Intercultural brainstorming – the deafening silence


Here’s how it typically goes. You’ve just taken over a multicultural team and you think a bit of brainstorming would be in order. Show the team right away that you believe in participatory leadership and that you value their opinions while at the same time getting some fresh insights into an issue you’re all facing. Teambuilding and innovation. Two birds with one stone and all that. What could go wrong? You set it up, get out the flipchart, and wait for the deluge of ideas you have confidently predicted. After all, it worked so well with the last team…

We all know where this scenario is going. Either dead silence or, far worse, dead silence from everyone except for one or two team members who seize the floor and spout forth until the snoring can be heard down the corridor. Often when people talk about difficulties in generating creativity and innovation in a team, what they are really talking about is how to get everyone around the table to speak up and contribute. The same when they say homogenous teams are more innovative than heterogeneous ones. The issue at heart here is that brainstorming and such exercises often reveal far more about cultural backgrounds than the ideas they are supposed to be generating. It’s a complicated, diverse world out there and we are all the better for it.

Some examples…

…In a hierarchical society (i.e. one with a high power orientation), brainstorming and the associated free offering of ideas go against everything the culture inculcates. ‘How can I comment on my manager’s ideas other than to praise them?’, asks the confused subordinate. ‘I’m supposed to have all the answers. If I ask for their opinions, what will they think?’ , asks the perplexed manager. Face and status are important factors in hierarchies, with ideas and decision-making processes typically being topdown.

…Sequential, linear active or reactive types will struggle to get a word in edgeways in a multicultural brainstorming session – if they wish to in the first place – while the synchronous, multi-active types burst forth with suggestions, interrupting each other and clamouring to be heard. The same if some team members are working in a language other than their native own.

…Team members from collectivistic cultures will hesitate to express their opinions in a whole group setting. They will first want to try out their thoughts on a colleague, and then build up consensus in ever larger groupings.

The list goes on and on, yet you need all these diverse voices to be heard in your multicultural team. After all, no matter how good at brainstorming your previous homogenous team might have been, if they were all thinking the same way, how truly innovative could they have been? And if you’re not getting everyone’s input, how much buy-in and support are you earning for any team projects?

Here are some simple tips for harnessing that diversity and getting the whole team to contribute in a brainstorming activity.

1) Clarify the purpose and the goals

Explain why you’re running the activity and what you’re hoping to get out of it. Show how everyone’s input will contribute to the team’s goals. Show how even the silliest ideas have improved processes or been adopted across the organisation or elsewhere.

2) Clarify the rules and processes

An essential item here is to underline the validity of any idea from anyone, and the coupled need to avoid criticism. You don’t want Belbin’s monitor-evaluator shouting down everything the plant offers. You don’t want the subordinate to finally offer up a suggestion only to be browbeaten back into silence by a more confident or superior type. I know of sessions in which members must say three good things about any suggestion before questioning it (and note – this is in the latter stages of the activity, not when ideas are being initially generated).

3) Plan the session and circulate the topic in advance

This will give the team members a chance to reflect and come up with some ideas before the session. There’s nothing like a spontaneous decision to run an impromptu brainstorming session to send inspiration running for the door. Maybe a few of the collectivistic members will discuss some ideas beforehand…

4) Give team members different ways to contribute

On paper (yes, HR’s beloved Post-Its on walls do actually work) and orally. In pairs, small groups, larger groups. It’s not a competition. Quantity is better than quality, certainly in the earlier stages.

5) Facilitate carefully

Ensure everyone is given the opportunity to contribute (and does). Ensure that native speakers or natural plant types do not dominate. A good suggestion here is to give people roles such as De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats (and actually bring hats along for a bit of visual fun). Watch how the team pessimist blossoms if you give them the positive yellow hat. As in a group training session, put yourself in the mix and get someone else to facilitate to build up trust (but then clearly take back leadership at the end of the activity). Make it fun.

6) Embed your team processes

Bad news – you’ll need to do this long before any brainstorming session. You need to build a climate of trust and respect so that when you do reach out for members’ input, they know they are operating in a safe and supportive environment. Build a climate which celebrates ideas. Use brainstorming sessions to extend and build on ideas, not just to generate new ones.

The above are some simple thoughts and tips to get your brainstorming sessions going. If you want to go into more depth, there are lots of more involved techniques such as Round-Robin brainstorming, Stepladder and Delphi methods, and all the rest. MindTools have some good ideas.

And what about you? What are your top tips to get team members from different cultures sharing and contributing freely?

About Julian King

Julian King is an international HR consultant and certified executive coach with a keen interest in intercultural matters.