How thinking and brainstorming convert to powerful strategy making.
We live in a culture where the simple act of distraction-free thinking has become alien, daydreaming has been replaced with scrolling through a feed on our smartphones and the office is a place for the hustle, not to think – I believe we are missing something very important. Thinking is the predecessor to meaningful conversation.
Try this exercise out and see what happens: Sit at your desk just staring straight ahead and see how long it takes for someone to ask if you’re okay. If you say yes, you’re fine, but keep on staring into space, they might ask, “What are you doing?” See what happens if you reply, “I’m thinking.” I’ll be willing to bet that you’ll get some weird stares, or another query, “Thinking? Really??”
Yes, the simple act of thinking today seems to be a foreign activity that no sane person should have time for in the workplace. Isn’t it incredible how an activity that was once considered part of the bedrock for success, inspiring countless proverbs, pieces of art, and ground-breaking business ideas, can now be so far from the mainstream? Today, it’s all about executing. If you’re not executing – in the eyes of some – you may as well not be doing anything at all. Every brand wants innovation, but so few are willing to invest in the basic processes that have proven throughout history to generate big ideas.
A forever focus on execution and efficiency
When was the last time you simply sat down to think? No distractions, no screens, no specific task in mind… just following your thoughts to see where they lead. If you can’t remember, or it’s been a long while, why is that the case? The real incentives – and often the mandates from above – push you toward execution and efficiency. If you’re not maximizing every minute, then you’re not pulling your weight. Thinking doesn’t give the appearance of action, so in the eyes of some it’s a waste of time.
But here’s the thing. Even leaving aside for a moment the many other benefits of thinking, the fact is that empowering employees to think (or taking the initiative to think as an employee), can help you develop ways to be more efficient and improve execution. The process cannot be improved if nobody is willing to sit back and reflect on how it works.
Thinking is for more than just Big Ideas
There are few better ways to empower anyone than encouraging them to think freely. It’s not just about the bottom line, either. It’s about creating an environment where new ideas are treated with the curiosity and rigor they deserve. A place where employees can learn, reflect, and refine their own skills and thought processes. Not every employee is going to come up with ground-breaking ideas, but subtle improvements and professional growth come naturally with thinking.
Since sitting down to think is less than commonplace these days, here are a couple simple ways to stoke the creative fire and encourage the ideas to flow:
- Doodle and Daydream – Have you ever sat in on a less-than-inspiring talk or worked on a mundane task, started scribbling in your notebook, and found yourself transported to a completely different mental space? A mindless, instinctively creative activity, like doodling, can be almost meditative. It’s an easy way to let your mind wander, and that’s the whole point. Try it at your desk, and you may be surprised by the ideas and connections it reveals.
- Real Brainstorming – When was the last time you were in a brainstorming session where brains were really storming? Usually, it’s the same few people raising their hands to provide input, while the rest of the group is too nervous or too worried about how their ideas will be perceived. Real brainstorming, where everyone in the room feels empowered to share their thoughts, feels almost like a lost art. It’s not, but it does take work to establish a culture where employees truly feel comfortable brainstorming.
If you want people to innovate, you need to give them time to think. If you want employees to feel comfortable thinking, then you need to show them why the process is valuable and encouraged. The best ideas often have humble origins, but how many great ideas have been lost because people are focused on executing all day, every day?
Brainstorming too often becomes the narrow view of a few (very) vocal people. Time to switch it up, create some truly effective strategies, and kick start some real thinking time by opening the floor up to everyone.
Strategy is definitely not dead, and it also doesn’t have to be as complicated as some people would like you to believe. The nuts and bolts of how strategy is created and innovation unfolds, however, could definitely use a fresh look for many businesses. In many meeting rooms, the same story plays out over and over. A few vocal talking heads in the room completely control the flow of the conversation (before, during, and after), and of course their ideas are what wind up dominating the meeting. Then, at the end, the vast majority of the group leaves without getting a chance to share their thoughts in any type of meaningful conversation. A classic ‘brainstorming session’ where NO brains are storming.
If you’re one of the people in the room who’s never able to get a word in during a meeting (or embarrassed or afraid to do so), then of course you’re not going to feel as invested in the strategy that comes out of that meeting! And… so many valuable insights and ideas will be left unspoken. If you want to create effective strategies, you need to create a culture where all stakeholders are encouraged to contribute their thoughts (i.e. brainstorming).
True brainstorming = diversity of thought
Brainstorming is a great concept that occasionally becomes twisted when a few members of a strategy session dominate the conversation and feel that their ideas are the only ones worthy of discussion. But that’s not real brainstorming. It’s more like a lecture, where the audience is expected to listen in silence, and maybe share a sentence or two of their own thoughts at the end.
Think about the last time you tried to share what you thought was a good idea, advice, or simply some knowledge you have gained over the years, with your teenage child. Remember how quickly they cut you off, the disdain they showed for what you had to say, and the way they made you feel totally unvalued. That is basically how management makes most employees feel when it comes to new ideas… And brainstorming solutions and/or new paths.
Gathering the group
Needless to say, that doesn’t cut it. The entire point of brainstorming is to gather ideas from diverse sources, discuss them, and let the best ideas rise to the top. You can only do that if the floor is truly open to everyone, and every member of the meeting is encouraged to share their thoughts. Your employees have a ton of front-line insights that can help shape your strategies, but only if you’re willing to hear what they have to say.
How do you encourage people to speak up? Start by listening and taking their ideas seriously. Don’t dismiss new ideas out of hand, and don’t try to corral everyone in the brainstorming session into focusing on the same few ideas, from the same few people. A good brainstorming session is one where everyone gets a chance to speak, and nobody feels like their contributions are being ignored.
Engage, listen and learn
If you want to encourage the flow of ideas – in brainstorming sessions and otherwise – then you need to empower your employees to contribute to the conversation. Listening is a big part of it, but so is asking questions. Your employees, mentees, and anyone else you share ideas with want to feel like their opinions have value, and there are few better ways to show someone you value their opinion than by asking them to share it.
So, it starts with engagement, interaction, and learning. That’s all stuff that you can accomplish in a brainstorming session, or in smaller, one-on-one conversations throughout the day. But remember that it’s not all talk. When you’re setting a strategy, there will ultimately come a time to make hard decisions, and that’s when you lean on all the feedback you gathered while engaging, listening, and learning.
Some of your new strategies will probably work great, while others will fizzle out. That’s okay, too. Being able to adapt, learn, and set a new course is a huge part of turning strategy into success. It’s a process of constant evolution, and new ideas will emerge over time. It all starts with creating a culture that empowers your employees to speak their mind, enabling meaningful conversations before, during, and after, and genuinely listening to what they have to say.