The Art of Silent Brainstorming

You’ve joined your coworkers in a meeting room to “brainstorm ideas” for the next project or feature and the facilitator gets up to the white board, lays out the goals and says:

Ok everyone, give me your ideas. How do we get to X? Fire away!

Some folks around you start to blurt out thoughts, opinions and great new ideas. Others sit quietly.

Sound familiar?

Brainstorming and mind mapping exercises are a great way to get the flow of ideas out of people’s heads and documented but when we facilitate these workshops in this way we only get the best ideas from the most vocal team members. We haven’t created a safe space for everyone when we do this and that means we’re missing out on wonderful ideas from the rest of our talented team.

Mind Map

If you’re more extroverted you’re likely to be the person vocalizing ideas and perhaps looking around wondering why other don’t seem to be contributing in this scenario. If you’re more introverted, you’re more likely to be sitting there shifting in your seat with great ideas bottled up but thinking “oh please don’t pick me to speak up in front of the team.” I know because I’ve been there. I spent the first 20 years of my life quite introverted. I feared public speaking or being the center of attention so calling on me to solve an issue on the board in front of the class felt terrifying. Nowadays my teammates would likely laugh and say “yeah just TRY to get Davin off the podium.” I have no trouble getting in front of a large group and facilitating workshops, program increment planning, retrospectives etc. and my own experiences have helped me be more empathetic and find ways to make folks across this spectrum more comfortable contributing.

Can introverts become extroverts and vice versa? From my understanding, not usually. Maybe I’m a unicorn so this isn’t a story about change. It’s about acceptance and using the best tools to be the most successful.

In a diversity, inclusion and belonging workshop I attended last year I was reminded that “when we’re not actively including someone, we’re accidentally excluding them” and this is so true.

So how do we make sure we’re getting the best ideas from EVERYONE? This is where silent brainstorming comes in. We create a way in which people across the extrovert/introvert spectrum can comfortably contribute ideas so everyone feels included.

When I host a session like this in person I like to hand out a stack of sticky notes and markers to each person. After reviewing the purpose and goals of the session we let everyone work in silence to start writing down their ideas in time blocks, usually 5-10 minutes at a time. One idea per note. After people have had enough time we head up to the white board together and put up the stick notes so no one feels singled out.

From there I get into grouping and organizing the ideas into a mind map and can repeat the process of getting more ideas to further refine the work. At times I may offer an open invite if anyone wants to speak to their ideas but carefully worded in such a way no one feels like it’s required. This keeps people on the more introverted side of the spectrum relaxed and focused on brainstorming great ideas on paper and allows people on the more extroverted side of the spectrum to contribute quietly but also discuss their ideas if they like.

If you’re virtual there are tools like Google’s Jamboard or Zoom’s whiteboard that allow you to use a similar process to allow everyone to contribute silently.

We want to nurture the best productivity from everyone we work with and as such we need to ensure we’re providing the best way to allow them to do that. We want to empower, encourage and embrace differences. Let’s remember that introversion or extroversion isn’t something “to be cured” as it’s just who people are.

Be cognizant of personal bias

Be inclusive

Be open to feedback and improve relentlessly

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