5 fiendish failures behind your veterinary hospital's lack of new ideas


Scary creatures and evil spirits are fine on Halloween night, but they have no place in your brainstorming sessions, where they're sure to terrorize team members and thwart fresh ideas. Know what to look for so you can exorcize the most disruptive devising demons.

For most of us, the arrival of Halloween evokes childhood memories of trick-or-treating, jack-o'-lanterns, ghosts, goblins, witches, black cats—and staying up late to watch horror movies like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street. Although the spooky traditions of "All Hallow’s Eve" aren't widely celebrated in the veterinary business world, brainstorming consultants Mitchell Rigie and Keith Harmeyer point out that those traditions can provide us with interesting metaphors and analogies for some of the challenges organizations often face when trying to generate new ideas and drive innovation.

The following pages feature five warning signs Rigie and Harmeyer that leaders and team members may be negatively affecting your practice's best thinking and creative problem-solving abilities—and what to do about it.

Read on … if you DARE!

1. Dungeon Masters run your brainstorming sessions"In an ideal world, the leader of a brainstorming group is inspiring, supportive, fair and open-minded,” says Rigie. "They encourage participation by creating a safe, supportive environment for sharing new and different types of ideas and perspectives."

"Unfortunately not every leader is so skillful, or puts the best interests of his or her group first," adds Harmeyer. "For every well-trained and masterful Yoda-like leader, there is a Darth Vader lurking in the conference room next door."

Rigie and Harmeyer explain that such "dark overlords of ideation" come in many different guises: Some possess dominating personalities that rule and control their teams instead of inspiring and guiding them; others demonstrate an insatiable appetite for more ideas and relentlessly pressure their team to produce without end.

"We once knew a Dungeon Master who would squash creativity in every brainstorming session," says Rigie. "At the start of the meeting, he would assert, 'You know how they say there’s no such thing as a bad idea? Well, that’s not true. There are bad ideas. Ideas so bad they should never be spoken out loud. … OK, so what have we got?' Needless to say, few participants had the courage to utter even one risky, unconventional and potentially innovative idea."

2. The specter of negativity and judgment looms in the air"That’s a dumb idea!" "We tried something like that before—it didn’t work!" "The boss will fire us for even suggesting a wild idea like that!" Sound familiar? That's the sound of fledgling ideas being massacred.

"Nothing will kill a group's idea generation efforts faster than negativity and judgment creeping into the session," says Rigie. "If participants' contributions are repeatedly shot down, they will quickly feel self-conscious about sharing their thinking for fear of being criticized or viewed as foolish."

How much negativity is finding its way into your brainstorming sessions? "It's the role of the leader to maintain an ego-free zone," says Harmeyer. "The most effective way to do that is to introduce a few 'rules of the game' before generating ideas."

Rigie and Harmeyer suggest establishing brainstorming rules. Here are some examples to get you started:

> Suspend all judgment.> There's no such thing as a bad idea.> Go for quantity over quality.> Shoot for wild, edgy ideas.> Nothing is impossible.

By having the group agree to such rules beforehand, you establish a safer, more open and supportive environment in which new and innovative ideas can emerge.

3. The brainstorming session feels like a torture chamberThe reason many brainstorming sessions feel like a veritable "house of pain" is because they are poorly planned, loosely structured, have ill-defined goals and include few if any fresh techniques to inspire new avenues of thinking. Untrained leaders who allow group discussions to meander aimlessly or fail to keep the group’s creative energy high only compound the agony.

"When enthusiasm plummets, participants' contributions slow to a trickle," says Rigie. "That's when those old, familiar ideas start getting recycled over and over again."

"Without big-picture planning, a sound process, active, well-trained leadership and idea-stimulating techniques, productive sessions are virtually impossible to achieve," says Harmeyer. "Efforts are expended in vain, time drags on and participants stagger out of the session feeling like the walking dead."

4. Toxic personalities show upThe attendee list for a brainstorming session dramatically affects the quality and productivity of the session. Not everyone you consider for brainstorming is capable of being a team player. In fact, some participants may even sabotage the group's efforts with fiendish attitudes and devilish behaviors. Here are a few of the potentially troublesome personality types Rigie and Harmeyer suggest you avoid inviting to your sessions:

> Attention vampires. They always want to stand out and be the center of attention. They'll suck the life out of the entire group.

> Wet blankets: These pessimists see flaws in every idea voiced and dampen the enthusiasm level in every session they attend.

> Dictators: They love every idea—as long as it's theirs. These totalitarians believe they're the only ones with good taste. Everyone else's contributions need to conform to theirs or risk being executed.

> Obstructionists: To them, nothing is simple or easy. They overcomplicate conversations and procedures, and bring up extraneous facts or considerations that derail the flow of the group.

Ward off evil influences. When considering your invite list, seek out individuals who possess a positive, can-do attitude and collaborative nature.

5. Carnage erupts in the idea selection processHow easily can your team identify and agree upon a breakthrough idea when it sees one? "Believe it or not, in many organizations, it's not as simple and straightforward as it may seem," says Rigie. "If a group fails to predetermine what criteria define a good idea before it's time to evaluate those ideas, the selection process can devolve into a messy, combative contest where promising ideas live or die based on the subjective assertions of dominating personalities, or the thumbs-up/thumbs-down whims of executive privilege."

To avoid this type of mayhem, Rigie and Harmeyer suggest predetermining a set of selection criteria—those specific characteristics, attributes or benefits a winning idea must possess to successfully address the challenge at hand.

"Just visualize as clearly as possible what the perfect solution or end result would look like," says Harmeyer. "Then consider what qualities an idea must have in order to achieve that visionary goal."

By avoiding these five fiendish traits of horrifically bad brainstorming sessions, you can be confident that game-changing ideas, not ghoulish demoralizers, will always be there when you need them.

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Angela Elia, BS, LVT, CVT, VTS (ECC)
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