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How can you more skillfully bring out the best in the left-brained people who dominate your organization? Mitch Ditkoff and Val Vadeboncoeur share 32 techniques that you can use to get your people thinking!

AUTHOR’S NOTE: For the past 21 years, we have been working closely with a wide range of savvy organizations who have identified the need to raise the bar for innovation and creative thinking. One thing that’s become abundantly clear to us is this: 95% of all the people who end up in our sessions are predominantly left-brained. Hmmm… They want to “get out of the box,” but first they want to define the box, measure the box, compare it to other boxes, and/or send the box up to corporate to make sure that everyone signs off on the collective vision of non-boxiness.

We realize there’s a book in all this, of course, and lots of high paying keynotes in our future, but before we get our marketing machine in motion we thought we’d do a good deed and share some of the highlights of what we’ve learned so far. Why? So you, oh besieged manager, visionary, change agent, OD professional, business leader, facilitator, trainer, and/or forward thinking person with a three letter acronym after your name, can more skillfully bring out the best in the left-brained people who dominate your organization. Here we go:

1. Establish your credibility

If you do not already know the participants in the session you’ll be facilitating, get your bio to participants before the session begins. Include anything that will help people understand that you have the experience and expertise to be a valuable resource. If this is not possible, introduce yourself early in the session and describe your qualifications. Your goal is to reassure participants that you just didn’t walk off the street with a magic marker in your hand. This effort is not driven by the need for you to pose as a superstar, but to diffuse any lingering doubt in the room that you are the one to facilitate. Doubt kills creativity. You want to do everything possible to remove doubt from the room.

2. Set context. Clarify outcomes. Address expectations.

If you are going to take people on a creative journey of some kind, it’s wise to start with the big picture. Even though you know the map is not the territory, participants will need some sense that the session is not one, big improv happening. “I’ll play it first and tell you what it is later,” may have worked well for Miles Davis, but most business types are not ready for that kind of approach. They need a clear picture of the day. Otherwise, they will be too uncomfortable and ungrounded to let go. The easiest way to do this is to clearly describe the process and agenda for your session, as well as a clear articulation of the deliverables they can expect.

3. Create the environment. Let music invoke the muse.

If you want people to be in the right mindset for creativity, it’s essential that you create the right setting. While it’s possible to be creative anywhere (i.e. in prison, in a cubicle, on the battlefield), it’s less likely to happen than in a setting that truly inspires – a setting that, at the very least, is spacious, airy, colorful, and conducive to entertaining new possibilities. The opposite? A room with a big fat imposing, unmovable conference table. The right use of music can also make an environment conducive to creative thinking. If you’re leading any kind of ideation session, play music on breaks, or during selected activities. Instrumental, mellow jazz, baroque, new age or world music all work well. During brainstorming, stay away from music with lyrics, music that is too familiar to participants, or too loud. On breaks, let it rip to get the energy moving – salsa, samba, reggae or good old fashioned rock ‘n roll.

4. Establish ground rules and agreements for participation.

If you want to break new ground in a creative thinking session, you will need to establish clear ground rules first. Participants need to know what game they are playing – which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. You are, in effect, establishing an ideal “culture of innovation” in the room – the kind of mood that will be conducive to the appearance of new ideas.  Rather than telling people what these ground rules should be, your task is to facilitate the process by which participants identify the ground rules they want to live by. These ground rules help create the safety required for the “shy” right brain to make its appearance. They also secure everyone’s permission for you to play your facilitator role – an assumed ground rule that will need to be articulated – especially since there are likely to be a number of participants who do not like giving up control to someone who they’ve never met before or someone they have some reservations about. (And we’re not talking dinner reservations.)

5. Break the ice.

Most people who end up in your creative thinking session will probably not be in a creative mindset when they enter the room. On the contrary, they are likely to be hurried, multi-tracking, overloaded with information, overwhelmed with tasks, and/or feeling underappreciated. One way or another they are likely to be dwelling in the logical, linear, analytical side of their brain. What they need is some kind of transition – a bridge from the world of “human doings” to the world of “human beings.” A well-facilitated icebreaker is the best way to do this.

6. Invite appreciative inquiry.

The good news is this: You don’t have to teach people how to be creative. They already are. All you need to do is facilitate the process that helps people access the part of themselves that is already creative. Simple, eh? One way to do this is to help participants recall a time in their lives when creativity was flourishing for them. Known as “appreciative inquiry,” you are simply allowing participants to wax poetic about past successful creative ventures – no matter how small. These animated reflections will get the creative juices flowing.

7. Don’t think, do!

Brainstorming sessions, understandably, are “head sessions,” requiring a significant amount of thinking, cognition, and mentation. But that is not the only way to get at good ideas. In fact, one of the best ways to quicken the appearance of good ideas is to “not think.” Mozart used to exercise before he composed. Yakahura Nakamatsu, the holder of the most patents ever, liked to swim underwater before he invented. Socrates used to take his students for a walk. Somehow, these seemingly mindless excursions free up brainpower. The best and fastest way to accomplish this, we’ve discovered, is with hands-on, interactive problem-solving activities that have high relevance to the brainstorming challenge or group dynamic.

8. Tell stories

“The universe is not made of atoms,” explained Muriel Ruykeser. “It is made of stories.” Story telling is a great way to help people get insights and make creative connections. That’s why great teachers, since the beginning of time, have used parables to make their point. The stories we are recommending you tell are what we call “teaching” stories – that is, intriguing stories with a moral. Or, they may be business-related stories concerning best practices or interesting case studies relevant to the brainstorm topic. It’s useful to intersperse these stories throughout your session, especially after participants have been working hard and need a breather.

9. Invite humor and playfulness.

The right use of humor is a great way to help people tap into their right brains. Indeed, “haha” and “aha” are closely related. Both are the result of a surprise or discontinuity. You laugh when your expectations are confronted in a delightful way. Please note, however, that your use of humor must not be demeaning to anyone in the room. Freud explained that every joke has a victim and is used by the teller to gain advantage over the victim, that is, it’s used to affirm power. And we know that when we’re getting into the realm of power and the yielding of power, we’re in our left-brains. You don’t want to feed that beast. You can set the tone by telling a victimless joke or two, or by your own self-deprecating humor. But even more important than “joke telling” is a free flowing sense of playfulness. Everyone likes to play. The more you can achieve the goals of your session by interjecting playfulness into the process, the better.

10. Encourage idea fluency.

Linus Pauling was once asked, “How do you get a good idea?” His response? “You get a good idea by coming up with a lot of ideas, then throwing the bad ones away.” That’s why “Go for a quantity of ideas” is the first rule of brainstorming. You want to encourage people, early and often, to go for quantity. This will short-circuit participants’ perfectionistic, self-censoring tendency – both of which are certain death to creativity.

11. Diffuse the fear of ambiguity by continually clarifying the process.

The left-brain hates open-ended processes and ambiguity. Make it a point to give people a mental map of the process you’ll be using early in the session. One way to do this is to explain that your session will consist of two key elements: divergent thinking and convergent thinking. In the divergent segment, you will be helping people consider non-traditional approaches and ideas. In the convergent segment, you will be helping people analyze, evaluate, and select from the multiplicity of ideas they have generated. If participants are going to get uneasy in your session, they will get uneasy during the divergent segment. So, periodically, remind them of where they are in the process. “Here’s our goal,” you might say. “Here’s where we’ve been… here’s where we are… and here’s we’re headed. Any questions?”

12. Identify (and transform) limiting assumptions.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to creativity is the assumption-making part of our brain – the part that is forever drawing lines in the sand – the part that is ruled by the past. Most people are not aware of the assumptions they have – in the same way that most drivers are not aware of the blind spot in their mirror.  If you really want people in your session to be optimally creative, it is imperative that you find a way to help them identify their limiting assumptions about the challenge they are brainstorming. “Awareness cures,” explained psychologist Fritz Perls. Don’t get caught in a discussion about the collective limiting assumptions of the group – as this is often just another way that people will default to debating and philosophizing, instead of ideating. Instead, facilitate a process that will enable participants to identify their biggest limiting assumptions. And, time allowing, turn each of these limiting assumptions into an open-ended question for the group to reflect on.

