Breaking Ice and Controlling the Mike: How I Got a Faculty Brainstorm to Work

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In addition to meeting design, good food was essential to the success of our meeting.

One of the most daunting leadership roles I have recently confronted is directing large groups of faculty to brainstorm. Here is the situation in a nutshell. Arizona State University has deep talent across a broad range of disciplines in food systems research. My task was to organize this talent, build a team and design a campus center that better reflected how the whole of this talent was much more compelling than the sum of its talented parts.

To do this I invited a group of 12-18 faculty to sit down for two separate two-hour sessions and brainstorm to build this center from scratch. I was skeptical that the large group would produce results, especially in only two hours. I have been to too many bad organizational meetings where introductions take half or more of the precious meeting time. I knew I had to borrow some newly learned skills from the Barefoot part of our Leopold Leadership training last June. But which ones? And more importantly, would my adaptations go down in flames and hinder rather than propell the brainstorming process?

Here is what I rolled out from the Barefoot toolkit to pull this off:

Staffing and design

To help design and run the meeting, I created a coaching staff consisting of a postdoc with PhD-level experience in food systems; a proposal writer and business development specialist; and a contracts specialist with experience running large grants for multidisciplinary teams in the sustainable agriculture research space. This team was pivotal. We met three times and co-designed the content of the brainstorming meetings. My coaching staff designed a 5-minute survey to quickly synthesize faculty perceptions of: a) their own research in food systems; and b) the areas of food systems they thought ASU was strong in. We used the differences (contrasts) between the two sets of responses as a springboard for discussion.

Meeting 1: Introducing the idea of the center and building the team

The first meeting was attended by nearly 18 faculty, a few postdocs and a few graduate students. The participants represented ASU’s four valleywide campuses, so some of them commuted to make the meeting. The group was very diverse — from Justice Studies to Engineering, from Law to Biosciences, and everything in between. I knew I had to honor the value of faculty time — I had two hours of their day to work with and I had to make the best of it.

To do this, I used Think-Pair-Share as an ice breaker. The logic for using this brainstorming tool out of sequence, so to speak, was that I needed to build new relationships — between faculty from different units and campuses — and I needed to take the mike away from the “long talker” during introductions. You know who I am talking about. The goal of the Think-Pair-Share was this: 1) Think about a 1-2 sentence reaction to the survey results, 2) tell your partner your name, unit, research interest and “survey reaction,” and 3) your partner shares that info with the group as a whole which doubles as an introduction.

I have to admit I was nervous. Would this strategy work? When I rolled it out, I could see the disbelief in some of the participants eyes. “Really? You mean I can’t just sit here and peck on my phone while you drone on?” The initial reaction reminded me of suggesting a board game at a boring New Year’s Eve party.

There was hesitation and disbelief, initially. But the best part of this meeting was that almost everyone who was skeptical eventually thoroughly enjoyed the process of meeting a new faculty member and delivered thoughtful, succinct introductions of their partner and the information from the survey. The meeting kicked off with an effervescent start that didn’t quit bubbling through til the end. I had research deans come up to my coaching staff afterwards and tell us that our meeting was one of the best they had attended.

I think the key to success was: a) breaking up the monotony of introductions; b) taking away the mike from the “long talkers;” c) getting a big group to tackle the tasks at hand in pairs; and d) creating collective responsibility for achieving the meeting goals.

This experience taught me a lot about how to manage large faculty meetings effectively. The most important do’s and don’ts:

  • Grassroots is essential: Participants in a successful organizational meeting must feel that they have power to influence the outcomes of the meeting.
  • Break the ice and control the mike: Introductions are a waste of precious time, but breaking the ice is essential. Participants will in most cases follow the meeting rules and behave better when charged with telling the group about someone other than themselves and this will also serve as an ice breaker, saving precious time.
  • Don’t be afraid to deviate from the script: Think-Pair-Share and other Barefoot activities can be mixed and matched, co-opted for other purposes, and redesigned.
  • Don’t forget the food: This was a lunch meeting about food systems, after all. Sharing food is a natural way to build community and trust which will lead to better collaborations.

In my next post, I’ll describe how we built on the trust and momentum built in this first meeting to create a compelling vision and set of goals for our center. What are your best tips for leading faculty meetings? Leave a comment.

John Sabo, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is Associate Professor in the School of Life Sciences, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Director of Research Development at the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. Follow him on Twitter @jlsaboASU.

2 thoughts on “Breaking Ice and Controlling the Mike: How I Got a Faculty Brainstorm to Work

  1. I loved reading this John. Got me inspired to keep working on these challenges in the future. Thanks!!! Erika

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