Democracy and Brainstorming - a potentially toxic mix to project development.

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Co-authored with Erica Taylor

When you work in Scandinavia, you experience just how incredibly open the decision making process is. Meetings (and coffee) are in plentiful supply as project partners from across departments are continually brought in to provide input, and add steerage to a project. Democracy is rife. This is not only due to democracy’s strong historical roots in Scandinavia, but also due to competitive pressures from a globalized economy. “Work better across silos” and “crowdsourced solutions” has filled many a Linkedin post, and stock photos of honey bees link us to countless articles on ‘tapping the hive mind’. The value of knowledge sharing is indisputable whether your workplace is made up of twenty or twenty thousand. So what possibly could go wrong with all this democracy and sharing? Quite a lot actually. And quite often.

The problem is that people do not always know when to, how to, or even why they are using democratic processes. People simply respond to intrinsic and extrinsic pressure to apply them, but lack deeper reflection over them. In this article we will help you see how democracy supports or doesn’t support your idea development processes. We will take a look at one common scenario where the unreflected use of democracy backfires (The typical brainstorming session!) and offer advice on how to avoid it.

In order to see how democracy can become toxic, and how the subtle mechanisms in brainstorming malfunction, we need first to revisit the three basic developmental steps of any new project, strategy, product, policy, organisational structure, etc.:

Where are you right now?

Where do you want to go?

How do you get from one to the other?

The first step ‘where are you right now’ is not about brainstorming (ideation), but it is a crucial prerequisite for high quality ideation in the following two steps. Step one demands critical thinking. It requires you to consider and express what is happening right now, and how you got to where you are. By asking the right questions you can understand the different forces at play, the different interest groups, the relationships, and thus the drivers within the system that define the world, within which you currently operate. 

While democracy does not have to be applied in step one, it can here work for your benefit. Participants feel heard because they are heard. In the process of answering where are we now, you can easily invite other stakeholders and project partners to contribute. They will give their insight and opinions, thereby enabling you to build a richer, more nuanced understanding of your world. When you consolidate all of the relevant insight into one place, you create a single frame of reference. This frame will contain the points that are common to all participants, and important points of difference. By building this frame, you will come to know the group’s shared and opposing views on challenges and risks, along with its shared and opposing views on opportunities and threats. Furthermore, how each participant relates to the mirriad of interests, motives, needs, and wants that make up your ecosystem, will be highlighted. This is good old fashioned deconstruction. Thus, you can do it without mentioning a single new idea, new strategy, new policy, if that is what you prefer. Step one is brilliant for laying the foundation upon which the ideas arising from step two, can stand. While step one can be a challenge for many managers, it is here where the foundation for a successful ideation occurs. It is worth doing it right. 

Most people, however, rush through step one. People often do not even consider gathering input from a wide selection of view points to analyse where they are right now. Instead they focus their time exploring and brainstorming with others on where do you want to go? It is here where you and your team instantly start talking ideas, you explore the ‘what if’s’. It feels democratic. Great. But not so great if you skipped step one. 

Here is a closer look at how a poor, premature step two brainstorm session typically plays out: 

“I think we should make pink garden furniture this year”, your colleague says. This creative outburst doesn’t come from nowhere, it comes from somewhere. It comes from an insight that has been processed in the mind of the person that blurted it out. When asked, “‘Why not blue?”’ the pink-furniture-idea person will reach back to their own private mental model and refer to their own rationale, the one that favours pink over blue. Everyone can freely come with input about “where to go”. Most often, however, this democratised exploration of creative ideas (pink, blue, green, yellow furniture) happens without the single frame of reference that should be the outcome of step one.

Ideation processes without a step one to generate a single frame of reference lack anchoring. The ideas lack legs. The group performing ideation will thus lack a shared understanding of how precisely the suggested ideas relate back to the frame i.e, how ideas are rooted in how the group sees the world in which it operates. Thus, it is difficult to assess the ideas in a robust manner. In typical brainstorming sessions like this, “great ideas” are often determined by those that speak loudest or seemingly eloquent rationales, which don’t always result in the best evaluation of ideas. A process that felt so open and democratic when you were soliciting ideas, can rapidly turn non-transparent in the idea evaluation phase.

Furthermore, the group discussion of ideas will also go on to lack a deep examination of what part of reality (organisation, business model, etc) must be changed in order to bring an idea to life. This insight is a prerequisite for robust solutions thought-up in step three How do you get from one to the other?

So while typical brainstorm sessions feel democratic, the democracy is often a pseudo-democracy or down-right soured democracy. And given that many brainstorm sessions lack a single frame of reference, it is not surprising that people experience these sessions as ineffective and inefficient. A waste of time. When inefficient processes are repeated without learning, or when innovation is too slow, it poses a financial problem for companies and organisations. And it deeply frustrates employees. Not an outcome that good intentioned leaders aim for. 

So whether you are working in an agile development environment where you are encouraged to fail fast or a traditional workplace with waterfall processes, it makes more sense to base any development upon a shared, single frame of reference. 

Now that we have argued that step one, whether it is carried through via a democratic process or not, is a prerequisite for steps two and three, we want to turn your attention now to step two.  

Just because you run through step one together with your project partners, does not mean that you have to include them in step two. This is another place where you can draw the line in how you democratise the project. You may decide to include project partners in order to harvest their useful insights (step one), before having your quiet time away from the group to figure out, for example, a new strategy (step two). Doing so will still increase your opportunity to ideate and formulate a strategy that responds to step one’s collective insights concerning where you are right now.

By deciding from the very start how you want the steps to be ‘open’ and ‘closed’, means that you can control input throughout the whole process. For instance, if you have decided to include your project partners in step one, then during this initial step, any suggested ideas  around new strategies, policies, projects etc. can politely, yet firmly, be shown the hand. To enforce the distinction between step one and step two, you could remark, “Hold that thought for now, as we’re simply trying to understand where we are right now”.

Alternatively, you may want to, or even have to, involve project partners in the second step. In this case you will actively encourage partners to suggest ideas that will help define where you want to go. Again, you will be able to use the understanding created in step one, which is expressed as a single frame of reference, as a way to explore, test and validate all ideas that arise. As previously mentioned, it is crucial to determine and communicate in advance of steps one and two the process for deciding which ideas will go forward. It is also crucial to communicate clearly with partners about who is responsible for making final decisions. 

In project development, ideation or similar situations, a leader or a manager will need to be good at canvassing opinion, ideas, strategies etc. but must still be able to make decisions that potentially go against their team’s opinions. For example, one might say: “I hear you; I understand what you are saying, and I disagree on X, Y & Z. Therefore, I’ve decided that we’re going to do something different than what you suggest.” This response shows an understanding of the need to hear everyone’s opinions, but an acceptance of the leader’s role to make decisions. More importantly, it proves to the group that a leader’s decisions have been formed on an understanding of multiple views. It does not simply ignore them or let them dominate without a critical validation. Even though a leader may choose a different path, the team will feel their input contributed to qualifying the decided path.

And regarding step three, how to get from where you are now to where you want to go?, you will have better chances to get a good discussion of possibilities and the support of others for necessary action and change, if steps one and two are differentiated and well communicated.

We at Taylor + Tyler create spaces where we support knowledge sharing so that you can handle democracy to explore ideas in a democratic way, even when the final decision is not necessarily taken by the group. The deconstruction that we help you with allows your group to see and understand what your decisions are based on. We provide a service that works with you and your teams to create an incredibly rich and nuanced single frame of reference, so as to effectively enable you to explore, test and validate your ideas, strategies, policies, projects. Extremely fast.