Category Archives: Group Effectiveness

Has Brainstorming Become the IBM Selectric® Typewriter of Creativity?

By Lou Quinto
Executive Coach and Speaker

Is it time to send brainstorming to the Smithsonian Museum to put on display with other antiquated business tools such as typewriters, overhead projectors, slide carousels and fax machines?

I believe if advertising executive Alex Osborn – who is known as the father of brainstorming – were still around even he’d be disappointed that brainstorming has become ineffective in today’s business world. Its ineffectiveness has many business consultants and academicians encouraging companies to no longer conduct brainstorming sessions because they are a waste of time. In his book, Your Creative Power (1940), Osborn outlined in detail how to brainstorm and included guidelines with an extensive flowchart. Unfortunately, over time the basics he described have been ignored or overlooked and now cause many business people to roll their eyes at the thought of participating in yet another brainstorming meeting.

Osborn’s concept – and the ultimate success he derived as an ad exec from the process – was based on the theory that if you brought a group of people together from different backgrounds and with different experiences you will end up with a wealth of great ideas. It makes sense. However, a study conducted at Yale University in 1958 (and many more studies since then) revealed that brainstorming groups generate fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone.

So, should we throw brainstorming away? Is it as outdated as typewriters in today’s business world? Or, can we revive brainstorming and make it a productive critical thinking tool once again that spurs creativity? These are serious questions that we must ask especially since many work groups still engage in brainstorming sessions to solve problems and develop new ideas but are sadly disappointed by the results. Here are some suggestions to salvage and reinvigorate Osborn’s original brainstorming technique:

Limit the size of the group – Keep your brainstorming session to seven people or fewer. Many times if the group is larger, some people will take advantage of the “free ride effect” or “social loafing” and sit back and watch other people do all the work. In short, they sit there texting or playing Candy Crush® and don’t participate.

Create a “creative environment” – If you want people to be creative you have to set the mood which makes them feel creative. You wouldn’t expect a group of chefs to prepare a gourmet meal by putting them into studio apartment-sized kitchen with limited pots and pans and cutlery. You need to put them in a facility that allows them to showcase their talents. The same holds true for a management team. Most people are running from one meeting to another and by putting them into a typical stale corporate conference room and expect them to be creative is futile. The furniture and the walls are screaming at them to “think inside the box” and maintain the company’s status quo. Plan on preparing the meeting room in advance to elicit excitement and cause a “paradigm shift” in thinking. Consider the following:

  • Rearrange the furniture – or move the furniture to the hallway and have everyone sit on the floor.
  • Bring in toys for the meeting participants to play with, such as Play-Dough®, Nerf Balls® or other Dollar Store-type trinkets.
  • Make everyone write with crayons on construction paper or large colored Sticky Notes®.
  • Bring in music which will help people relax and forget about tasks – for a little while – that they need to do when they leave your meeting.

Set ground rules – Don’t start by saying, “Here’s the problem. What ideas do you have to solve it?” Implement some of Osborn’s original guidelines which led to his success:

  • Set a goal for the number of ideas you want to identify and a time limit for the actual brainstorming. This creates a sense of urgency and a deadline.
  • Defer judgement during the actual brainstorming session. Don’t comment on any idea until the brainstorming part of the meeting is over.
  • No “Killer Statements” (i.e. “That is a stupid idea.” “You’re out of your mind,” etc.)
  • Encourage “freewheeling.” Ideas that are way “out of the box” can sometime yield way to more “grounded” solutions.
  • No idea is a bad idea – Capture EVERY idea uttered on a flip chart or white board.

Schedule time to warm-up – Professional athletes don’t just run out onto the field (or court) and just begin playing. They warm-up and stretch. Give your team a chance to warm-up by brainstorming on an unrelated, non-business problem, such as, “How many ideas can you come up with for empty tin cans?” This will get the creative engine in their mind revved up and prepare them for the primary concern about which you called the meeting.

Don’t select an idea in the same meeting you created it – You don’t have the facts available to you in the meeting to decide if an idea will actually work or not. Assign ideas to people to gather relevant information so the team can accurately assess the ideas at a later meeting. If not, you may eliminate ideas based upon assumptions, opinions and guess from alleged subject matter experts or “authority” in the room.

Allow people a few minutes to brainstorm individually before opening the group brainstorming session – Introduce the problem and give people five minutes to brainstorm on their own. Then go around the room and record the ideas they identified. This will give the group a head start and get people thinking. Then open the floor up to the typical group brainstorming session.

When you go the extra mile and adhere to Osborn’s original concept, you too, can be as successful as he was and help avoid throwing brainstorming into the category of outdated business tools.

