Why the photo above? Because that’s what it felt like when my boss ran idea meetings.
I was an editor at a business magazine owned by a venerable publisher. Twice a month, my boss—the editor-in-chief—would gather our 25-member team around a conference table and say, “Let’s hear some original story ideas today! Who wants to go first?”
Some poor slob would take the bait. But as soon as he or she began talking about an idea, others would attack it. “Our competitor is already doing that,” someone might say, or “That’s going to be expensive.” The boss’s top lieutenants were always first to draw blood; underlings would peck at the carcasses.
With the rest of us shaking in our seats, my boss would say, “Who’s next?”
How I Nearly Got Fired for Questioning This Approach
If this seems familiar, you already know the worst part: Meetings run this way are laughably unproductive. In our case, if we were lucky, my boss would greenlight two ideas, but frequently we got none. From 25 people!
Around the same time, I took an improv acting class. As Tina Fey says, the first rule of improv is “Agree.” Whatever your partner does, you accept and build on it. Amazingly, some of the best scenes started with ideas that, at first, seemed undeniably lame.
In other words, this was a completely different philosophy about great ideas:
The way my improv teachers saw it, an idea becomes great only after you fully commit to it, with no initial judgment whatsoever.
One day, my boss was going around the conference table, calling on us one by one. When he got to me, though, I decided to make a request. I couldn’t ask for blind commitment from my colleagues, but maybe I could get something close.
“How about,” I asked, “if I say my idea, and then, instead of debating whether it’s good or not, we just move on to the next person?”
My boss’s face turned purple. He called an immediate halt to the meeting and marched me into his office, where he yelled at me for what seemed like an eternity.
“How dare you!” he screamed. “You collect great ideas by letting everyone attack the f*ck out of them. If they survive, they’re great. This is how it’s been done for decades at this company. Who do you think you are?”
I walked back to my desk, fully expecting to be fired. But later that day, my boss sent an email to the team.
“Would someone else like to run our next idea meeting?”
Five seconds later, I was back in his office. He said he wanted to try a new approach.
Our New Format for Idea Meetings
We couldn’t just implement the improv model, because committing to an idea in business is costly. Also, unlike improv, there’s hierarchy — my boss wanted control, and rightly so: His ass was on the line if our ideas succeeded or failed in a way that the rest of our asses weren’t.
Still, I wondered:
Could we create space in which ideas could breathe — if only for a little while?
Here’s the new format we came up with together:
- Before the meeting starts, each person writes a headline for their idea on the white board.
- One by one, we each speak about our idea for 90 seconds, uninterrupted. (As I write this, 90 seconds seems so short. But it was an eternity relative to how quickly we were routinely cut off.)
- After 90 seconds, anyone can ask you a clarification question.
- Once all ideas have been aired, each person votes for their 3 favorite ideas.
- Our boss, seeing the voting results but not bound by them, assigns ideas for execution.
A 10x Jump in Executable Ideas—and Other Benefits
From the moment we started running meetings this way, there were a bunch of benefits:
- We got 5–10x the number of executable ideas
The first time we adopted the new format, my boss assigned 10 ideas for execution. That was 5x what we previously achieved on our most productive days, and 10x what we did on average. In addition, my boss would explain why he assigned each idea, so we could incorporate that learning when coming up with ideas the next time. With the new format, he consistently greenlit between 5 and 12 ideas.
- More ideas got aired
In the old format, we sometimes spent half the meeting debating a single idea. Time would run out, so many ideas never saw the light of day. With ideas cataloged on the board ahead of time, we got to hear them all.
- The mood was way more positive
Instead of feeling attacked, most people felt supported. Of course, if you introduced a truly sucky idea, no one voted for it and it didn’t get assigned. More often, though, what seemed like a bad idea would look a lot better after the clarification questions. So the group actually made ideas better. (Which is really the point. Otherwise, why have a meeting?)
And I became more or less popular, depending on whom you asked
Not everyone loved the new format. My boss’s lieutenants, in particular, were furious. After all, they’d been robbed of their idea-attacking licenses. (Of course they would regularly abuse the clarification questions — “Can you clarify why this idea doesn’t suck?” — but their mood-dampening effect was limited.) Also, the new format forced everyone to introduce an idea. So if you used to lay back and hide in the shadows, you weren’t very happy.
But for me and for many others, idea meetings became something we looked forward to.
As for my boss, he would occasionally tweak the format, thinking that if we did it the same way over and over, people would get bored. And he had the unenviable task of having to deal with those grumbling lieutenants. But he seemed to agree it was worth it. One day he pulled me into his office and said, “Nice work.”