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Leveraging brain power

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

This weekly tweak is part of our series to make work better together - get it direct to your inbox.

If you're a manager, have direct reports, have influence over performance management, hold the purse strings, have the ear of the leader, or if you are the leader, then your voice will be perceived as more important than others.

No matter if you have the intent to be the most inclusive ‘open door’ leader, your voice holds more power, whether you like it or not.

People in the room are listening to you with a lens of authority, so speaking up first or not actively participating as an equal, influences the other participants in ways you may not intend.

Traditional brainstorming is seen as a way to get all of the ideas out in the open to find solutions, make things better, and overcome challenges. While the intent is in the right place, the traditional format influences the outcomes a lot more than you may think.

Imagine the scenario

The CEO walks into a room of people hand-picked from around the organisation to tackle poor outcomes for an existing product. Aware of the different functions involved, she has invited a cross-section from all levels and functions in the business. This feels inclusive and representative. The CEO sets the scene and starts asking for ideas. VP of Finance starts by offering an idea that will cut costs and bring the product back in line with profit projections. The Director of Marketing asks for an increased budget to introduce a more targeted campaign to the end user for more sales.

Others in the room speak up with their ideas. The customer service rep - who has been receiving direct feedback from affected customers is the last to speak. After hearing from more senior leaders around the business, their original thoughts of changing the product offering seem naive. Instead, they back the marketing campaign with some tweaks. Their idea, fed from direct, repeated customer feedback is lost. This is authority bias - we are more influenced by someone with perceived authority no matter what the content is. This week's tweak is about evening the playing field and creating space for all to input without being first influenced by authority or influence in the room.

A Better Work Tweak - Turn brainstorming into brainwriting

Brainwriting is a technique used to get everyone's input in one go, so they are not influenced by what has gone before or more powerful voices. Here are the steps to a successful brainwriting experiment:

In-person meeting -

  1. Everyone is given post-its and sharpies to write with.

  2. The context is clearly set and clarifying questions can be asked

  3. Quiet time to jot their thoughts and ideas onto post-its (one per post-it) (depending on the challenge, you may ask them only to take their top 3 or 4)

  4. Once the time is up - all participants put their ideas on a shared wall

  5. Ideas are read by everyone and there is a chance to ask clarifying questions

  6. From here there are lots of things you can do - vote on the top ideas, create workgroups to develop some of the ideas (feasibility, action plans)

This is a whole other blog - a book in fact, but start by actively asking for input. Show appreciation for the input, even if you don’t agree or don’t see its value yet.

eg. “I’m thinking of going in this direction but I’m really not sure it’s the right thing to do. I need your input, what are you seeing? What would you do? Are there other options?”

Online meeting -

  1. Miro or Mural are great for online whiteboards

  2. The context is clearly set and clarifying questions can be asked

  3. Set quiet time (start with 5 or 10 mins as appropriate) to jot their thoughts and ideas onto stickies (one per post-it) (depending on the challenge, you may ask them only to take their top 3 or 4). My favourite online whiteboard tool is Miro and there are brainwriting templates available to use

4. Once the time is up participants are invited to ask clarifying questions.

5. At this point you can decide to vote or build on ideas. To build on ideas, each person gets to move to the next participant's idea and tries to find a suggestion to improve it. You can do this as many times as you like depending on the challenge.

Super quick brainwriting

You may want a very quick input using Zoom or Teams Chat can be a really good way to get very fast input.

  1. The context is clearly set and clarifying questions can be asked

  2. Invite all to type into zoom or teams chat (but do not hit enter)

  3. Facilitator to count down and all hit enter at once.

  4. All read in one go

A Tweak to make it even better

Using this method it’s important for leaders or those with power to appreciate all inputs. Our instinct, when faced with ideas or suggestions that aren’t in line with our thinking, is to reject them too quickly. By inputting their ideas, those with less perceived power may feel vulnerable, the response from the room is important to build psychological safety. That doesn’t mean every idea is accepted or brilliant, but it’s appreciated, considered, and possibly built upon.

Michelle Wallace


A Better Work


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