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by Leo Jakobson | November 01, 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 nothing happens."

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 adds.

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 participants themselves.

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."