Lou Quinto has been working with companies and their associates internationally for over the past 25 years primarily in the area of critical thinking and communication skills. He is a Master Coach and Keynote Speaker for Action Management Associates in Plano, TX and a Senior Consultant on the Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness team for Executive Development Associates in Oklahoma City, OK. You can read more of his insights on his blog Metacognition or you can contact him at louquinto@gmail.com. Originally from New Jersey, today Lou resides in Indianapolis, IN.

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Filed under Creativity, Critical Thinking Tools, Group Effectiveness, Problem Solving, Uncategorized

Is Conformity Keeping You from Success?

Social conformity is a powerful and hidden motivation that influences our decisions and strategic planning in ways we don’t even realize or understand. It’s called “that’s the way we have always done it.” This is a way of thinking that hinders innovation and success. Let me demonstrate the power of conformity with this personal experience…

Recently I joined a few friends at an NBA game. Tickets were free, parking was free and we sat in a private box. Even the food and drinks were free! Who could say, “No?”

Initially we were all acting very proper because of the luxury trappings that surrounded us. It was a close game and soon we were all behaving like the less fortunate people that were sitting in the cheap seats.  We were all cheering, standing, shouting, and high-fiving each other. Decorum quickly died. Assisted by prompts on the scoreboard, we were screaming and behaving like “true fans” by halftime.

Midway through the third quarter, the huge video monitor above center court displayed the “Kiss Cam” – random shots of couples in the arena. The activity dictates that when the camera is pointed at a couple they would smile and smooch. It was an entertaining distraction while the teams strategized during a timeout, especially when one young guy refused to kiss his “date.” As the crowd began to boo, the guy mouthed the words, “She’s my sister!”

But he kissed her on the cheek anyway and the crowd erupted. Conformity is a powerful thing.

The behavior in the arena that night got me thinking about how the need for conformity impacts our organizational decision making and strategic planning. Our corporate cultures can be so strong, that we stop questioning our decisions and planning.

If your organization needs to innovate, but is stuck in “the way we’ve always done it” mentality consider these tips for re-framing your decisions and plans.

  1. Beware the “sunk cost” trap: Often times we support a decision or system simply because of the time and money already invested in the solution. Before sticking with the status quo, ask yourself, “If we were making this decision all over again, would our current path be the best decision for achieving the objectives we had set for ourselves?” If not, reconsider.
  2. Behave like the enemy: The military uses a process that is called “Red Teaming.” It’s where they gather a group of subject matter experts and review plans and decisions through the eyes of the enemy. They look for holes or weaknesses in your thinking. Businesses are beginning to adopt this process to expose questions such as; How might your competitor sell against you? How can they overcome your new product launch? How can they position their services to steal business with a mutual client? What can they do that might completely disrupt the way you do business?
  3. Develop a tiger team: Some of the most innovative organizations spin off a small team of people with varied backgrounds and allow them to solve complex problems in a new environment – physically removed from the prevailing culture. They might take on a new name, benchmark different industries, and run pilot projects to test the waters and avoid conformity.

Moving forward, avoid falling into the “that’s the way we have always done it” way of thinking. Challenge yourself, your teams and your associates on a regular basis to get out of this destructive way of thinking. Take action to overcome the comforts of what is accepted as “normal.”

Reprinted from Action Management Associates

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Filed under Critical Thinking Tools, Decision Making, Group Effectiveness, Red Teaming, Strategic Thinking

Change Happens!

By Lou Quinto
Executive Coach and Speaker

Everyone has heard the phrase, “change is constant.” But yet when we are faced with change our first reaction is to cringe or loudly object. Why is that?

The reason for the reaction is because change indicates – more times than not – that we are going to lose something. It can be something as simple as just losing the comfort of doing your job the way in which you are accustomed. We are creatures of habit and don’t like forces which make us step outside our comfort zone. Most organizations implement change in a way that is perceived as cleaning out a basement. They get rid of things. This makes implementing change both personally – and in an organization – painful. And, the slower you take to actually implement change, the more painful it is because people cling to the false hope that in the end everything will remain the same.

In order to succeed change must occur, and often. The world is not standing still. Once successful and prosperous companies that did not embrace change have gone the way of the dinosaur. One does not need to look any further than Kodak. My children do not – and will not – know what a “Kodak Moment” is. Their Kodak Moments are now “Instagram Moments.”

Every smart business person understands that what worked last year, probably won’t work this year. If you’re still running your business, managing your staff or just doing your job using a “2008 Play Book” or strategic plan you will lose… and fast! Look at companies like, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter. They are reacting and changing at breakneck speed, and winning.

