5 Ways to Make Brainstorming More Creative

Brainstorming sessions have become standard fare for ministry teams that seek solutions to problems. The two key rules are to generate as many ideas as possible and don’t criticize the ideas. These concepts came from Alex Osborne’s book Your Creative Power published in 1948. Since then it’s been common practice to avoid criticizing the ideas in brainstorming sessions. The underlying assumption was that people won’t speak up if they fear criticism. There’s only problem with this kind of brainstorming is this: it simply doesn’t work. In this post I explain why it doesn’t and give 5 ways to make brainstorming more creative.

Multiple studies have shown that groups who use standard brainstorming rules generate less ideas than do individuals (Lehrer, 2012). In other words, when posed with the same problem, individuals consistently generate more possible solutions to a problem than do groups. When I learned this I was shocked because I’ve always applied these two basic rules in brainstorming sessions with my teams.

So based on the latest research, I’ve listed below 5 ways we stifle creativity and the antidote to each.

  • Stiflling…Discourage dissent. Don’t allow anyone to debate or criticize an idea in a brainstorming session.
    • Antidote: encourage friendly debate and healthy criticism. Set up rules beforehand, though, such as don’t personally attack people, clarify before criticizing, use phrases like I have a different view, etc.
  • Stiflling…Make the group an all boys club.
    • Antidote: include women because they, in general, have greater empathy skills and emotional intelligence and can offer unique perspectives.
  • Stiflling…Only includes your BFF’s (best friends forever).
    • Antidote: include in your brainstorming team both people with longstanding relationships and newbies. One study found that the creative teams behind the most successful Broadway musicals included people who had known each other a long time and newbies (Ellenberg, 2012).
  • Stiflling…If you are the leader, telegraph your views at the beginning of your brainstorming session.
    • Antidote: if you’re leading the session, be as neutral as possible or you may hinder some people from sharing a good idea because it may conflict with yours. And, most people don’t like to disagree with their leader.
  • Stiflling…Make the brainstorming session a serious, linear, logical experience.
    • Antidote: make the session fun, out of the box, and as rule free as possible. Encourage individual idea generation, counter intuitive ideas, and mind wandering. Mind wandering often produces some of our greatest insights (Christoff et al., 2009).

What have you discovered that encourages creativity in your team in brainstorming sessions?

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Sources:

Christoff, K., Gordon, A.M., Smallwood, J., Smith, R. & Schooler, J.W. (2009) Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (21), pp.8719-8724.

Ellenberg, J. (2012) Six Degrees of Innovation. Slate. Available from: [Accessed 9 May 2013].

Lehrer, J. (2012) Groupthink. The New Yorker. Available from: [Accessed 25 February 2013].

5 Signs that you Need to Quit Something

Quitters never win and winners never quit was drilled into my mind at an early age. I believed it. I practiced it. I lived it. I only quit one thing in my life before age 18, my high school football team. I quit because I sat on the bench 99.976% of the time. Since, then, however, I’ve questioned the veracity of that phrase, as catchy as it may sound. And recently I heard a concept that further spurred my thinking about quitting – strategic quitting. What is strategic quitting and why should pastors and leaders practice it? In this post I define strategic quitting and suggest 5 signs that you need to quit something.

First, a definition of strategic quitting. Strategic quitting is thoughtfully and carefully quitting a program, ministry, or initiative that simply is not working, has become staid, is disproportionately  sucking up resources, or simply needs to go. In contrast to reactive quitting, quitting when things simply get harder, strategic quitting is not a spur of the moment knee-jerk reaction to difficulty. Rather it is a measured decision carefully made.

It’s a concept so essential that leadership expert Seth Godin even wrote a book about about it, The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to QuitHe says, “Strategic quitting is the secret of successful organizations.”

Unfortunately, strategic quitting isn’t easy because of a phenomenon called the ‘sunk-cost bias.’ The ‘sunk cost bias’ is a mental trap we can easily fall into. Because we have invested so much time and energy into a project, we would feel like a failure if we nixed it. In reality, many such projects need to go. Read more about this bias here.

So what are some benefits of strategic quitting?

4 benefits of strategic quitting…

  1. It can release resources (your time, staff or volunteer time, and money) for other projects and initiatives with greater potential for material, spiritual, or organizational payoff.
  2. It can remove the perpetual drip, drip, drip of regret that has nagged your soul and emotions for months (or even years).
  3. It can boost your leadership in the eyes of others when they see you muster the courage to nix that ‘elephant’ that most everybody felt should have gone long ago.
  4. It can develop a key quality great leaders embody, humility. It’s humbling to admit that a project you may have started just doesn’t work anymore, or never did.

If you think you may need to strategically quite something, how do you know?

