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Why Leaders Shouldn't Lead Brainstorming Sessions

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Here's one of the dirty little secrets of corporate brainstorm sessions: When they are led by upper management, department heads, or project leaders, they usually get manipulated.

Because honchos and honchettes are so heavily invested in the topic being brainstormed, it is common for them to bend the collective genius of the group to their own particular point of view. Not a good idea.

Participants -- out of respect for the expertise (or position or parking space) of the facilitator -- will invariably moderate their input. The results? Same old, same old.

That's why brainstorm facilitators need to remain neutral. Not neutral like vague. Neutral like free of any pre-determined concept or outcome. An open window, not an empty suit.

A facilitator's role is to facilitate (from the Latin word meaning "to make easy") the process whereby brilliance manifests -- not use their platform to foist their ideas on others.

In the best of all worlds, brainstorm facilitators wouldn't be the people who care the most about a given topic. They wouldn't be the content expert, team leader, department head, senior officer, or anyone else whose job is described by a three-letter acronym.

There's a HUGE difference between facilitating and leading a brainstorm session. Leaders get people to follow them. Facilitators get people to follow the yellow brick road of their own imagination. Capisce?

What follows are five classic ways that less-than-evolved brainstorm facilitators tend to manipulate the ideation process. Any of them familiar to you?

1. Verbally judge ideas as they are presented
2. Scribe only the ideas they approve of
3. Spend more time pitching their own ideas than listening to the ideas of others
4. Develop only ideas consistent with their own limiting assumptions
5. Use the forum to enroll participants into their own pet projects

What to do? End the madness! The next time you see the wrong person about to facilitate a brainstorm session, intervene! Speak up! Send them the link to this blog post. Or volunteer to lead the session yourself.

Mitch Ditkoff, Co-Founder and President of Idea Champions has been designing and facilitating brainstorming sessions for a wide variety of major corporations since 1986. Along the way, he has learned a lot about what works and what doesn't work in the realm of evoking brilliance in others. These days, he and one of his long-time colleagues, Val Vadeboncoeur, are translating what they've learned about brainstorm facilitation into a highly engaging online training. Here's what organizations say about the value of their work. And while we're at it, here's a really good idea that is helping penal systems around the world rethink the way they rehabilitate prisoners.