13. Establish criteria for evaluation.

The reason why ideas are usually considered “a dime a dozen” is because most people are unclear about their process for identifying the good ones. That’s why a lot of brainstorming sessions are frustrating. Tons of possibilities are generated, but there is no clear path established for hunkering down. Let’s assume, for example, that the brainstorming session you facilitate generates 100 powerful, new ideas. Do you have a process for helping participants winnow the 100 down to a manageable few? If not, you need to. Ideally, the criteria for selecting ideas to further develop or fund will be clarified with your client before the session and introduced to participants early in the session. The maximum number of criteria to select is seven. Five is better. Any more than that is too much. Please note that there is some debate amongst brainstorm gurus as to when to offer the criteria. Some say do this at the beginning of the session (to help assuage the left brain need for logic and boundaries). Others suggest delaying the articulation of criteria until right before you’re going to begin the idea evaluation phase (so you don’t place any limits on the idea generation process itself.) This is something you will need to decide on – based on the profile of participants and the overall goal for the session. Either way will work.

14. Create and explain the brainstorm ground rules.

In addition to establishing basic agreements for your meeting, you will need to establish basic ground rules for brainstorming. The classic ground rules include: 1) Go for quantity; 2) Withhold judgment; 3) Listen; 4) Piggyback on others’ ideas; 5) Delay evaluation and; 6) Have Fun. When you first present the brainstorming ground rules to the group, explain why each of them is important. Then post the ground rules in a place where they can easily be seen and referred to later.

15. Encourage participants to follow their fascination.

Whenever possible, allow participants to choose (and continue choosing) the challenge, opportunity or idea they want to brainstorm. Fascination is one of the key drivers of creativity. Sometimes, of course, it is not possible as to shape a session around individual fascination, since a person’s expertise may be needed in a particular sub-group or your client may have a need to have participants address specific, company-wide challenges. Also, sometimes, when you give participants the choice of which topic/challenge they want to brainstorm, everyone will want to address the same one, leaving essential topics “orphans.” Should this be the case, ask participants if they have a second fascination or if they would be willing to “take one for the team” by addressing a topic that needs attention (but has no “takers.”)

16. Allow for solo brainstorming.

Left-brained, task focused people often have a need to work alone. Collaboration does not always come easy to them. This is why it’s essential that you provide periodic opportunities for individuals to brainstorm (or reflect) on their own. Even if the ideas generated in this solo mode are “in the box,” the time to reflect will be much appreciated and make it more likely that “lone wolves” will be more open to brainstorming with others later in the session. In fact, even the most right-brained people need time to noodle on their own.

17. Teach and practice LCS (idea feedback).

If you are working with a roomful of left brainers, you will need an effective way to diffuse their collective knee-jerk, nay saying behavior. Left brainers (as well as just about everyone else in a brainstorming session) tend to focus on what’s wrong with a new idea before considering what’s right. To turn this around, establish LCS as an agreed upon way of giving feedback on new ideas. The process is simple: Upon hearing a new idea, people are asked to tell the idea originator what they LIKE about it. Then, they are asked to express their CONCERNS about the idea. However, for each concern raised, they are asked to offer a SUGGESTION that would handle their own concern. In this way, classic nay sayers become allies instead of adversaries – and intriguing new ideas (almost always flawed upon first being articulated) have a much greater chance of being developed.)

18. Do the right brain/ left brain two-step.

Brainstorming for 3, 4 or 5 hours in a row is unusually exhausting, resulting in the “diminishing returns” syndrome. Creative thinking, like life itself, follows natural laws. Day is followed by night, winter by spring, in breath by out breath.  That’s why we recommend that the design of your creative thinking session alternates between the cerebral and the kinesthetic – between brainstorming and some kind of hands-on, experiential activity. By doing this “two-step,” people will stay fresh and involved even over a long time – an especially vital need for left-brainers who are often waiting for just the right moment to disengage.

19. Create time for action planning.

Here’s another way to put the left-brain beast at ease. Create some time in your agenda for action planning. This should come near the end of the session after the best ideas have been identified and passed the criteria muster – and after champions have been identified for each. Each champion can then gather around a team and plan what they are going to do to get the idea implemented. Or, the full group, especially if they are an intact work team, can collaborate on a joint action plan.

20. Be present. Have fun.

You, in facilitator mode, set the tone for whatever meeting you are leading. Your behavior, feelings, and attitude will have significant impact on the success of the session. It is imperative that you take responsibility for your own psychological state upon entering the session – and for the duration of the session (especially when you hit a few “speed bumps” along the way.)  Do whatever it takes to be 100% present during the session. If you’re feeling engaged and full of energy, chances are good that the participants will as well. Above all, have fun.

21. Cite statistics and best practices.

Analytical people are practical people. They like information, love statistics, and thrive on knowing how whatever you are talking about relates to their lives and the proverbial bottom line. One way to address this left-brain need is to periodically cite relevant factoids about creativity (i.e. “Did you know psychologists have determined that the human being is most creative at the age of five?”) Another thing you can do is to give examples of best innovation practices – how other companies or breakthrough thinkers have gotten out of the box and solved a business problem in an elegant way.

22. Quote business leaders and cultural icons.

It’s one thing to tell people that you think they should relax their “bean counting mind.” It’s another thing to deliver that same message through the words of someone else who everyone in the room is likely to already find believable. Like Einstein, for example: “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.” So load up on some interesting quotes from business leaders and use them whenever you feel the need to “sell” a particular concept or approach that the left-brainers in the room might resist.

23. Build business cases for the tools and techniques.

Some of the creative thinking techniques you will be using in a live ideation session will seem odd to some participants. When you notice the “deer in the headlights effect,” be willing to slow down and explain the principals behind the techniques, the why. Sometimes all it takes to neutralize the doubt in the room is a two-minute, logical explanation of how a given creative thinking technique works. Your call.

24. Periodically mention that chaos often precedes creative breakthroughs.

Left-brained, logical people are rarely comfortable with ambiguity, chaos and the unknown. It seems messy. Disorganized. Downright unprofessional. Indeed, much of the Six Sigma work being done in corporations these days is to “reduce variability” and increase predictability. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Nevertheless, if you want to get really creative, you sometimes have to get a little “out of control” and increase variability. Picasso said it best, “The act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.” Tom Peters said it second best, “Innovation is a messy business.” So… when you sense that there is a fair amount of ambiguity-phobic people in the room, remember to mention (again and again) how it is normal for ambiguity to precede a creative breakthrough. Indeed, you may even want to mention how you purposefully infuse the session with moments of ambiguity, just to prime the creative pump.

25. Be a referee when you have to .

Face it. No matter how many ground rules you mention about “suspending judgment” or “delaying evaluation,” you are going to have some heavy hitters in the room just waiting for a moment to doubt your approach or “the process.” Indeed, one of the favorite (often unconscious) strategies of some left-brainers is to debate and question the facilitator every step of the way. While you want to honor their concerns and right to speak their truth, you also want to hold the bar high for the intention behind the brainstorming session – and that it to challenge the status quo, entertain the new, and create space for imaginations to roam. Don’t be afraid to be firm with participants who want to control the session in the guise of debate of philosophizing. At the very least, ask them to suspend their need for “convergence” (i.e., evaluation, judgment, decision making) to the end of the session when there will be plenty of time to exercise that very important muscle.

26. Be rigorous about deliverables, next steps, and action plans.

Throughout your session, at selected intervals, remind people what the outcomes and deliverables they can expect. Even in the middle of a wacky, out of the box process, let everyone know that the output of the session will be organized into a “report” or will be debriefed at a specific follow up meeting, or will be presented to person X at the end of the day or whatever. Analytic minds are interested in practical results and have a hard time entertaining the “unusual” if there is not an understanding that there is some kind of defined purpose to the whole thing. Even if you have stated this at the beginning of the session, it is good to mention it again and again.