5 signs that indicate you need to strategically quit something…

  1. When in your soul you know it needs to go. Perhaps you’ve often wrestled with this ‘thing’ in your mind and you never can seem to get peace about it. Is God saying, “Now’s the time?”
  2. When those you trust hint that it needs to go. Have influencers in your circle raised the issue from time to time? Have they suggested that the ‘thing’ needs to go?
  3. When in your mind’s eye as you envision it gone you sense deep relief. As you’ve thought about it and imagined it no longer a burden, do you feel like a weight is off your shoulders? How much influence should you allow this subjectivity play in your decision?
  4. When you sense the Lord prompting you to strategically quit. In your quiet moments with the Lord, do you sense Him releasing you from it? Have you spent time praying about it?
  5. When you begin to really dislike the ‘thing.’ Perhaps your attitude has soured on it and constantly confessing your attitude doesn’t change it. Maybe this is God’s way of saying, “It needs to go.”

Knowing when to strategically quit can be tricky. Our emotions can powerfully influence decisions, sometimes in the wrong direction. But when your heart, your influencers, and the Lord seem to all say, “Stop the thing,” maybe it’s time to.

As you read this post, what ‘thing’ in your ministry or organization came to mind that you potentially need to strategically quit?

If some program or initiative did come to mind, what steps do you need to take to discern if you need to quit it?

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Top 10 Healthy Ways to Handle the Church Critic

One well-worn adage goes, “The two things you can’t avoid in life are death and taxes.” I’d  suggest one more adage for those in ministry. “Two things you can’t avoid in ministry are…people late to the service and … church critics.” In this short post I suggest 10 ways to handle the church critic.

Having served in full-time ministry for 35 years, I’ve experienced my share of critics. I’ve responded well to some and not-so-well to others. When I’ve sensed a good heart from the critic, I tend to respond with more grace. And, I’ve learned to appreciate this advice from Abraham Lincoln. “He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.

10 healthy ways to respond to my critics (actually 9, I’d love to hear your 10th).

  1. Give them your ear, but within reason. Don’t allow someone to destroy you with caustic criticism.
  2. Let your body language communicate that you are really trying to understand their criticism.
  3. Avoid an immediate retort such as, “Yea but,” “You’re wrong,” or some other defensive response.
  4. Breath this silent prayer, “Lord, give me grace to respond and not react.”
  5. Before responding, take a few moments to check what you’re about to say. President Lincoln suggested that we when we get angry we should count to 100 before responding. That may a bit of overkill, but counting helps us avoid reacting.
  6. Look for the proverbial ‘grain of truth’ in the criticism, and learn from it.
  7. If you see more than a grain of truth and you can’t process it alone, seek feedback from a safe person in your life. (see my post on What to Look for in a Safe Person).
  8. Ask God to keep you approachable to your critics (within reason). You probably don’t want to vacation with them.
  9. Learn from your critics on how best to deliver criticism to others. When someone delivers criticism that you received well, ask yourself what they did that made it easer to receive. For those who botched it, remember to avoid those tactics.
  10. …… what would add as a tenth?

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Are you a Bogie or a Birdie Leader?

I must confess upfront that I don’t play golf. I’ve only played it once, unless you count dinosaur carpet golf our family often played while on vacation. However, several years ago my father-in-law tried to interest me in the sport. He gave me a set of nice used clubs. But, I never used them. Three years later he asked me how my game was going. Chagrined, I had to admit that I never played with them. He asked me to give them back to him (he really did). Although I don’t play the game, I know a few key terms such as birdie, bogey, and par. A golfer scores a birdie when he sinks the ball in one less stroke than par. He scores a bogie when he sinks it one stroke over par. So what do birdies and bogies have to do with leadership?

They provide a compelling visual metaphor for how some leaders miss great opportunities (birdies) because they act like bogey leaders. Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed over 2.5 million putts from the top 20 golfers on the PGA tour in 2007 and made a surprising discovery.[1] Prompted by fear of a ‘bogey,’ these golfers often played it safe in tournaments. Their fear resulted in an average one-stroke loss per 72-hole tournament with a combined annual loss of $1.2 million in potential prize money. “The agony of a bogey seem(ed) to outweigh the thrill of a birdie.”[2]

This dynamic, called loss or risk aversion, occurs when fear of loss stifles our attempts at gain. As a result, that fear can cause us to miss opportunities because we lead (or golf) too conservatively. In fact, our brains seem to be wired this way. Two thirds of the cells in the fight-flight structures of our brain (the amygdala) are wired to look for potential bad news. Personal experience tells us that we tend to more easily remember bad things than good. And we more quickly form bad impressions of others than good ones. Unfortunately, some leaders give in to this tendency too easily and make leadership decisions to avoid loss instead of achieving gain.

So what can a leader do to minimize risk aversion?

I suggest what I call the 3-C approach to minimize it: counsel, certainty, and confidence.

