Clear the Way for Breakthrough Teams

ArthurSmith_breakthrough teams April 29, 2021 By: Peter A. Arthur-Smith

Creative thinking that breaks new ground doesn’t just happen. Team leaders and facilitators need to create the right environment for curiosity to flourish and ideas to flow. Make sure your next idea forum includes three critical elements.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, an 18th-century English painter and philosopher, once said, “There’s no expedient to which a man will not go to evade the labor of thinking.” That’s a dim view of the human capacity for analysis and innovation, and it is not at all what I have experienced in facilitating leadership forums. In fact, I’ve found that when groups engage with each other in the right circumstances, there is every reason to expect some sort of creative breakthrough.

In the right meeting environment, it’s as if a “curiosity switch” is turned on in the participants, and ideas and questions begin to flow. Have you ever noticed what happens when a meeting ends with a great speaker? People flock to ask that speaker questions. Perhaps their genie has been let out of the bottle. What is it that turns their curiosity and creative processes on?

In my experience, it comes down to three critical elements of meeting facilitation: security, relevance, and two-way communication.

Security. With the right group leader or facilitator, participants develop a feeling of safety. They feel that they can open up without being castigated, shouted down, or dismissed by others. They find comfort in the fact that they’re not alone: They’re sharing a common experience with like-minded individuals. To create and maintain this environment, the leader or facilitator needs to declare upfront that all questions and ideas will be heard, even if they seem half-baked. Many half-baked ideas have eventually delivered great breakthroughs. 

The meeting facilitator needs to declare upfront that all questions and ideas will be heard, even if they seem half-baked. Many half-baked ideas have eventually delivered great breakthroughs.

Relevance. It’s important that participants are engaged with a topic that is meaningful and beneficial to them and their colleagues. Too often, people are summoned to meetings only to find the subject matter is different than expected. At the beginning of a meeting, an astute facilitator will ask participants to share their expectations and will document them in a simple bullet list on a whiteboard or flip chart (or digital equivalent in virtual meetings). These can be referred to throughout the session and at the end to assess whether participants’ expectations were met.

Two-way communication. In one-way listening sessions, unless the leader is exceptional, participants’ minds will begin to wander after about 10 to 15 minutes. Participants are much more likely to remain engaged with two-way sessions, where they can compare thoughts and share their experiences with others sooner rather than later. The more provocative and lively the topic, the greater the stimulation, and then the ideas will start flowing. This is where the rule that all pertinent ideas will be explored becomes critical.

These three key elements set the stage for creative breakthroughs. The other important factor is the size of the group, which should be limited for best results. In my experience, a group engaged in creative thinking should have no more than seven participants, including the team leader, and the people involved should bring diverse perspectives to spark truly innovative ideas.

If you’re seeking breakthrough thinking, assemble the right group, give them a safe environment, ensure the issue being explored is relevant and challenging, and provide the maximum opportunity for participants to interact. When you start the session off by confirming expectations and requiring that all relevant ideas be heard, the chances are excellent that the group will become a breakthrough team.

Peter A. Arthur-Smith

Peter A. Arthur-Smith is founding principal with Leadership Solutions, Inc., in New York City, and author of "Smart Decisions: Goodbye Problems, Hello Options."