During your next meeting listen for the two phrases which shout that your organization and the people in it are not readily accepting of change and entrenched in doing business they way they always have. Those phrases are; “That’s not the way we do things here” and, “We have never done it that way before.” Be brave and shout back, “Why not?” Don’t cling to techniques, methods, management practices or product lines (see Kodak) that are “comfortable” because they were successful at one time.

In the future… Tomorrow… when implementing changes, consider the following in order to move through the rough patches and get back on solid footing.

1. Expect Emotion: Leaders are typically very good at planning the structural side of change, but ignore the people side. Realize that the brain’s natural response is to view change as a threat. People need time to accept change, so acknowledge their feelings by hearing them out. Give them time to mourn.

2. Validate Concerns: When team members share concerns, our natural response is to counter these concerns with how we plan to overcome them. This can be perceived as you are not listening. Instead, spend time acknowledging the legitimacy of the concerns before offering ideas for moving forward or the benefits of changing.

3. Don’t Expect Immediate Results: We often say there is a “learning curve” associated with any change. What we fail to acknowledge is that the curve always trends downward before finally showing the promise of a performance enhancement. Embrace discomfort and allow time for temporary failure. Otherwise, people may mistake the performance drop as a sign that the change was a bad idea. Improvement takes time. Be on the lookout for even the smallest successes and celebrate them to show progress.

Lou Quinto has been working with companies and their associates internationally for over the past 25 years primarily in the area of critical thinking and communication skills. He is a Master Coach and Keynote Speaker for Action Management Associates in Plano, TX and a Senior Consultant on the Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness team for Executive Development Associates in Oklahoma City, OK. You can read more of his insights on his blog Metacognition or you can contact him atlouquinto@gmail.com. Originally from New Jersey, today Lou resides in Indianapolis, IN.

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Positive Discussions Encourage Creativity

By Lou Quinto
Executive Coach and Speaker

In the past several years I have worked with the IT departments for several Fortune 500 companies. With each company I have encountered depressing stories about unproductive and highly negative interactions that have taken place in their “post implementation review” meetings – known in the IT vernacular as a PIR. A PIR is conducted at the conclusion of the implementation of an IT project for continuous improvement purposes. The objectives of these meetings include identifying areas where improvements can be made to the implementation process for the next project. The agenda usually includes three focal points 1) discuss the outcome of the most recent project, 2) identify successes and opportunities, and, 3) brainstorm potential improvements when planning the organization’s next big initiative.

Seems innocuous enough, right; maybe even productive.

But the actual meeting can be anything but productive. In a room full of high-achievers, people shine the light on all of the trouble spots and create a laundry list of things that went wrong. Brainstorming soon morphs into “Blame Storming”. Everyone leaves the meeting bruised and battered.

On the surface, our focus on problems and trouble spots seems to be in keeping with the spirit of continuous improvement. Unfortunately, when the meeting focuses just on what went wrong, it destroys your ability to be productive.

In his groundbreaking research on group dynamics, researcher Marcial Losada identified 15 high performing teams based on profitability, customer satisfaction, and peer reviews. He then recorded their interactions during planning meetings, contrasting their communications with 26 mid and low performing teams. He found that the mean “positivity ratio” of the high performers was three positive comments to every negative comment. For the low performing teams, the ratio was 0.4 to 1. He also observed that following bouts of negativity, teams lost their ability to flex their behaviors and to question appropriately. Team members simply devolved into an endless loop of self-absorbed advocacy for their own positions.

So what’s the learning for us? In order to encourage high levels of critical thinking in your team meetings, do the following:

1. Start with the positives: Unless we acknowledge that there are many strengths we can leverage, there is a danger that we will focus only on our weakness, closing the door to innovation. You want to remember and reinforce everything that went well so you can build on your success.
2. Spontaneously appreciate: When people are challenged, their natural response is to go into fight or flight mode. To keep people in the collaborative mindset necessary for effective problem solving, first identify the positives of all ideas before offering concerns.
3. Be generous: It’s hard to overdo it. Further research by Barbara Fredrickson at the University of Michigan found there to be an “upper limit” to positivity, but it doesn’t kick in until you reach a ratio of 11:1. But, make sure your appreciation is genuine, as a lack of sincerity in discussing strengths can do more harm than good.

Employ these tactics consistently at your next series of team meetings, and I am “positive” you will see improved results in your critical thinking.

