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Brainstorming, Group Think, Silos, Silence or Friction – Yes Friction Part 1

Sitting in a so-called “Brain Storming” session, not one of us let our baby idea speak. We kept our “dream babies” closely guarded in our heads and notebooks. We sometimes whispered them to each other during a break. But no one spoke up. We all knew that our ideas would not only be shot down, but metaphorically – so would we. We had to protect our babies and ourselves. No one wanted to get put on the “No work” list for playing the charade of “he might appreciate our thoughts – but doesn’t.” I dub him – “The Influencer”.

Generating New Ideas and A More Efficient Work Environment Isn’t Easy - The answer to “how do we get the best ideas, and create a fabulous new product” is as varied as the mouths that speak the rhetoric. Some believe that people of a like discipline should be grouped because they get more done. The result is often a Silo – (yes an analogy taken from farmers. The tall container that contains a single strain of grain – wheat, barley, or corn.) That way there is no cross-pollination. (And silos are silent.)

Businesses Tried Silos - It Stopped Cross Pollination And Idea Germination – There is rarely discussion outside the silo group, and no real idea building. Example - writer trying to send a document that won’t get out of his mailbox!

“Hey, which is bigger a KB or MB and how does a pixel compare to a DPI? (No answer within the writers’ silo.)

Does anyone know anyone in IT whom I could call?” (Still…silence in the silo.) If the writers have no interaction with IT, it’s pretty hard to ask for help.

Tear Down Those Silos! Finally realizing the limitations of the silo-structure many businesses threw the doors open to exchange ideas, and develop a better business model. The problem is that the “new and improved” model does not work much better. You would logically think that different groups of people brought together to solve company problems or come up with new ideas would be perfect. It should evoke different thinking, divergent opinions, and personalities. But in real work situations where something of value – ego, or stature, is at stake, it rarely works. It usually comes “disguised as a brainstorm” when it is really a restrictive “Group Think”.

The term “Group Think” was coined by psychologist Irving Janis, writing about how he believed Group Think nearly put the US in a nuclear shoot-out with Cuba. He defined it as a “mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ striving for unanimity, override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” In short - Group Thinking produces little more than a confirmed opinion of “The Influencer” the invasion of Iraq could be placed beside “The Bay of Pigs” fiasco.

”The Influencer” sees to it that - Group Think takes over many boardrooms, and restrains open, honest, discussion. The “Influencer” of Group Think - will stand out as the “one who believes he knows more than anyone else, (or all of us put together) and few others will challenge his or her views. Some of these “influencers” wear metaphoric hard hats to deter other people’s thoughts, and brandish the company checkbook as a means to intimidate input, and maintain control. Some of them actively take on the role of corporate despot. They are quite happy to let you know there is an exit door to the silo, brainstorming session, conference call, or your job.

We are human beings who react immediately to the personality or perceived strength of the “influencer.” If we try to break free of the “Group Think” we get labeled - the boat-rocker, the brown-noser, or the time-hog. (On, and on.)

iPhone Group Think? Who knows, perhaps the wily iPhone 5’s “get you lost” maps came out of a Group Think. Someone within their elite group of design engineers is most likely doing the “I should have said something”, or “if they had only listened” shuffle.

The “Oh so Polite” Manipulative Despot: I worked for a consulting company that did great research, and formed strategic action plans for clients based on the findings. There was always a brainstorming meeting with the client after delivering the results, during which the consultant offered recommendations and discussed results.

Some consultants disregarded the client’s input and became polite Group Think despots who led a group of managers to a conclusion that the consultant had decided should be the final result before he or she boarded the plane in their home state. Never mind that the client lived among the people who answered questions in the research. The underlying, carefully manipulated message to the client was: “I do not value your thoughts.”

What Ideas Got Stepped On? Not listening, and taking other people’s ideas and intellect into account is more than a snub. It is a plain insult. It is still “Group Think.” The “influencer’s “ ideas were the only ones enacted. No one was happy, but there had been a group meeting to decide future actions right? So why did most people leave the room feeling like their baby had been ignored, put in a time out, or stepped on?

The Pixar Breakout Model - When Steve Jobs was forced from his own company in the 1970’s he examined his management style, his life, and what sparks creativity. Pixar and its bouncing lamp became his baby. It was his opportunity to put his newly formed philosophy into practice. He came up with a unique model to prevent silos, and ensure an atmosphere of growing ideas.

The new Pixar building would be open, really open. If you wanted a cowboy storefront to your office – build it. He wanted people to bump into each other, interact and let their differences be their linkage. He mixed them up to spark ideas from different thinking people. He wanted a culture of exchange and idea sparking.

Did it work? “Steve’s theory worked from day one,” said John Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer “…I’ve never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one.” And Woody and Buzz Light Year were born!

In part 2, I will explore, other group dynamics that instill “Group Think” and how to throw them out the door. I’ll show you how to invite and encourage open-free thinkers into your idea sessions, to create a little friction and ignite ideas.

References: Psychology today – Irving Janice Yale, Office Snapshot – Steve Jobs,
Irving Janis – Group Think.

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Connie Timpson, Extraordinary Leaders
Jacksonville, FL 32223

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