Brainstorms: the Gateway to Creative Culture Change

As of writing this blog post, I’ve led or facilitated over 150 workshops, sprints and strategy sessions in the past 3 years for TDG clients. And whether delivered to senior leadership, department/team leaders or individual contributors, the most commonly asked question I receive is: “Well, this was great and I’m all for changing our culture, but where do I begin?”

Now, of course, how much agency or power over strategic priorities you have within your organization will change how I suggest going about creating culture change. But, one easy, tactical starting point I offer everyone is brainstorms.

Yes, you read that right: Brainstorms. Here’s why:

Brainstorms are everywhere.

From the most corporate, highly-regulated industries to the latest emerging tech start-ups, every team needs to generate solutions—for products and services, things that are broken, things that don’t exist yet, marketing campaigns, partnerships, team building events, etc. Brainstorms are usually one of the most frequently scheduled meetings that they make a great entry point to influencing culture.

Brainstorms can create a craving for change.

Bad news: Brainstorms often suck.

Good news: Because the quality of experience and outcomes for many brainstorms is low, you’ve got a good chance of creating a better meeting experience than is currently happening.

And even a small uptick in quality–though we’re confident you’ll lead a kickass brainstorm–will make your team develop a craving for this style of meeting. And when a team is hungry for something, they’ll ask for more. Over time, the appetite for change will grow and extend into other types of meetings and culture will change.

Brainstorms can be more ‘design think-y’ even if you don’t do any other design thinking in your company.

Individuals who learn about design thinking before the rest of their team or organization are often discouraged by wanting to do all the design thinking things (Empathy research! Journey maps! Prototyping!), but without the support or influence to make it happen. However, even if your organization never adopts design thinking (gasp!), you can still infuse tools from the methodology into brainstorm sessions.

Anyone can lead them.

Calling all budding facilitators! Brainstorms are your best kinds of meetings to gain experience leading groups. Ask to lead them within your team, ask to co-facilitate with other teams, and volunteer to lead brainstorms for things like company parties. By leading brainstorms, you’ll develop your credibility and increase your chances of getting permission or being asked to lead other design activities or facilitate other gatherings.

Brainstorms are low-stake environments to grow as a leader.

If you’re a newer manager or are leading a new team, brainstorms are relatively easy environments to experiment with, letting your teams take ownership over solutions. Because ideas coming out of a brainstorm aren’t yet ready to get a green light for production (at least they shouldn’t be), you’ve got many chances to weigh-in and course correct if needed—or have your team go back and generate more options. So with brainstorms, give your team the desired outcome(s) (for direction) and then get out of the way.

When I was leading my first team at an advertising agency almost 10 years ago I struggled with delegation. Whether it was for writing briefs, proposals or leading brainstorms, I was ultimately responsible and I wanted my hands on it. But, that’s no way to grow, scale or develop, both individually and as a team.

Because we were a creative agency, there were a lot of brainstorms. So instead of trying to lead them all, and because that was humanly impossible, I focused my efforts on making sure each project had a clear brief and then delegated the role of leading the brainstorm to a producer. Afterwards, our CTO and I could review, refine and help build out the ideas before they went to the client.

By giving my team the freedom and responsibility to run their own brainstorms, I was quickly able to learn the necessary management lesson of trusting and delegating, and my team developed their confidence in coming up with great ideas and establishing their own points of view on which should move forward.

Ready to try it?

All jokes aside, culture change needs to start somewhere. It needs an entry point, repeat engagement and advocates. And while change can start in a variety of places—top down, bottom up, unexpected corner—the good ‘ole brainstorm is practically begging to be the genesis of change. So if you’ve been struggling to start, take the next brainstorm you can get your hands on and use it as your chance to open the gateway to a more creative culture.

Erin Lamberty
[email protected]
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