How My Nosy Nature Gave Me New Perspective on Brainstorming

Recently, I was sitting in a coffee shop, brainstorming ideas for a future blog post about the importance of technology in strategy. I will eventually get to that post, but what I observed at the coffee shop was far more interesting.

As I was working, three ladies sat down next to me and began talking about their children, grandchildren and life in general. They were sharing experiences and memories with each other without any filter – with smiles, laughter, and even a few tears.

As I attempted to focus on my work, I was trying not to listen to their conversation, but it wasBanks-Blog-Quote_05_26_16 hard. They seemed to be having such a good time, talking about using Snapchat and Instagram and binge-watching Netflix. But it wasn’t all good memories – they also shared struggles with relationships and the pressures kids feel in school.  These ladies covered a lot of ground in a short period of time. (I concluded my life is boring.)

I couldn’t hear all the detail (although as I read this back, it sure seems like I did!). I think they started to whisper after they saw me looking over, clearly eavesdropping. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized this experience was a perfect post. Not because it shows how boring my life is, but because it made me draw a parallel between sharing and brainstorming.

It’s about sharing

Let’s face it, brainstorming is really a form of sharing. And clearly these ladies had mastered it. While they were most likely getting together to “catch up,” they reminded me that the most effective form of brainstorming is when it’s done in a neutral, unfiltered, judgement-free environment. How often do you meet a friend for a simple catch up and walk away with a new idea on how to do something, or a new restaurant or parenting approach to try? You may not be putting formal structure around it, but you are really brainstorming and continuing to learn from each other. And most of the time, you are having a lot of fun in the process.

As I began to transition from creepy eavesdropper back to curious blogger, I started to jot down what I had just observed and how we could apply it in the office.

Effective and productive brainstorming requires the following key ingredients:

  • No agenda
  • Enjoyable, neutral location
  • Listen and respect each other
  • Build off of others’ comments, but don’t fight the flow of thought
  • Don’t stand in judgement, but rather listen with interest
  • Care about each other, not just about what is being said
  • Be open to sharing and trust that the group wants to hear your thoughts
  • Don’t be looking for any specific outcome; simply enjoy the company and dialogue
  • Focus on the conversation and the person without distraction (avoid phones and the trappings of your usual environment)
  • Do not put a timeline on topics covered. Let the conversation flow, based on the topics that interest the group
  • Be human. Don’t be afraid to show emotion and use emotional words (wow, excellent that is sad, etc.). Don’t dilute the conversation with “meeting terms” (good point, great idea, etc.).

Remove the wrapping

It got me thinking. I have so much more fun talking with friends then I do sharing at work. Why is that? I really enjoy the people I work with, so I know it’s not the individuals. This experience made me realize that maybe it’s the wrapping we put around work conversations. We might be better off thinking about each other as friends getting together to catch up, then to label it with the pressures and formality of brainstorming and meetings.

As for the ladies in the coffee shop, I know they left feeling more complete and they clearly learned a lot from each other. I believe I heard mention of a book recommendation they were all going to read and there was a lot of suggestions for apps to try (again, not that I was listening that hard). So in the end, I believe they learned and were inspired to act.

How often do you feel that way when you leave a work meeting? Maybe just maybe, these ladies will now inspire us to act differently in future meetings. (At a minimum, I bet this story inspires you to sit far away from me, should we find each other at the same coffee shop one day.)

But I challenge you to think about this the next time you are “brainstorming” at the office. I know I will.