Meetings: "Input, please..." Is it brainstorm or brain-drain?

March 9, 2019

Observed behavior 

 You're in a meeting with your team and you need to brainstorm for ideas or perhaps explore an issue. You put the question to the team, but get an underwhelming response. You keep trying, maybe get up and start writing on the whiteboard to jumpstart the session. This helps to squeeze out a few more lukewarm ideas or comments though still not close to what you were expecting. So you keep at it, but seem to be doing most of the heavy lifting. Time runs out and most of what's on the whiteboard is yours or one or two others who break the mold.

 

At the least, this is unsatisfying, bordering on frustrating. Why is it like this? Are they so quiet that they actually have no ideas, comments or questions? Not at all. Knowing you're not the first to experience this may not provide much in relief, however, it is a common occurrence. Take heart, there are ways to get even the quietest team member to share their thoughts. First, lets look at the underlying mindset.

 

Underlying mindset

In Japan there are 3 things that can go against the ‘flow’:

 

1. Probing: It is 'generally' considered less than appropriate to ask a question. There is also a saying that, roughly translated, goes like this, "An intelligent person already knows the answer so has no need of asking." This could equate to ask and show your lack of intelligence. Ouch… 

 

2. Innovative thinking: Education in Japan requires very little in the way of debate or conjecture. While students are required, to a certain level, to think strategically or creatively, most learning focuses on rote memory or logical, step-by-step processes. Out-of-the-box thinking is not widely taught. 

 

3. Going off topic: Japanese generally expect meetings to be orderly, following a specific format or agenda. Going off-topic can throw them.This contrasts with the almost casual brainstorming, asking questions or providing feedback that occurs fairly naturally for those with a more global or Western education. 

 

 So how can you have meetings where people share their thoughts and ideas?

 

 

Potential fixes to influence outcomes

 

Quick fix: (About you adopting their perspective) Here are two things that work for me:

 

1. The heads up: As mentioned above, in Japan the agenda will be followed almost to the letter, so no one will expect a meeting with a free flow of ideas, questions and opinions. To set up for this, before the meeting, tell them that this next meeting will be a 'Brainstorming Meeting' so be prepared to share. It may sound simplistic but it's key that you give them this heads up to get people metally on board. Next providing a list of items you wish to brainstorm (even if you only want feedback) will allow them time to think about it. This can seem to defeat the purpose of free-flow brainstorming, but you need to start methodically if you are having difficlty with getting good input. Creating a brainstorming process that they can follow and become comfortable with is vital. It will take more than a few times to develop the right mindset and you may have to explain in some detail what you expect. Just be patient and keep at it. It works.

 

Long term fix: (About them adopting your perspective)

 

2. Share the weight: The above fix can help get things going, but will probably not be enough. Most likey, you will need to teach your team how to brainstorm. This will go along way to getting people to share their thoughts even when your just looking for a little feedback. In additon to the 'heads up' described above, another key aspect is to limit (not eliminate) individual contribution. Putting the individual ‘on-the-spot’ can cause pressure, further increasing the hesitation to share, especially if language is a challenge. Having your team work in pairs or small groups, eases any pressure, getting them to open up and share more freely.

 

Also, try using brainstorming and analytical techniques. These techniques guide thinking, deepen communication, and support sharing and brainstorming, changing mindsets. This is vital as most have little experience in brainstorming or exploring options, especially verbally. Simple is best at first. Proven tools such as post-its can serve well. One idea on one post-it forces them to get something down on paper. Next use a simple four square grid with vertical and horizontal axis, labeled appropriately, to analyze. (See image) Some example labels are impact/time/cost/difficulty/affect/risk, etc. The post-its can be stuck to the table or grid to analyze visually. Mimicing this using PowerPoint works well, too. I realize that this may seem a bit too much, but again, it depends on the level of input you are getting in meetings. I've used this method successfully for years in Japan.

 

It is the repetition of the above that will begin to instill the mindset and behaviors that promote open sharing. This will definitely not happen overnight. That's why I tell everyone that ever meeting is a brainstorming meeting.You will need patience and a bit of fortitude to get to the point where it becomes a normal part of your team's way of communicating.

 

 

Factors to consider: I can only provide a generic fix here as personalities, experience, environment and a potential host of other variables should be taken into consideration. Proceed with care. Remember, it probably won’t work the first time. Be patient…When you have a chance, let me know how you go. (You can comment below) 

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