How to lead an inclusive ideation session

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Whenever we come together as a team, we aspire to meld brilliant minds and bring big ideas to life. After all, the biggest breakthroughs come when the collective team is involved, engaged, and inspired. And yet, at some companies, the moment the facilitator outlines the objectives and introduces the participants, the ideation or brainstorming process becomes stifled when the organizer inquires if anyone has any initial ideas.

This is because, in that instant, the ideation has been hijacked. It’s no longer a collaborative effort but a monologue from the most extroverted, loudest voice in the room. And as we all know, ideation thrives when it’s a collective and diverse flow of ideas. So how can business leaders get ideation back on track and ensure it’s truly a melding of all minds, personalities, and learning styles?

Setting the tone

If you’re the presider, the first step is to ensure everyone in the room feels comfortable sharing their ideas. This means creating a safe space where people feel free to contribute without judgment or criticism. It also means the leader needs to be open to all ideas, even those that may seem far from feasible or misaligned with their own agenda.

To be successful, it’s important to give everyone a comfortable platform to share their thoughts, ideas, and perspectives. Try having participants write down or draw their ideas and concepts on paper or a post-it note. From there, have everyone individually present and post their idea(s) on the wall (or a virtual MURAL whiteboard). As each person presents, ask them to sort and categorize post-its into affinity groups of like-minded concepts. This prevents the more extroverted personalities from dominating the conversation.

The personality factor in ideation

The next step is to encourage a diversity of insights and ideas that might have been overlooked otherwise. To fuel quality contributions, members will need to think outside the box, instead of simply volunteering what initially comes to mind.

This is where you should provide time and space to accommodate different personality types and styles. For instance, consider the more introverted members of the group – those who work best when they take time to observe, marinate and consider the possibilities. It’s also helpful to have multiple cycles of feedback so the conversation progresses. An introvert’s feedback, when given time to ruminate, is often the most creative, compelling, and insightful takeaway from the ideation.

This is not to say that you remove any opportunity for extroverted members to contribute. Such individuals are imaginative, creative, and comfortable with crafting ideas as they discuss. They may need to speak extemporaneously to let their thoughts flow, so give them the airtime. The key is to recognize when they are overpowering the conversation. When they do, simply acknowledge their contribution and move on to a less extroverted member. Your pivot can be as simple as saying, “now, I’d love to hear from Sarah.” This is a proven strategy to ensure a diverse array of contributions from everyone on your team.

Deepening the discussion

Lastly, it’s important to create an environment where all ideas are given extensive thought and deliberation. You should lead the way in asking probing questions rather than settle for a yes or no response. When someone shares an experience, encourage them to elaborate. Ask them: What did you observe? What are we missing? How does it make you feel? Have you had this experience before? If so, what did you do?

Proceeding in this manner is far better than single-handedly pushing for a particular solution and having them react. For the most part, your job as a presider should be facilitative in nature. The traditional leader-follower dynamic is a powerful force that can be used for ideation, but only if it is done in the right way. With an inclusive approach, ideation can be a truly collaborative process that unearths imaginative solutions and fuels transformative value.

Parker Lee

Parker Lee is the managing partner of Territory, a design consultancy, who has developed and led teams in transformation, design thinking, and business development for decades. Co-author of The Art of Opportunity, he has created and facilitated dozens of design and visual thinking engagements.

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