Moments when the silence was heavy, it was difficult to not jump in and lead or rescue everyone from the awkward tension in the room. The silence was difficult to endure as a leader. The questions seemed so clear, the answers seemed too obvious. How did the team have nothing to say?
They all looked down at their papers as if the answer was written there for them. I bit my tongue and took a deep breath. I coached myself, “Wait. Give them time. They have something to say. Give them space.” It was hard. Every second seemed like an hour. I tried to use the clock to better measure time. “Wait until the second-hand hits 12.”, I continued to manage myself.
Finally, someone spoke up. It was a question, “So…. what are you wanting us to answer?”, the participate nervously prodded. Oh my goodness, I could explode. Where was I failing as a leader? How was I unclear? What was not communicated?
I had just spent the last 10 minutes working intentionally to keep the message short and sweet. I presented the problem and asked for solutions. What was so complex. I mustered up the patience to answer calmly, “Well, XYZ is the problem and we are looking for ideas, suggestions, and solutions anyone might have.”
Another round of painful silence. The team looked at each other with their heads down, making eye contact from the side of their eyes. The tension was thick. You could hear the quiet whirl of the air conditioner and the ticking of the old fashioned clock on the wall.
I personally could think of three different ways we could tackle this, but I wanted the team to talk! I wanted it to be their idea and for them to be part of the solution. They were always critical and dramatic about how their ideas were not heard. Have an idea! Please! It was mind-boggling as a leader… why didn’t they talk?
I had an idea…. I needed to lighten the energy in the room. I needed to make it more of a game and get them out of their heads.
I left to go get the bag of candy I had just bought for the entryway and grab markers and post-it notes. I came back and wrote the problem on the board. I made three large boxes under the problem for
- 5-star great idea
- 3-star good idea
- 1-star idea
I challenge the team to write a minimum of 3 ideas on post-it notes. When they were done we would go around the room three times and read one idea per person. The team would vote 5, 3 or 1. The idea would go in the category where it had the most votes and the idea creator would get 5, 3 or 1 piece of candies to match. They would have 5 minutes to write the 3 post-it ideas.
The team listened hard to understand, digest and follow the rules of the game. While they didn’t all eat candy, the sudden prize and competition on the table helped. Something shifted as the pressure of finding that one magical and perfect idea left. Now they just had to come up with three ideas. Most grabbed for the markers, while some choose to use their pen. I felt the energy shifting as heads rose, eyes looked up in reflection and contemplation. Some started writing. I left the room to refill my coffee, give space and enjoy the fact that ideas were starting to flow. I celebrated that I restrained myself from just sharing my idea.
I came back and we proceeded as planned. In the end, everyone came up with 2-3 ideas. Everyone had candy and affirmation in their contribution. We had lots of ideas on the board. We had numerous great ideas that the team began to discuss and debate. The conversation was rampant. The energy grew. The ideas evolved. I sat down, the organic evolution and planning of a solution and path forward were happening. I watched in delight as the team sorted who was good at what and how they might work together to solve this. It was magical. It was game-changing.
My lesson that day was beyond not rescuing and allowing silence but was in the power of creativity and finding ways to remove the pressure, finding the heart of play and space for anything to show up… good ideas and bad. The goal was participation, not the golden unicorn idea. Make it fun. The team laughed, bantered and designed. They left the room agreeing on two ideas to develop. They outlined who would do what, by when, and how we would know.
I was proud. Proud of the team and excited for this new level of play and creativity!
Where are things stale or shut down in your business or organization? How could you create space for people to have a voice? What would play look like? How could being creative open new doors for your work?