Everything’s Open for Discussion? How’s that Work?

Today’s guest blog on creativity comes from @Mike Brown who is a very brilliant mind. I invited Mike to tackle the subject of having everything open for discussion during a brainstorming session, but how to deal with what “everything” means. See his wisdom below:

You’re probably very familiar with standard brainstorming admonitions such as any topic being okay for discussion and “no idea is a bad idea.”

But what’s your attitude toward these concepts outside a creative session? Specifically, if you want to foster a more creative workplace, are you willing to extend them into day-to-day work life?

Learning and experience has shaped my belief you’ll have a stronger, more creative team and organization if you are willing to consider observations on unexpected or potentially unwelcome topics pretty much any time. Doing so has provided many valuable, unanticipated insights into how people are thinking and reacting.

This openness isn’t without challenges though, particularly with people whose personal agendas get in the way. Here’s how as a leader to manage three less productive open discussions you may encounter:

When Something Doesn’t Matter – The standard I use for strategic discussion is focusing on “things that matter,” i.e., they create real results. In business though, much time gets spent discussing topics which ultimately have little material impact on real world outcomes. This can happen when someone fixates on a topic important to them, but of little relevance in the bigger scheme of things. Protracted discussion distracts from what really needs attention, leading to wasted energy and slowed progress.

How to handle these situations? Scuttling discussion on marginal subjects every time they’re raised signals the expectation you’ll only focus on things that matter. But doing this risks individuals shutting down on more important topics too. As a leader, it’s important to give in and discuss some of these issues, especially if valuable team members are raising them. You’ll more than make up for what seems like wasted time by cultivating a more engaged team.

Tackling Things That Matter a Lot – Maybe it’s a strategic decision, a company’s values, or a moral or ethical principle. Whatever the case, when a topic matters a lot, determining how open it should be for discussion is challenging. Typically, a decision has already been made or a very visible position taken suggesting those in charge aren’t open to further discussion or debate. Yet these very topics, when left untouched for extended periods, can result in blind spots. They may prove to be organizationally crippling long-term; in the near-term, ignoring the discussion can off-putting to team members who have legitimate, sincere, albeit conflicting points of view.

How to handle these situations? One way to allow conversation on seemingly unchangeable topics is through defined periods where they are open for discussion. This could be in conjunction with annual planning (with consideration of a company’s values, vision, or strategic foundations) or during a specific forum (i.e., a special meeting or conference) where discussion is entertained and deliverables expected. By opening windows for conversation on these topics, you’ll benefit from new and potentially impactful insights without wasting discussion time when there’s no realistic consideration of change.

Dealing with a Biased Point of View – I’ve dealt with a variety of co-workers so convinced of their own correctness that discussions on sensitive topics quickly become unproductive. They expect their desired resolution and every statement is geared toward force fitting a personal viewpoint without considering others might have legitimate perspectives.

How to handle these situations? There’s a maxim in courts of equity that “one who comes into equity must come with clean hands.” In short, it means if you’re asking for aid from another’s wrongs, you must not have committed a wrong yourself. I’ve adapted this concept as a guide for determining how open I’ll be to listening to someone who appears biased or dug in on a particular point of view. A person has to enter a conversation honestly – intellectually and ethically –with an openness to consider alternative positions. If someone expects an issue to be discussed yet is unwilling to consider alternatives or rethink a personal position, the privilege of having a topic re-considered isn’t earned. Set the stage by sharing ground rules upfront, making it clear an open conversation, or none at all, will take place.

So what do you think? If you’ve been using an “open discussion” policy, how are you managing them productively? And if you haven’t followed this approach, are you willing to give it a try and reap the creative benefits? – Mike Brown

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Mike Brown is an award-winning marketer and strategist with extensive experience in research, strategy, branding, sponsorship marketing, and social media. He’s a frequent keynote presenter on innovation and is a Strategic Innovation Catalyst at Brainzooming™.


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