Last week I wrote about the importance of inspiration when it comes to leadership. Yet inspiration alone will not get us where we want to go. Inspiration without ideas lacks legs. It may move us emotionally, but it fails to move us forward operationally. That’s why great leaders are excellent catalysts for brainstorming, often with a focus on strengths. It’s one thing to brainstorm ideas for solving a problem; it’s even better to brainstorm ideas for building on strengths. If you don’t understand the distinction or know how to get it done, read on. This Provision shows you how.
This past week I was working with the CEO of a small business who was concerned that two associates, who he brought into the company last year, had not yet brought in any business. From a cash flow perspective this was not an issue, since these contract associates are paid only when they work on a project. From a growth point of view, however, this was a big issue, since the company is not growing as quickly and as fully as it otherwise might. What’s the CEO to do?
That question became a primary focus of our coaching conversation, as well it should. There was never any doubt in the CEO’s mind that his job, as the leader of this company, was to identify problems and come up with ideas on how to solve those problems. He was the founder of the company and the one responsible for its overall mission, growth, and development. From those vantage points, this CEO assumed that he was the company idea-person.
In a sense, of course, he’s right. Ideas do matter when it comes to leadership. If people never have any new or good ideas, chances are they will never be in any company, let alone their own. Ideas are the stuff that drive innovation and move people up the ladder. Just one great idea can launch a career and even change the world. Consider the light bulb or the computer. Without ideas, where would we be?
Perhaps because ideas are so important, many leaders • including the CEO I was working with last week • assume that it is their job to come up with all the ideas, or at least the best ideas, or at least the most attractive ideas, or at least the one, great idea that will get the conversation started and the problem solved. “These two associates are not bringing in any business,” this CEO told me, “and I think I know what the problem is. Next week we’re getting together and I think I should put that on the table to see what they think and to figure out how to move forward.”
Sounds simple enough, right? Not so fast. All leaders understand that ideas matter. Great leaders understand that ideas matter so much that they dare not become the sole or even the primary idea-conduit. The more we see ourselves in that light, the more we will limit the ideas that get generated.
What do you think would have happened if this CEO had handled the meeting the way he first thought? His two new associates would have listened respectfully, would have tried to add value, and would have probably gone back to work with some version of his solution. That’s what happens when a person in authority goes first, putting an idea on the table. People defer and may even get discouraged, especially if the conversation revolves too long around what’s wrong and if they see things differently from the leader in charge.
Understanding these dynamics, great leaders make two moves. First, they focus the conversation around assets and ambitions rather than around deficits and problems. Second, they rely on structured brainstorming processes to generate as many ideas as possible, as quickly as possible, before starting to sift and sort while looking for the gold.
The shift from deficits and problems to assets and ambitions is a critical and yet counterintuitive move that great leaders learn to make. It’s counterintuitive because the human brain and organism are hardwired to notice pain and problems. Our brainstems and cerebellums are not that different from those of reptiles and amphibians: they control our most basic, biological functions • such as breathing and heartbeat • and they are constantly scanning the environment for threats. Survival is a big deal when it comes to human needs.
No one has to be taught to pay attention to pain and problems. Touching a hot iron is lesson enough. It triggers an immediate, reflex response followed by a lingering, reflective assessment of what went wrong and how to avoid such circumstances in the future. The entire function of our primitive brain is to keep us alive and to alert us to danger; it is attached to homeostasis and obsessed with survival. When it signals a red alert, all other functions come under its spell.
Fortunately, at least for those of us reading this Provision, most of the threats that we face are not life and death threats. They do not stimulate the primitive brain and do not require immediate, aversive action. Yet many of us have never learned any other way to handle challenges. We treat them all as problems to be solved instead of mysteries to be explored. We withdraw, recover, analyze, regroup, and develop countermeasures to prevent their recurrence.
Sound familiar? Many leaders come from that very frame. And then they wonder why their organizations seem to be in a constant state of panic, with few genuinely new ideas and even less freedom to experiment with new approaches. That’s why great leaders ask different questions. Unless there is a genuine biothreat, at which point everyone is scurrying, great leaders redirect attention away from the pain of the problem and toward the promise of the possibility.
It’s a subtle yet important shift. Both approaches may share the same values, in terms of the desired outcome, but the focus that great leaders place on strengths and aspirations holds more potential. It calms the primitive brain and engages the higher brain in creative, imaginative, and expressive thought patterns that beg for brainstorming. Once the fear of the moment is set aside, often through an intentional redirection on the part of leaders, all manner of new energies and emotions are released.
Inviting people to brainstorm around strengths and aspirations enables leaders do just that. That’s what we came up with in our coaching session last week. Instead of showing up with a diagnosis and a plan, the CEO I was coaching decided to show up with a question and a process for generating new ideas, energies, and emotions.
The question, as you can well imagine, was not, “What’s the problem here?” The question was, “What’s been your best experience of working in this field and of sharing your enthusiasm with others?” By getting his two associates to remember and tell their best experience stories, he was already starting to calm the primitive brain and to engage the higher brain.
After getting such stories out on the table, with the CEO playing the role of an equal participant (he planned to share a best-experience story as well), and after exploring these stories as to their core values and supporting conditions, the CEO then decided to conduct a formal brainstorming process around the question of how to generate more of such experiences and even better experiences in the future.
That’s a natural move when people are feeling more secure and hopeful. Instead of trying to solve a problem (why these two associates haven’t brought in any business) they try to strengthen a possibility (how the company can build on what these two associates have brought to the business). Building on strengths is so much more fun and can be so much more generative than focusing on problems.
So what are the ground rules for a “formal brainstorming process”? They certainly do not include being “formal”! A formal brainstorming is not staid, serious, and stiff. It’s anything but those aspects of formality. I call it “formal” only because a time is set aside to generate new ideas according to the following ground rules:
- Warm up • generate a random list of things (like countries in South America) as quickly as possible.
- Set a minimum number of possibilities to generate.
- Set a time limit to keep things moving rapidly.
- Withhold judgment or evaluation of possibilities.
- Encourage wild and exaggerated possibilities.
- Let no possibility go unsaid.
- Build on the possibilities put forth by others.
- Combine and expand possibilities.
- Go for quantity rather than quality.
- Number the ideas.
- Leverage the space • put them on the walls.
- Get physical • move around.
These are the fun and playful rules of productive brainstorming. They can be used in problem solving, but they are even more effective in strengths building. I’m glad that the CEO I was coaching had a chance to think this through before his meeting next week. As a result, both he and I are hopeful that many more and better ideas will be generated by his team for their future success. And that’s a good thing because, when it comes to leadership, ideas matter.
Coaching Inquiries: How good are you at coming up with new ideas? How good are you at helping others come with ideas? What helps you to stay focused on strengths and possibilities? What opportunities exist for you to engage in brainstorming this week? How could you use brainstorming at home? At work? In other settings? How can you become more of a catalyst for new ideas?
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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.
I loved your Provision on Inspired Leadership. It was a great reminder that we need to water the garden of our own passion if we hope to get others to join us in our projects. I also enjoyed the analogy you invited us to consider between mindful eating and mindful leading. Walking 100 steps after each act of leadership might help us digest the input we’ve heard from others and keep us grounded!
Another perfect provision at the perfect time in just the perfect way 🙂 My favorite sentence, “For all the go-go-go of leadership, there is a quiet side to the task that is often overlooked and underestimated.”
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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