The brainstorm is beloved by some and dreaded by many. We live in a world that offers choice for everything from styles of coffee to TV shows to TVs themselves. But when it comes to brainstorming, we pretty much have one option: get everyone in a room and start throwing ideas out there.
This generally works well for extroverts (though some say otherwise) and not so great for everyone else.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, there’s a way to brainstorm without aggravating or alienating the introverts on your team, and it isn’t as difficult as you might think.
Professor Dario Nardi of UCLA has been conducting cutting-edge research on brain connectivity for years. As he recently explained it to us, “Generally, introverts spend more time processing data, have more activity and linkages in the back half of the brain, and are easily over-stimulated. Oppositely,” Nardi adds, “extroverts spend less time processing data, have more activity and linkages in the front half of the brain, and are easily under-stimulated.”
So while there’s some debate as to whether the introvert-extrovert divide is an oversimplification, brain science nonetheless points to a spectrum anchored on either end by thinking patterns that are virtual mirror images of one another.
This means many extroverts enjoy traditional shout-it-out, put-it-up-on-the-board brainstorming. They like the stimulation; they like the speed of data processing. But introverts get overwhelmed by all the noise. Because introverts process data more slowly, they tend to get exhausted trying to keep up with all the ideas flying around, one after another. There’s no time to process them all.
Not only does the traditional brainstorm disadvantage introverts, it shortchanges your whole team–which is missing out on many of the ideas, or synthesis of ideas, that introverts can offer the whole group.
Fortunately, all it takes is putting in place some new rules that takes brainstorming from a free-for-all only extroverts can love to a truly collaborative process.
1. Let folks come and go. Not everyone has to be there all the time while the brainstorm is taking place. Different people have different tolerance levels for the process. Don’t force introverts to stay longer than they can be of use.
2. Invite introverts to show up later . . . Don’t force them all to arrive right in the beginning. Many extroverts talk out loud to figure out what they actually think. That can be really productive for them but exhausting and frustrating for introverts. Introverts often have to keep waiting for an extrovert to get to the point, and meanwhile they can’t think about their own ideas.
3. . . . even halfway through. It doesn’t hurt to let introverts show up in the middle of the session, after up to half of the time you’ve allotted has already gone by. That may sound like a lot, but as long as they’re using the same period to mull over their own ideas independently, it’s not a waste. Just make sure the introverts know it isn’t a free pass to opt out of the process. Instead, they’ll show up later on with their own thoughts better formed. And when they do, have someone give them a recap–which will in turn help the extroverts get their own ideas in order and refocus the session.
4. Impose a moment of silence . . . After the recap, declare a three-minute period of silent reflection for everybody to write down their thoughts. This will give the introverts a chance to process what they’ve heard. Then, when the brainstorm is opened up again, the newly joined introverts share their ideas first.
5. . . . then open the door again. The introverts don’t have to stay. They can leave at this point if they want.
6. Pause every 30 minutes. If there are introverts who want to stick around, halt the brainstorm every half hour and ask directly if they have anything to share. They don’t have to, but creating the space makes it much more likely you’ll get the benefit of their insights, too.
7. Bring all the introverts back in at the end. When the brainstorm is over, invite any introverts who’ve left back into the room to look over the notes on the board. Have the extroverts explain anything that’s confusing. Then ask the introverts to think about the topic overnight. As they process data more slowly, they may have some fresh ideas a day later.
8. Leave space on the whiteboard. The next morning, leave the brainstorm board open for the introverts (or anyone else who’s had an after-the-fact epiphany) to add in anything else they might’ve thought of.
9. Regroup. Bring everyone together for a facilitated discussion–not a free-for-all, and not a second full-fledged brainstorm–where all the ideas you’ve generated in the past 24 hours can get efficiently parsed, organized, and shaped into a plan your whole team can move forward with.
10. Give everyone a stake in the action that follows. Keep in mind that not all extroverts are the same. Some can brainstorm for days on end without ever coming up with a concrete goal. Other extroverts love to brainstorm, but their patience runs out after a while; they ultimately want to arrive at a decisive plan. Just like the introverts, these extroverts should be allowed to leave the session whenever they feel it isn’t going nowhere. But when it’s time to choose a course of action, they should be called back in after the introverts have added their thoughts.
Your brainstorm can afford to loosen up and adopt a revolving-door policy, with people coming and going. But once you’ve generated enough ideas, everyone has to come together again and forge ahead as a team.
Judah Pollack and Olivia Fox Cabane are the coauthors The Net and the Butterfly: The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking.