There are three periods during a project when you need to be able to rely on your team for great ideas: the beginning, the middle, and the end. When you toss ideas around during the planning phase, it’s a great time for innovation. When you brainstorm in the middle of a project, those discussions are generally focused on problem solving. As you’re winding things down, it’s all about exploring what worked vs. what didn’t and thinking up ways to use lessons learned to avoid pitfalls and promote success for upcoming projects. This process just doesn’t work if you try to go it alone. Project management requires creative input from your team.
The problem is that a lot of people aren’t that good at coming up with ideas on the spur of the moment. Let’s say you put a team member on the spot with a question like “You’ve been awfully quiet, Dave, do you have a suggestion you’d like to share?” Chances are good that Dave either wasn’t paying attention at all or simply wasn’t talking because he didn’t have anything relevant to add. How can you unleash the imaginative resources of your team and encourage them to share their ideas?
Seed the Discussion
Before you have a project management meeting to brainstorm, let everyone know several days in advance (if possible) what the topics will be. This could be a particular goal along with realistic parameters such as cost or schedule that will be used to determine which concepts are workable. Consider including a couple of your own ideas in this message as a starting place. It may spark inspiration in one of your team members.
When you provide this kind of advance notice of a brainstorming session, make it clear that team members will be expected to bring at least one proposal of their own to the meeting. If you have team members who tend to be shy, pair people up in a buddy system to generate an idea as partners. The more ideas you start the meeting with, the better. They don’t have to be brilliant or completely fleshed out. The important thing is to get the ball rolling so people will feel comfortable participating.
Create a Focused Environment
No one is at their creative best when they have a pile of work on their desk to worry about. If there’s no “slow day” during the typical workweek at your office, you may have the best results by scheduling a meeting to generate ideas before or after work – or on a weekend. Only use this tactic rarely and make sure to treat everyone to a good meal to keep their blood sugar stable and their mood lifted. Consider getting everyone out of the office and holding an informal meeting at a different location. A reserved dining room in a restaurant might work (some people tend to loosen up a little after a glass of wine).
Don’t Make Decisions Right Away
This may seem counterintuitive from a project management standpoint, but the purpose of a brainstorming session is not to come to a decision. The point is to come up with lots of possibilities. The decision can be made after you’ve had a chance to more fully investigate the pros and cons of a particular plan. Communicate from the outset that there’s not going to be a big “showdown” with one person’s proposal winning and everyone else losing during the meeting. That can help project management team members be more open with their ideas and less defensive if someone points out a fatal flaw in their suggested course of action.