or solution may come from. And that excitement is a major motivating force among most startup CEOs I’ve known.

Watch Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s TED Talk on Taking Your Seat at the Table

However, when not managed correctly, creative brainstorming can erode the productivity of a startup’s team and permanently disenfranchise its members.

The problem is rooted in the allure of creative brainstorming. The very idea calls up images of great minds, both those discovered and soon to be tapped, sitting in a room together, throwing out ideas without abandon, unafraid of scrutiny or saying the wrong thing. The team that seems to outsiders like a group of misfits somehow succeeds in finding the perfect concept. Everyone just knows they’ve hit gold.  Eureka!

Replicating this think tank environment in a business seems so easy: all you have to do is assemble your team, present a problem or opportunity, and have at it until someone’s true genius is revealed.

But this is where so many team leaders get lost. They don’t understand that those totally safe, boundary-free brainstorming places are actually the carefully managed products of clear expectations and set limits.

Without predetermined guidelines, creative brainstorming sessions can turn into a hotbed of trouble. That’s mostly due to the following set of team members’ mistaken assumptions:

  • The problem has to be solved in that session
  • Changes in power dynamics during and after the session
  • How people’s ideas will be treated, used, or credited
  • Who can participate, and at what level
  • The power of group decision and veto rights

These assumptions have such damaging potential because when you ask your team to take part in them, you are asking them to be intellectually vulnerable in front of their peers and superiors. Without putting forth a clear set of guidelines, expectations and code of conduct for the brainstorming session, you—as team leader—are also guilty in the assumption game. You assume that everyone is playing by the same rules. And that discounts the likely fact that everyone is coming into the room with their own vision of how this session will play out.

This is a risk you can’t afford to take; the stakes are too high. The mere possibility of being shot down, dismissed, ignored, or embarrassed can hinder your valued employee’s ability to be creative or think laterally. The reality of having their idea shot down, dismissed, ignored, embarrassed—or adopted by the company but not credited to them—can irreparably damage your carefully built relationship with that trusted employee.

The last thing you want is your dedicated talent walking out the door thinking: “my genius wasn’t appreciated” or “they took credit for every good idea I had.”   

But you still have to feed the idea machine, you want your employees to feel like they’re part of the process, and you want to gently balance the two. So how does a good manager/CEO tackle this difficult task? Setting up a conducive, non-toxic environment for creative brainstorming is as simple as establishing ground rules that cover the 5Ws:

  • Who: Who is invited to participate? Who is expected to participate? Who has the final word on solutions?  Who receives credit for solutions? Who is moderating the discussion to keep it on point? Who is ensuring the ground rules are being observed?
  • What: What problem or opportunity are we trying to address? What is the protocol for submitting an idea? What is the expectation for responding to another’s ideas? What are the consequences for being critical, negative, or inappropriate?
  • When: When does a solution need to be made: in the meeting, or after a few sessions? When does the brainstorming start and end? When can you bring up someone’s idea again?
  • Where: Where are the physical boundaries for the dialogue: does it stay in the session room, or can it continue in the office or over email? Where is it not appropriate to continue the brainstorming discussion?
  • Why: Why is this topic important for our discussion? Why do we need a variety of insights and opinions to solve it? Why is your specific insight important?

If possible, draft out the ground rules for the brainstorming session in writing and get it to the group via email ahead of the session. When the group gathers for business, take a few minutes to review the ground rules verbally and ask if there are any questions or points that need clarification. This is also a great time to reiterate to the team how excited you are about their contributions and your gratitude.

Creative brainstorming can be a startup’s best friend, or worst enemy. Use these guidelines to let it help you bring the next big thing to market, rather than chase talent right out the door.

Do you have ideas about how to conduct creative brainstorming sessions? Tell us in the comments below!

Nacie Carson is the author of The Finch Effect: The Five Strategies to Adapt and Thrive in Your Working Life and founder of

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