This works better than brainstorming

So often we want to convene a group to get the benefit of their expertise and differing points of view. So, we ask them to brainstorm. And, it starts out well. An idea is offered, then another, then 3 more. The next idea that’s offered seems to be a response to one that’s gone before and the the next “idea” is a response to that response, and pretty soon you’ve got an open, unstructured discussion among only a few of those present and it’s going nowhere. Not what you wanted at all.

You’re not alone. Most of the time, brainstorming devolves into exactly this: The extroverts talk to each other, everyone defers (sometimes resentfully) to those with the most status, and the conversation veers off course.

Which is why I almost never use brainstorming with groups. It’s too easily overtaken by group dynamics. The first time it happens, it’s not so bad. By the 5th time, no one in your group really believes that brainstorming will include them and some of them will sit it out. Not what you’d hoped for.

There’s another reason it’s not my first choice: Brainstorming is best used when a creativity is what’s wanted. Most of the time, in most corporations, creativity is the opposite of what’s wanted. What’s wanted is an action that will represent progress without rocking the boat. You can’t trust creativity not the rock the boat. Sometimes it seems as though creativity’s job is to rock the boat.

So what to do? How do you get what’s inside people’s heads out into the room without totally losing control. How do you get them thinking together, hearing the same information the same way, and not simply vying for air time?

Round Robin Does All This


Round robin is the process of choice when you need to hear from everyone and they need to hear from each other. No other process will erase the difference between introverts and extroverts or between levels of status and seniority. No other process enables – insists – that people listen to each other.

It’s simple, it’s easy and, once your group has experienced it, they’ll immediately grasp it’s utility and fairness. Here are the steps, all of which must be adhered to:

  1. Pose a specific open-ended question (“what do you think is causing sales to drop off?) rather than a general topic (sales)
  2. Set a time limit for the round robin. (10 seconds is a good minimum, 30 seconds is a good maximum. More than 30 seconds each will lead to open discussion.)
  3. Give everyone a minute or 2 (time it) to come up with a response or list of responses. This greatly increases the quality of the responses.
  4. When you are ready to start, establish a clear, simple order for people to speak in.
  5. Ask people to give only one of their answers for each round.
  6. Time everyone and cut them off if they go over. They’ll have another chance to speak in the next round. Do this with a sense of play. If everyone goes over, it’s your bad: Extend the time limit and try again.

That’s it. Try it and let me know what you think.

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