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Ways to encourage brainstorming among team members

Finance departments need creative problem-solving now more than ever.
Ways to encourage brainstorming among team members

Creativity within finance teams is an essential competitive edge in an ever-changing market.

“The livelihood of any organisation rests in the capabilities of its finance teams. And for any organisation to thrive in today’s marketplace, it must embrace change and innovation — or else get replaced by organisations that do,” said Loren Margolis, CEO and founder of Training & Leadership Success LLC, a global firm based in New York City that specialises in leadership training and executive coaching.

That’s why Margolis said it’s vital for finance leaders to instil creativity in their teams by encouraging them to think differently. One way to do that is by brainstorming, a method of generating innovative solutions through group discussions.

“Brainstorming is best used when ideas are needed, when a new approach is required and old approaches are not working any longer,” said Randall Peterson, an organisational behaviour professor at the London Business School, where he’s the academic director of the Leadership Institute. “It also requires people to really understand the problems you are trying to solve, so more effort in creating that clarity is really useful.” 

Here are some tips on how to encourage brainstorming:

Start alone. Team members are likely to benefit more from sessions if they spend time alone beforehand focusing on their own ideas, Peterson said. And writing them down will help members remain clear on their thoughts when meeting with the group.

“Once team members hear other people’s ideas, they tend to build off of them, which is good for developing that idea but results in fewer original ideas for the group,” Peterson said. “The risk is that the idea from the first person to speak dominates the group discussion, resulting in variations on one theme for the group rather than many original ideas.”

Alone time helps build confidence in the ideas, so people shouldn’t second-guess by holding back or editing them. “They should share everything with their team members and let them suggest which ones are interesting to pursue or build on,” Peterson said. “They oftentimes see things that you don’t in terms of core value to an idea.”

Set the tone. Feeling comfortable during brainstorming sessions is key, and being open-minded to everyone’s ideas helps. Don’t disregard ideas that are deemed impractical, Margolis said.

“To encourage creativity in your teams, leaders need to set the tone first by implementing the important rule that no idea is right or wrong. Taking a noninterventionist approach will create psychological safety in your team,” said Margolis, who spent nearly a decade as a leadership coach and trainer for accounting and finance graduate students at Columbia Business School.

When people aren’t being judged, she said, they’re more likely to share their inner thoughts and off-the-wall ideas, which could lead to innovative solutions.

Summarise the session. Research shows it’s beneficial to create a document of everyone’s ideas after a brainstorming session, said Peterson, who consults with and teaches for companies worldwide, including PwC and Deutsche Bank.

“This encourages everyone to think more about the problem, to work from others’ ideas,” he said. “And for the introverts, this gives them a chance to do this alone, when they are at their best, rather than verbally, where they are at their most stressed.”

Create brainstorming boards. Encourage ongoing brainstorming by hanging a whiteboard in a conference room where team members can write their challenges and obstacles, seeking feedback from peers, Margolis suggested. It can even be anonymous.

Throughout the week, co-workers can jot down ideas for tackling an issue, and by Friday, there will be a list of possible solutions to consider.

“A brainstorming board sets the expectation that team members are expected to help each other innovate and solve problems,” Margolis said. “And it gives the members of your team a safe, anonymous platform — you can even disguise your handwriting when you write on the board — to ask for advice.”

Go digital. Brainstorming doesn’t have to take place in formal meetings. Online or mobile tools such as instant messaging or Slack, a cloud-based team collaboration tool, can be used for quick, 15-minute sessions, Margolis said.

“By making these tools available for spontaneous brainstorming,” she said, “team members don’t have to wait for an official session to solve problems.”

Anslee Wolfe is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.