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A Comedy Troupe’s Brainstorming Secrets

A Comedy Troupe’s Brainstorming Secrets

Sally Allen, executive producer, The Water Coolers
Today's guest blog is by Sally Allen, executive producer of The Water Coolers, a singing comedy act that is, and I quote, "a cross between The Office, The Capitol Steps, and Modern Family" (for a taste of what they do, check out this video of their performance at the 2010 Meeting Professionals International Think Different conference). They'll be performing at the opening general session of the Pharma Forum, which is roaring in like a freight train—March 22–25 at the Gaylord National Harbor (MeetingsNet co-organizes the Forum with CBI). As someone for whom brainstorming is a daily occurrence, Sally has some great ideas to share on how to get the creative juices flowing at a meeting.

You’ve got a big event coming up and your last session evals said that your tried-and-true format is feeling stale. Ouch. But you love a challenge and in some ways, you’re psyched to turn it all on its head and find a new approach. It’s time to pull together your team and generate some fresh thinking. Let’s have a brainstorming meeting!

Meetings—the place where innovation goes to die. Why? Because too many people fall into the traps that shut a conversation down. As a comedy act that is constantly writing new material, free flowing creative discussion is an absolute bedrock competency for us. Here are 8 lessons we’ve learned for getting everyone’s best.

1. Prepare. A good brainstorming meeting starts a week before when everyone gets an e-mail that says exactly what you want to accomplish in the meeting, along with the materials they need to start thinking about your challenge. This isn’t like an episode of "Iron Chef" where everyone gets the secret ingredient at the beginning of the meeting and has an hour to come up with something amazing. Conflict and tension make for great TV, but not great new ideas.

2. Define your work process. It’s tempting to think that because you’re being “creative,” you don’t need structure or focus, but that’s actually false. In much the same what that a railing encourages you move more freely than an exposed ledge, a clear process or agenda actually creates a sense of security and liberates participates to share more openly. It doesn’t need to be rigid or complex—could be as simple as 1) Review goals; 2) Brainstorm approaches; 3) Select best five options; 4) Define a process to evaluate the options.

3. Agree at the outset not to make any decisions. If people think that they’re signing on for any one idea, they’ll need to drill down to tactical implementation issues to make sure they’re not getting kicked in the head with something unachievable. This kind of discussion will completely change the vibe of the meeting. You’ll find yourself talking about timelines and lead time when you really want to be focused on cool ways to accomplish your goals.

Related: More Refreshing Ideas and Insights

4. Don’t pre-reject ideas. You know what I mean. Someone has barely gotten their idea out and you’re already thinking, "That’s not going to work and I can show everyone how smart I am by pointing out the weakness in this crazy thought." Legendary leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith has a GREAT rule to combat this: No nos, buts, or howevers. Each of these words subtly cuts the speaker off at the knees and avoiding them keeps the conversation open and moving forward.

5. You’re always visible. It’s stunning how many people roll their eyes in a meeting or not-so-subtly cast a knowing glance to a colleague that essentially says, “Can you believe he just said that?” People can always see you. Remember that you can shut ideas down without saying a word. If you want the ideas to keep coming, make the decision to show visible support for all ideas.

6. Repeat the idea back. If you’re struggling to understand an idea (or feel yourself slipping into pre-rejection mode), repeat the idea back. It will help you understand the idea better and it often helps the person putting it on the table see it more clearly and improve his or her own idea.

7. Come in with three strong ideas of your own. You can get the ball rolling with one of your ideas and then, if things slow down, you have something in your pocket to re-energize the conversation. The trick with this one, though, is to avoid getting attached to your own thinking. Your goal is to open up a conversation—let people build on your idea and take it in new directions.

8. Get excited about the great ideas. Wwhen it’s authentic, excitement is like throwing fuel on the creative fire. It’s contagious and almost always turbo-charges the creativity in a room. Let your honest enthusiasm show.

Hope to see you for the opening general session at CBI and Meetingsnet’s Pharma Forum 2015 when you can see some of our creative process in action.

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