  • Counsel: seek it. When you feel you’re about to play it safe when faced with an important decision, seek counsel from wise people. You might choose your staff, your board, a close friend, or a coach. Often input from an objective person can give us what we need to pull the trigger, or not. The writer of Proverbs encourages us to do this. Plans go wrong for lack of advice; many advisers bring success. (Prov 15.22, NLT)
  • Certainty: get it. Our brains love certainty.[3] We want to know what lies just around the corner. But often we have no control over the future. Every decision brings with it some uncertainty because we can’t guarantee most outcomes. In response to uncertainty, the flight-fight part of our brain secretes chemicals that prompt the fear emotion, a big de-motivator. That’s where faith must come in. Faith is essentially confidence in the One who is most certain, God Himself. To overcome this fear prompted by the uncertainty of decision-making, we must place our confidence in the one thing we can be sure of, God’s faithfulness. He’ll give us that extra boost of certainty we need to make the decision.
  • Courage: live it. Courage counters fear. It doesn’t remove it. When fear rises before a decision, perhaps it’s a sign that we’re on the right track. Mark Twain said it well when he wrote, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear. John Wayne, the venerable cowboy of cowboys offers great advice when fear prompts us to avoid a reasonable risk, “Courage is being scared to death – but saddling up anyway.”

So the next time you face a leadership decision and fear attempts to derail you, consider what you could lose if you don’t move forward and saddle up anyway. Don’t bogey your decision. Birdie it instead.

How would you describe most of the leaders you know, bogie or birdie leaders?


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[1] David G Pope and Maurice E. Schweitzer, Is Tiger Woods Loss Averse? Persistent Bias in the Face of Experience, Competition, and High Stakes (2007), http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/papers/download/101009_Pope_Schweitzer_Final_with_Names_10_2009.pdf, accessed 1/8/12.

[2] Avoiding the Agony of a ‘Bogey’: Loss Aversion in Gold—and Business, Knowledge @ Wharton, (11/11/09), http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=2380, accessed 1/8/12.

[3] David Rock, “Managing with the Brain in Mind,Strategy+Business, 56, (2009), http://www.davidrock.net/files/ManagingWBrainInMind.pdf, accessed 1/9/12.

6 Brain Barriers to Healthy Church Change

Healthy change is necessary for any church, ministry, or business to thrive. However, leaders often run into invisible brain barriers when they attempt change. Ignoring them can slow or stonewall a change. Since neuroscientists are now rapidly learning amazing new insights about the brain, it behooves us to learn about how our brains respond to change. The next time you plan a change initiative, consider how you might lessen the effects of these brain barriers that can stifle healthy church change.

6 Brain Barriers that Stifle Healthy Church Change

  1. Brain Barrier 1: Undoing a bad impression is harder than creating a good one. It’s the “you don’t have a second chance to make a good first impression” adage. Neuroscientists have found that to be true. It’s not just an old wives’ tale (Lount et al., 2008). Poorly introduced change will start your change on the wrong footing.
  2. Brain Barrier 2: People initially assume the worst. Your brain is wired to pick up the negative more than the positive. In fact, 2/3 of the brain cells in the flight-fight part of your brain, the amygdala, are wired to pick up on what’s wrong rather than on what’s right (Hanson, 2010). Our brains have a built-in negativity bias. People will initially latch onto potential negatives of your change rather than onto the positives.
  3. Brain Barrier 3: The brain can only handle so much change at once. Trying to create too much change too quickly increases the brain’s fear response and will hinder that change (Hemp, 2009).
  4. Brain Barrier 4: People will fill in knowledge gaps about your change with fear. Change causes uncertainty about the future which in turn breeds fear. And when the brain senses fear, it doesn’t like it. It will act out of that fear which dampens the brain’s ability to think clearly. The less information you provide about your change initiative, the more others will fill in the knowledge gaps with their negative assumptions. As a result, they’ll be more fearful and more resistant to change.
  5. Brain Barrier 5: People underestimate their ability to weather difficult future events (Wilson & Gilbert, 2005). Uncertainty causes us to poorly forecast how well we can face the difficulties that changes might bring. The term is called “affective forecasting.” When you present change, others will often initially assume that life will be worse for them because of your change.
  6. Brain Barrier 6: Emotions play a significant role in decision-making and influence how well others will embrace change. Just presenting facts about your change without engaging positive and hopeful emotions about the future will seldom move it forward.

What barriers have you seen from others when you’ve introduced change?

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References:

Hanson, R. (2010) Confronting the Negativity Bias [Internet]. Available from: <http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/your-wise-brain/201010/confronting-the-negativity-bias> [Accessed 31 January 2013].

Hemp, P. (2009) Death by Information Overload – Harvard Business Review [Internet]. Available from: <http://hbr.org/2009/09/death-by-information-overload/ar/1> [Accessed 20 March 2013].

Lount, R.B., Zhong, C.-B., Sivanathan, N. & Murnighan, J.K. (2008) Getting Off on the Wrong Foot: The Timing of a Breach and the Restoration of Trust. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34 (12), pp.1601-1612.

Wilson, T.D. & Gilbert, D.T. (2005) Affective Forecasting. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14 (3), pp.131-134.