How to amplify the quiet ones

Introverts in your team never fight for the blue marker pen in brainstorming sessions. They leave it to the extroverts to occupy the whiteboard, the sharing of ideas and the debate. Consequently, organisations wind up with a shallower pool of ideas.

Voluminous and loud does not mean most intelligent or insightful, but too often the same dominant few control the proceedings.

Over time, this breeds a dangerous process that winnows out the introverts, thus entertaining a narrow band of ideas produced by the noisy minority. So, how do we unleash the full power of the introverts, who neither bark nor bite? This issue is especially important in Japan, where the culture drives modesty, anonymity and teishisei (keeping a low profile).

The “Think and Write” approach is a great tool for toning down the competition to rule the airwaves. Instead of sponsoring a street-fight of ideas, we start with stony silence.

Have team members write down their ideas on the topic on adhesive notes, and encourage everyone to pump those notes out like confetti: as many as possible in the time allotted. The extroverts, those with a dominant Type A personality, and the senior managers in the room are reduced in power, as we create silent space for ideas from all.

Having done some thinking on the subject, we might call on specific individuals to nominate their ideas. These can then be transferred to a whiteboard so that everyone can follow the idea milieu.

It is a good approach to start the ball rolling with the introverts. They have nowhere to hide now because they have written something down, and are not going to be embarrassed by a poverty of input. The extroverts can bring up the idea rearguard, adding any points that have been missed.

Detailed pre-meeting agendas are also a great aid to idea generation. Turning up at a brainstorming session and showing brilliance may be a bit tricky if you have never dwelled deeply on the topic, or tried to plumb the depths of a business conundrum.

A bit of context around the problem always helps, as does an indication of what we are trying to achieve from the exercise.

With this agenda distributed well beforehand, everyone will have had time to gather their thoughts. The extroverts may not need much time because they are ad-hoc types, but it is likely that the introverts will appreciate some space.

Try to schedule brainwork for the mornings. The vast majority of people are fresher in the morning than in the afternoon, especially after lunch. It may also be a good idea to provide lunch—and make it light.

Do not always assume you have to carry out the whole brainstorming exercise in one gulp. A rolling feast of sessions to generate ideas may work very well, as the team cooks the ideas slowly and more thoughtfully.

Taking breaks throughout can also be effective. Concentration spans vary and regular rest breaks—for the mind and body—may help to increase both the number and quality of ideas that emerge. We can get caught up in the time schedule and just keep pushing on, but our deeper thinkers may need more frequent breaks.

Working in small groups can also allow some sunlight to fall on the introvert undergrowth, rather than solely on the rowdy redwoods. If we appoint a facilitator to each small group, and assign them to elicit ideas from all parties, then we will see more participation by shyer team members.

The speed with which ideas are created, and that with which they are divulged will differ, because some people internalise information—carefully analyse, sift, sort and shape it—before they offer up their thought morsels to the masses. So, provide plenty of time for mental processes to run their course.

It is important to allow no criticism of ideas at the generation stage. If you want to silence an introvert forever, just say their idea is “rubbish”. By doing so, you would cancel their idea ticket right there, because they—and all their introverted buddies who are watching—will withdraw from the fray and leave the spoils to the extroverts.

We want as many crazy ideas as possible in stage one. My dumb idea might trigger a brilliant idea by you, but we need that trigger to make it happen.

Marshall the full brainstorming power of the team by planning for it. Unleash the introverts, the shy and the timid by providing a path of innovation for them to tread.