27. Be a champion for evaluation.

While it’s true that one of the ground rules for effective brainstorming is to “delay evaluation,” left brain analytics get very uneasy if they think that they will never have a chance to evaluate during the session. Your task is to periodically assure them that they will have a chance to evaluate, but at the appropriate time, which is towards the end of the session. Once assured they can flex that muscle, they will be much more likely to suspend their tendency to judge, judge, judge.

28. Disappear from time to time.

That’s right. Disappear. Don’t always stand in the front of the room being the facilitator or brainstorm leader. Move out of the way and let someone else lead the session for a while. Circle round to the back of the room and let the group have their own discussion. You don’t always have to be an advertisement for “creative thinking.” It gets tedious after a while. Indeed, sometimes the most effective way to diffuse a heavy dose of the left-brain mindset in the room is to back off and let one of the left-brainers take center stage.

29. Be honest. Don’t guarantee breakthroughs or miracles.

Sometimes the hype or expectations that precede an all day off site is unbearable. Indeed, people start thinking “this better be damn good to justify me being out of the office all day.” If you buy into this kind of challenge, you’re in for a rough ride. The good news is you don’t have to promise a thing. You have no magic wand. All you are there to do is facilitate a process that will increase the likelihood of breakthrough ideas surfacing. It’s the participants’ responsibility to come up with the good stuff – and it’s perfectly fine to tell them that, so they’re not expecting you to entertain them all day long or pull rabbits out of a hat. That said, participants will be less likely to be assessing every single move of yours, impatient for the “creative hoop-de-doo” to happen.

30. Get people talking about “ahas!” they’ve had in their own lives.

No matter how conservative, risk averse, or linear any participant in your session will be, it’s likely that all of them – at some time or another – have had a really great idea. “Creativity” really isn’t all that foreign to them (although they may think it is). All you have to do to get participants in touch with that part of themselves is to get them reflecting on a past moment in their lives where they were operating at a high level of creativity. Get them talking about how it felt, what were the conditions, and what preceded the breakthrough. You’ll be amazed at the stories you’ll hear and how willing everyone will be to participate in the process to follow.

31. Rewrite selected flipcharts on breaks or during lunch.

If your group has generated some especially powerful ideas during your session, but the ideas are relatively indecipherable amidst the scribblings you made on the flipchart, rewrite the ideas on a new flipchart. Print clearly. Use different colored markers. And post the newly printed flipcharts in a very visible place, so people can read them upon their return to the room. And even more than that, begin the next module of your session by restating the ideas you have just rewritten. Everyone will not only feel acknowledged by your effort, they will have a very real experience that their output matters and is creative – which will further encourage them to continue in that mode for the rest of the day.

32. Consult with the tough people on the breaks.

Every once in a while, a really tough person shows up in a session – someone who is probably very smart, extremely competent, experienced, with a big BS detector, and just enough arrogance to make you feel uncomfortable. These people can be big influencers in a brainstorm session, especially if they hold positions of power in the organization. In the best of all worlds, these folks would always be on your side. But they’re not. Sometimes, in fact, they become “corporate hecklers,” even if they don’t say a single word. Every time you look at them you get self-conscious or filled with doubt about your expertise. Don’t play to these people in a neurotic attempt to get their approval. You won’t get it. But do seek them out on breaks and engage them. Get them talking. Pay attention. See if you can pick up any useful feedback or clues about revising your agenda or approach. Even though you wouldn’t choose to be trapped on a desert island with them, these folks may turn out to be a huge blessing for you – because they are carriers of a particular insight or sensibility that needs to be honored. More than likely, some of the other people in the room are feeling the same thing, but have been too polite to show their true colors. So, don’t be afraid of these people. They can be a very valuable resource.

The co-authors of this article, Mitch Ditkoff and Val Vadeboncoeur of Idea Champions are both master trainers of Conducting Genius, a brainstorm facilitation training that helps even the most left-brained business people become masterful facilitators of the creative process. Neither has a blackberry. Both have been known to actually talk to people on the phone: 1-800-755-IDEA.

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