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by Leo Jakobson | October 26, 2012

When dealing with senior executives in a brainstorming meeting, one of the problems encountered is that they often aren’t very good at withholding criticism or letting conversations flow freely.

“A lot of my clients will call up and say, ‘There’s a lot of type-A personalities in the room and we tend to get off track,’” says Bruce Withrow, founder and owner of Toronto-based Meeting Facilitators International. “Often it’ll be the CEO calling, and he or she will add, ‘and I’m the worst one.’ You’ve got people who are used to being in charge, used to controlling the process. In many cases, they’ve gotten where they are by fast decision making, being able to articulate their opinions quickly and succinctly, to either support or kill something. Part of what you’re trying to do with the brainstorming is not have that fast decision-making, that fast criticism, you’re trying to keep stuff alive as much as possible.”

One way to deal with this is to have the CEO, or whoever the boss is, give control to a third-party facilitator who sets the ground rules for the discussion, says Scott Berkun, a corporate speaker, consultant, and the bestselling author of Making Things Happen, which draws on his experience as lead program manager for Microsoft on Windows and MSN. But for that to work, he adds, the boss has to back the facilitator up if he or she needs to politely remind participants of the ground rules.

For a group where there are several layer of senior executives, Withrow advises making sure that the junior people speak first, so they can’t defer — intentionally or subconsciously — to their superiors. “Everyone participating equally is not the objective,” he adds. “There are some people who will say very little but will have fabulous input when they say it.”

Another technique he likes is starting by having everyone spend five minutes writing out a few ideas on Post-It Notes or a small piece of paper. “Once I assigned several groups the same brainstorming activity and I noticed that whoever spoke first, all of the ideas tended to follow or branch off of that interpretation,” he says. “If you have 10 people and get them to write down three or five ideas first, you’ve got 30 to 50 starting points instead of one.

Brainstorming experts and facilitators frequently use exercises designed to get people loosened up and out of their “traditional thinking” mindset. And while there are literally whole books full of these exercises, says Berkun, many of the simpler and more standard ones just won’t work with senior-level executives. Here are two that will:

The Crisis Exercise
“When you put a group of execs in a room and say, ‘Let’s come up with ideas for a new type product,’ that’s a very unstructured and easy dialogue, but it also tends to be predictable,” Berkun says. “That freedom, especially with people who have such strong patterns of behavior as executives, means they are likely to approach it in the same way. They are not going to be stretched, not forced to think about problems differently.”

One technique to overcome this is called a crisis exercise, in which the participants are given a task with specific constraints attached, he says. “Create a specific situation and ask for solutions to that specific problem,” Berkun adds. “For example, you could say, ‘Let’s spend a half hour talking about what would happen if we had to recall our best product for a month, and so we have to exist for 30 days without any revenue from our main product. How would we survive? Go.’”

By introducing an unusual constraint that is not a part of their daily work pattern, Berkun says, you are “forcing them to think differently about a whole bunch of things — what their resources are, what their assets are, what their liabilities are. It changes the dynamic in the room, and can get people having a real conversation, a real dialogue.”

Reversing Assumptions
Working with senior executives brings in a different dynamic, says Withrow. “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.”

The first step, he says, is for the person running the brainstorming meeting to decide what the goal is for that session. “Is it new products, is it improvement, is it problem resolution — whatever,” Withrow says. “Einstein was quoted as saying if the had 60 minutes to solve a problem and save the world, he’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem, and I think there’s a certain parallel here. You really want to be clear about what you want to get out of your brainstorming meeting at the end of the day.”

The classic, open-ended brainstorming session will capture the top-of-mind ideas, he says. “These are the ideas that have been banging around in people’s heads for a lot of years. But this is not likely to catch ideas that are new or innovative,” Withrow adds. “That’s the first layer. It’s quite easy to catch the top-of-mind ideas.”

But to reach the deeper layers, different techniques are required, he says. “There are some things you can do with senior executives that work well. One is called reversing assumptions.” 

As an example, he suggests telling the group that they’ve got a friend who owns a restaurant that isn’t doing well, and they have to come up with a way to make it work. The first suggestions will be the obvious ones, Withrow says. “Changing the menu, increasing the prices, new advertising, there’s a standard set of stuff you know you’re going to get.”

But there are basic assumptions behind all of these suggestions, he says, ranging from the fact that people eat at the restaurant to their willingness to pay for the food. “What you do is say, ‘We want your friend to have a successful restaurant where people don’t pay for their food.’ Put that restriction on it, and people have to come up with very different ideas. You’ll get all sorts of suggestions — maybe it’s a test kitchen, or it’s about learning to cook. That’s the kind of thing a senior team could play with.”