As published in Fast Company by Duncan Wardle
“Please place your phone in ‘cell phone jail’ before you take your seat!”This was something my teams heard me say often during my time as head of innovation and creativity at Disney. And I took it very seriously. “Cell phone jail” was no cute euphemism; I drew a real spot on the floor with a dry-erase marker. My own phone was always “captured” as the first prisoner, frown emoji and all. I was adamant about my colleagues giving up their cell phones. It sent a signal to each attendee telling them it’s not enough to be physically present in this room—you must be mentally and emotionally present, too. I’ve talked before about how signaling is one of the four keys to unlocking better brainstorming sessions. And with something as simple as a “cell phone jail,” I reset the tone of the entire meeting. By doing so, I was able to consistently cultivate innovative ideas.
If you want to leverage the power of signaling and nurture the very best ideas from your teams, consider these points before your brainstorms.
DITCH DULL MEETING TITLES
That title field on your calendar invite? It wields more power than you can possibly imagine. “Quarterly sales presentation” doesn’t exactly jolt you to life, right? Your team probably feels the same. The word “presentation” signals to attendees that you’re going to talk, and they’re going to zone out.
Why not signal the tone you’re seeking from the very beginning with the title of your meeting? At Disney, we gave our brainstorming meetings a fresh spin by calling them “creative couch” sessions. Anyone could share examples of creativity they’d seen outside the entertainment industry in the last month, and you’d be amazed how many ideas we rolled with that tied back to those sessions. Besides this, I host loads of virtual “webinizers,” or online training workshops (because let’s face it, who actually wants to attend another webinar?).
LAY OUT YOUR SPACE WITH INTENTION
While seemingly innocuous, the conference table in your meeting room also signals that this is a situation to be judged, which is fine if you’re competing for a record deal on national television. But if you’re trying to nurture great ideas from your team, you need to signal that you’re all working toward a common goal.
By creating a space dedicated to expansionist (or divergent) thinking, you signal you’re looking for moonshot ideas. Find a place to set up a small circle of chairs all facing one another, or take your meeting outside and sit together on some grass. By eliminating tables and other barriers that separate you from your team, you’re signaling a collaborative environment—not a judgmental one. This could also be as simple as inviting local artists to paint a “greenhouse” space, remove any boardroom tables, and decorate using a green theme. Name the room The Greenhouse, and its main use could be to grow and nurture expansionist ideas.
TURN PRESENTATIONS INTO COLLABORATIVE JOURNEYS
Even in group brainstorming sessions, there’s usually information that needs to be presented at the start. But as we discussed earlier, presentations send the wrong signal to your team, inviting them to zone out as you ramble on. With this, try rethinking how you present information.
One of the best signaling tricks I learned during my time at Disney was one developed by Walt Disney himself. A perpetual storyteller, Disney turned every presentation he gave into a journey. By placing any materials he wished to share along the walls, he could literally walk through ideas with his team. In doing so, Disney went from presenting an idea that would instinctively be judged to building an idea collaboratively with whoever was in the room. His idea suddenly became their idea, all because they worked on it together as they traversed the room.
CAREFULLY CURATE YOUR LANGUAGE
Language has power and meaning, especially when it comes to signaling. In my consulting experience, I can say with certainty that most businesses kill ideas way too quickly. Ideas are like two similar-looking seeds: Generally, there’s no way to tell which one is a flower and which is a weed until they start growing.
To avoid killing ideas too quickly, use specific language that signals desired behavior. For example, in sessions where my goal is to generate as many new ideas as possible, I frequently remind everyone that we’re greenhousing ideas, not green-lighting them. This removes pressure and opens people up to share ideas they normally wouldn’t. Another powerful language signal is “yes, and . . .” A common tool in improv comedy is the concept of, “yes, and . . .,” which prevents ideas from dying prematurely. To implement it within your company, instruct a room that “yes, and . . .” is the only acceptable response. For example, if someone suggests offering a 90-day free trial, instead of receiving an idea-killing response (“no, that’s too expensive”), your team must nurture it instead (“yes, and we could build a marketing funnel that follows up after 90 days”). Rest assured, your team has great ideas. Unfortunately, many never see the light of day. With a few strategic signals, you can dramatically change the tone of your next meeting, creating an environment that cultivates the very best ideas your team has to offer.