Lou Quinto has been working with companies and their associates internationally for over the past 25 years primarily in the area of critical thinking and communication skills. He is a Master Coach and Keynote Speaker for Action Management Associates in Plano, TX and a Senior Consultant on the Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness team for Executive Development Associates in Oklahoma City, OK. You can read more of his insights on his blog Metacognition or you can contact him at louquinto@gmail.com. Originally from New Jersey, today Lou resides in Indianapolis, IN.

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September 10, 2013 · 8:49 am

Breaking Through Groupthink with Simple Questions

By Lou Quinto, Executive Coach and Speaker

How many times have you been in a meeting and have been afraid to say something because you believed it went against what the group was thinking? Or, worse yet, nobody in the meeting spoke up because everyone believed it’s not what the “authority” in the meeting (or residing in Mahogany Hall) desired.

It’s common place and happens far too often. In fact, it can set an organization up for failure or be an impediment to complete success.

This phenomenon is known as Groupthink. The group dynamic syndrome was identified and explained by social psychologist, Irving Janis in 1972. In his book, Victims of Groupthink, Janis outlines what he calls “Eight Symptoms of Groupthink.” In the situations described above, two of those symptoms are occurring. First, Self-Censorship. This is where an individual(s) withhold any doubts and deviations from what is believed to be the group’s perceived consensus. The second symptom is Direct Pressure on Dissenters. This is where members of the group believe that they are under pressure (both real and perceived) not to express arguments against any of the group’s or organization’s views.

In my work assisting clients to resolve problems, to make decisions and to develop strategy, I have personally witnessed bona fide “subject matter experts” sit quietly while they knew that the group’s final solution, decision or strategy was either extremely risky, or downright wrong. We are social creatures and one of our biggest fears is losing favor amongst our peers or being seen as someone that causes trouble or creates conflict. Therefore, our individual need for acceptance many times trumps what we know is best for the group or are keys necessary for its success. We protect our status by simply providing no opinion at all.

People who lead groups or facilitate meetings need to be keenly aware of this group dynamic. As I always tell my clients, you can’t judge a meeting by how few differences and conflicts the group had, but instead by how many a group had and most importantly how they dealt with or resolved the conflicts. If you had differences and conflicts then you had a great meeting. If you had none, then I suggest you look in a mirror because you have been blind to potential risks and failures.

The prescription to Groupthink that I offer my clients is a process that I have adapted from several different facilitation techniques. I call it the “PIVOTS Maneuver.” I coined the phrase from a debating tactic. During a debate a participant might clarify a question or stated position by “pivoting.” This involves listening to others’ opinions, understanding their position, and then finding a common goal in that opinion and convincing them that your solution to achieving the goal is the best by offering facts that are not present or were not considered by the other person.

PIVOTS is an acronym for a series of questions that permit individuals in the group to explore a solution, decision, or strategy from several different perspectives. By asking these questions you are “giving permission” to everyone to explore and offer answers to those questions in a “safe environment.” The key phrases in the previous sentence are “giving permission” and “safe environment.” When people believe that they have “permission” to speak up and that there will be no retribution or consequences, only then will they know the environment is “safe” to offer up differing opinions or contradicting facts.

Here are the PIVOTS questions:

PWhat are the Positives that can result from our solution, decision or strategy?

IWhat additional Ideas do you have regarding this solution, decision or strategy?

VWhat Vulnerabilities do you believe the group might face on account of this solution, decision or strategy?

OWhat Opinions – feelings or hunches – does this solution, decision or strategy conjure up in your mind?

T What Truths — facts — do we know that will support the solution, decision or strategy we are recommending?

SIn moving forward with this solution, decision or strategy; what are our potential next Steps or required actions?

Next time you’re leading a meeting and you detect Groupthink to be setting in, call time out and lead the group through these questions one-by-one and record every answer on a whiteboard or a flip chart so that everyone can see them. By “pivoting,” the symptoms of Groupthink will evaporate because you have encouraged the group members to turn over every stone and to explore every objection, fact or opinion. This facilitation technique can be successful to help “neutralize the intimidator” in the room and to also crack away at a silo-like or authoritarian culture that might exist throughout the entire organization.

Lou Quinto has been working with companies and their associates internationally for over the past 25 years primarily in the area of critical thinking and communication skills. He is a Master Coach and Keynote Speaker for Action Management Associates in Plano, TX and a Senior Consultant on the Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness team for Executive Development Associates in Oklahoma City, OK. You can read more of his insights on his blog Metacognition or you can contact him at louquinto@gmail.com. Originally from New Jersey, today Lou resides in Indianapolis, IN.

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Filed under Critical Thinking Tools, Group Effectiveness