One day, I confided in a coworker: “I feel like an impostor in such an extroverted office.” The culture here is built on constant interaction—every question is an opportunity for collaboration, we work exclusively in teams, and our brainstorms encourage everyone to think out loud. It exhausts me.
After outing myself as the lone office introvert, I expected a look of horror to pass over my coworker’s face. Instead she gave a knowing nod and smile, and said she’s heard this sentiment so often here that she calls IDEO an “extroverted office full of introverts.”
I was stunned. The majority of my colleagues are introverts too? How did they manage our everyday activities, like brainstorms? The goal of a brainstorm is to uncover new opportunities by bringing in fresh perspectives, but as a group activity it can make introverts clam up.
Inspired by Susan Cain’s research on the power of introverts and how solitude, like collaboration, is a crucial ingredient to creativity, I asked my fellow designers what strategies they use to incorporate solitude into the most extroverted of activities.
Here are five ways they've adapted the brainstorm for introverts:
1. The Silent Circuit
Ask each person to write a “how might we” question on a sticky note (IDEO’s standard brainstorm kickoff question) and post it around the room. For about 15 minutes, everyone walks around, silently adding as many ideas as they can to each prompt. When time’s up, everyone returns to their question and discovers a bounty of new ideas that their colleagues have given them. This approach works well for keeping large groups engaged, while providing quiet, focused time to those who want it.
2. Musical Chairs
Breaking up a big group helps encourage quieter voices. To limit the number of people in a brainstorm, split into groups of three or four and play musical chairs. Post a handful of "how might we" questions around the room, assign a group to each one, and start the music. When it stops, rotate to the next station with your team. That way, there are never too many voices to contend with, but a lot of ideas are shared. Leave time at the end for people to wander around the room and add any remaining ideas.
3. Get to the Bottom of the Stack
This is the most exhaustive brainstorming activity on this list—it can take up to two hours—but can also generate the most ideas. The goal: Each person fills an entire stack of Post-its with new ideas. (A “stack” can be a full Post-it stack divided into halves or thirds, depending on how much time you have.)
After the questions are introduced, everyone goes heads-down and captures ideas. It's a lot of silence, but it allows those who prefer to think and brainstorm silently the time and space to do it. When everyone has reached the bottom of their stack, one person volunteers to share first. As she presents, others add similar ideas or build on top of them to draw out themes.
The exercise can be a great empathy builder. For a project about helping high school students build purpose in their life, a team used the prompt, “What are your most awkward memories from high school?”
4. Office Hours
This one came from Fast Company: Instead of asking people to commit to a crowded, hour-long session, reserve a space and ask folks to stop by for 5-10 minutes to contribute ideas—in between meetings, on the way to lunch, etc. This gives people permission to come and go as they please, and limits the number of voices in the room at one time. To make participation even easier, introduce the questions a day in advance—over email or in a calendar invite—to give people time to think.
5. The Slow Build
Post a question in a shared space in the office—the kitchen, in the bathroom, by the bike rack—and allow people to add ideas over several days. At our San Francisco studio, we post monthly questions and prompts in one of the private, unisex bathrooms in our office. The questions often ask people to reflect: “I feel loved when…” and “I show my love by…” Or, “What’s something new you want to try this year?” As an introvert, it’s my porcelain palace.
How do you create the conditions that can help everyone feel welcome and heard at work? I’d love to hear your ideas.
Thanks to Charla Bear, Minnie Bredouw, Deirdre Cerminaro, Eileen Farrell, Peter Macdonald, and Heather Ross for their contributions and inspiration.