Brainstorming for Senior Executives
By Leo Jakobson
November 1, 2012
When Paul Faletti, president and CEO of consulting
and training firm NCM Associates, brought his eight-person
executive team to the Four Seasons Resort & Club Dallas at
Las Colinas for the company's biannual planning meeting in
September, brainstorming was a key item on the agenda.
But that wasn't the only goal of the day-and-a-half long
meeting of the company's three division heads, director of
marketing, and vice president of human resources, retiring CFO,
and this CEO's replacement.
"This meeting is designed to go back and do a review of our
performance year-to-date, and begin to formalize our one-,
three-, and 10-year plans for the company going forward," says
Faletti. "We make sure we're all on the same page and have a
plan in place to hit objectives as far out as 10 years. It's a
meeting with structure, because we have to get things done, but
we never hinder the brainstorming. If you think about something
like a 10-year objective, you have to think big, you have to
brainstorm, you can't get tied up in the little issues that may
be relevant today but aren't big-picture focused."
NCM is not the only company to combine brainstorming with other
meeting content, says Scott Berkun, a corporate speaker,
consultant, and best-selling author of Making Things Happen,
which draws on his experience as lead program manager for
Microsoft on Windows and MSN.
"I've seen off-site meetings that were mostly
information-focused, where it was less about generating ideas
but there were a few sessions that focused on specific
problems," says Berkun. "There will be a couple of sessions
during the day that need new ideas or new thinking."
When organizing a brainstorming meeting for top-level
executives, more creativity is necessary, says Bruce Withrow,
founder and owner of Toronto-based Meeting Facilitators
International. "When you're talking about senior executives,
that brings in a different dynamic," he says. "A lot of the
more gimmicky stuff you might do elsewhere does not play well
with the senior executive team. You need to use tools and
approaches that are appropriate for them."
That's something that Faletti is familiar with. Brainstorming
to solve problems and come up with creative ways to improve
business isn't just an executive task for Kansas City-based NCM
Associates: It's the company's stock-in-trade.
For nearly 65 years, NCM has been organizing and facilitating
"20 Group" meetings, during which teams of auto dealers - from
the same brand but located far enough apart to be non-competing
- get together three times a year to share financial data
(collected and organized monthly by NCM) and exchange best
practices in order to help each other improve their businesses.
This is a process that involves more than a little
brainstorming about issues like why one member's business is
having trouble with a particular area, such as service or
parts, and how to fix it, Faletti says.
"A 20 Group really works because the dealers themselves are
challenging each other to improve performance and they're
sharing how [other dealers] can address an opportunity in their
own dealership," Faletti says. "You're trying to elevate the
performance of the group as a whole."
NCM also has a consulting division that works with auto dealers
on improving their own businesses, and another that offers
continuing education and training for their sales managers.
What's Next Comes First
Just because brainstorming is about coming up with ideas rather
than making concrete plans or resolving specific business
issues, does not mean that it should be treated casually.
Whether it's including brainstorming in a broader meeting, like
NCM does, or bringing the top executive team together strictly
to generate new and creative ideas, the first thing that an
executive organizing this type of meeting needs to do is make
sure that the participants are "clear about what you want to
get out of the meeting at the end of the day," Withrow advises.
"Typically, in a brainstorming, what you're looking for is a
shortlist of ideas to pursue."
Creating that successfully means it must be "clear to everyone
in the room who is going to make the final decision," Berkun
says. "It is very important that that's decided upfront. A lot
of the experts on creative thinking and brainstorming focus a
lot on idea generation and how to come up with interesting
ideas. And all that's useful, but none of that matters if, when
the meeting is over, there's a big list of ideas and it's not
clear what happens next, so it kind of sits on the floor and
Those two points are key to an essay Berkun wrote earlier this
year, refuting a January 2012 New Yorker article titled
"Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth," which basically argues
that brainstorming - a phrase coined in the 1940s in a popular
business book by Alex Osborne, then a partner at the famous ad
agency BBDO - doesn't work because it discourages criticism of
ideas, essentially aiming for quantity over quality.
Among other things, Berkun points out that while "brainstorming
is designed for idea volume, not depth or quality … the
intention of brainstorming is not to eliminate critique, but
simply to postpone it. Workplaces are notorious for killing
ideas quickly with phrases like 'We tried that already,' or
'That won't work here.'"
However, NCM does not postpone the critique of the ideas raised
in brainstorming at its retreats for very long. The first full
day of its September meeting included a look at the company's
core values and how it is communicating them, and discussions
about topics like a new partnership with senior leaders of a
software firm whose auto dealership data analytics product NCM
is turning into "a quasi-fourth division," Faletti says.
The second day was a half-day, looking at short-term goals of
the one-year plans, he adds. "We get pretty granular into the
needs of the one-year plan in order to set ourselves up for
successful three- and 10-year plans," about which he and his
team have been brainstorming. "From a brainstorming
perspective, even though we're in a structured environment
where we need to produce the 'what' and 'how' in terms of plans
and objectives and revenue, we also need to be able to take a
step back as a group and talk about why we are doing this," he
Right-Size and Socialize
Every meeting is unique and every group has its own needs and
quirks, but brainstorming meetings in general, and high-level
brainstorming meetings in particular, should depart from the
"typical" meeting plan in a number of ways. Some of these
differences deal with logistics and others with the
On the logistical side, the issues to pay attention to are
group size, room layout, and the number and duration of breaks
and social and networking functions. And, of course, where to
hold the meeting.
While any top-level executive meeting is rarely too large,
group size has to be particularly small for brainstorming, the
experts say. "You can't have more than six people if you are
serious about having a conversation," says Berkun. "Once you
have more, there isn't enough oxygen in the room for people -
especially people [like top executives] who are used to being
the center of attention - to listen to each other. They feel
disengaged, and they are not participating enough."
Withrow, the professional facilitator, puts the maximum
single-group size more in the six-to-eight person range, noting
that with 12, each person would only gets to speak for five
minutes per hour, which requires subdividing the group. Even
with a small-enough group you still need the right room setup,
he adds. "The internal meeting spaces in offices are often
long, narrow, boardroom table setups and that's absolutely the
wrong setup for this sort of session," Withrow says. "You need
a large, open U-shape where people can see each other. It's
more egalitarian, you have eye contact, and people can interact
with each other, see screens, and access wall space."
Most important of all are the meeting breaks, meals, and
networking functions. For brainstorming, you want them more
frequently and lasting longer.
When it comes to creative thinking and idea development, "our
subconscious minds drive the show in terms of where we get our
ideas and make connections between things," Berkun says. "Time
away from a problem is almost as important as time spent on the
problem. That's why breaks are so important - there is time for
your mind to wander and you can have interesting conversations
with other people and then return to the problem. There is
plenty of scientific evidence that this improves people's
ability to find good solutions and find good ideas. You want to
provide social situations where people who do not know each
other well have an easy way to interact."
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