Insights | By Howard Tiersky
9 Clever Ways to Stop “Ideation Bullies” from Hogging Your Brainstorming Sessions
Whether you're responsible for digital transformation or just trying to improve a product, process or marketing program, coming up with ideas is almost always an important part of success.
One way you can create ideas is by bringing everyone together in some sort of brainstorming activity.
But sometimes you find that you’ve invited someone who’s not going to let anyone else talk—someone who is so certain they have the right answers that they take all the oxygen in the room—the ideation bully.
Fortunately, there are certain tactics that you can use to diffuse the problem and prevent those troublemakers from throwing a monkey wrench into everything you’re trying to do.
Here are 10 ways to handle ideation bullies.
1. CHOOSE YOUR BRAINSTORMERS
One option is to simply not invite somebody who is known to be a troublemaker if you predict that that person is going to tank the effort to bring people together and generate ideas.
Of course, that individual may actually have good ideas to contribute, it's just that they have a habit of “over-contributing. If their contributions are important, you can give them another way to participate, such as asking them to send you a list of their ideas.
But there can be downsides to this as your primary approach. If that person is politically very important, then excluding them may not be wise.
And lastly, sometimes you don’t know in advance who will show up as an “ideation bully.”
Someone who is otherwise quite reasonable and collaborative may get “triggered” by a given topic and transform into a problem.
2. ALIGN ON THE GOALS OF THE MEETING
Sometimes people who are behaving like bullies are trying to throw out ideas that aren't even relevant to what you're there to ideate about.
For example, if you’re having a session to come up with a tagline for your new advertising campaign, remind people that you want to use this time for that one specific goal.
If you accomplish your mission with extra time remaining and you want to talk about other issues, then that’s great. That will be extra credit.
But until you have a good tagline for your campaign, don’t try to tackle anything that’s not part of that topic. You have the whole rest of your lives to focus on all those other important matters.
Hopefully, that will set some ground rules so that if people start to pull you off topic, you can call them out while still being respectful of the point that they're making.
3. LEAVE YOUR RANK AT THE DOOR
The most senior person in the room can certainly use their rank to influence the discussion. Once they’ve spoken, it can be hard for people to feel like they should contradict.
In fact, we have a fun acronym we use to highlight this challenge: HIPPO (Highest Paid Person On-hand).
Of course, not just because you're the highest paid person doesn't necessarily mean you're a bully.
But you can inadvertently be one if you come in there with a strong opinion and thereby dissuade your team from generating a lot of ideas.
It’s a good idea if the HIPPO speaks last. Once all the ideas are on the table, they can always later use their position of authority to determine which ideas will be implemented.
4. INSIGHT BEFORE IDEAS
You want to seed people with information beforehand.
One way that people bully during ideation is they come in with supposedly their own set of “facts,” which may or may not really be facts at all, but only presumptions.
It's very easy to steamroll people with assertions of “fake facts” when others don't have their own.
Or some people simply have opinions that they present with such force that they almost dare others to suggest their opinions are not correct.
We have a fun acronym for those sub variety of ideation bullies as well. We call them the ZEBRAs (Zero Evidence But Really Arrogant).
It can be difficult to have a productive conversation with a ZEBRA in the room because he or she may appear personally offended by any “idea” that doesn’t seem aligned with their opinion as to the nature of the problem, customer desire or whatever aspect of the issue their opinion covers.
5. DEFINE A GOAL OF GENERATING A SET NUMBER OF IDEAS
Acknowledge that your goal is to create a whole bunch of different ideas so that you can later assess them.
So when the ideation bully comes, they won’t be able to drown out everybody else because you are compelled to keep going until you get your target number of ideas.
You can always assure the bully that if their ideas are really the best, then you'll probably wind up picking it, but that your goal is still to create a larger set to choose from.
6. THE POSSIBILITY FRAME
Use questions to encourage new thinking without in any way invalidating the ideas the “bully” may have put on the table. What’s great about this “possibility frame” is that it’s almost impossible to disagree with. Because anything is possible.
“Is it possible there's a better idea? “
“Is it possible there's a way of improving on this idea? “
And it's very difficult even for a bully to say absolutely not.
When you can acknowledge that it's always possible that there's another idea, a better idea, or a way of improving the idea, then you have diffused the bully’s ability to crowd out other ideas.
7. THE HYPOTHESIS FRAME
Any new idea is really just a hypothesis. It's just a theory that it might be the solution to a problem.
Whenever your team comes up with an idea, treat it as something that needs to be tested first through some kind of research. Recognize the fact that until you do test it, you don't know for sure whether it's going to work.
If the prospective bully accepts the hypothesis frame, it means that even if they believe their idea is the best one, since it's still technically only a hypothesis it makes sense to be open to other ideas as well, or at least pretend to be (which is good enough to solve the problem).
8. USE BREAKOUTS TO AVOID FILIBUSTERS
When you have 10, 15, 20 or even more people that are ideating, it can be good to break them into teams and let each team brainstorm separately.
They can later come back together and each team can share what they've come up with.
That can be an effective solution if you have somebody who tries to control the group. At least if you put them in breakouts, they can only do that with part of the group.
And it has other benefits as well as it lets more work get done “parallel.”
Hopefully, some of these other strategies will help manage that person in the breakout that they're in.
9. CREATE STRUCTURES WITH TIMING AND TURNS
Instead of just having a freewheeling conversation, create a structure to the meeting where everyone waits their turn and has their say.
Make sure that that's timeboxed and then move on to the next person.
Give everyone their time so that the person who otherwise would want to take over and dominate will find it harder to bully everybody because there are rules.
You don't need all of those tactics. You can pick just a few, even depending on your situation.
And I'm confident that you will find that you can master handling ideation bullies so that they can potentially still have their say, but it doesn't disrupt everything you're trying to do in terms of coming up with great ideas.