How to Get the Best Out of Introverts in Innovation Workshops

Susan Cain’s book ‘Quiet’ has had a big influence on me. It’s a manifesto in support of the world’s introverts and how to make the most of their talents. You get a sense of the book from her inspiring TED talk – here. I spend much of my working life facilitating workshops, standing in front of people and telling them what to do. Despite this, I’m an introvert. (really, it’s true!) I have a lot of sympathy for introverts who attend workshops. 

The workshop environment is not designed for them. it’s all about being upbeat and collaborative. This is particularly true in innovation workshops. People are encouraged to shout out their ideas, present to everyone, stay energetic. It’s an environment where extroverts thrive. Introverts much prefer lower key environments.

Introverts are often the most creative people in the room. We need to make sure their contribution is captured and valued. To make sure their voices are heard. So, when facilitating an innovation session, how do we get the best out of them?

Here’s my suggestions.

1 Generate ideas in advance of the workshop

The workshop is not always the best environment for generating breakthrough ideas. There’s evidence to suggest that solitude and individual reflection are crucial ingredients in creative thinking. Time pressure and the influence of peers can sometimes inhibit people, particularly introverts.

An alternative. Instead encourage people to generate ideas before the workshop begins.

I send attendees a detailed creative brief up to four weeks in advance of the workshop. Then, I ask people to generate ideas in their own time and in their own way. They then send me their fully formed ideas a few days ahead of the workshop. 

So, by the time the workshop arrives, there’s already a gallery of pre-existing ideas that I’ve displayed. We then spend the time together ‘spotting’ the lead ideas, and improving them.

The benefit of this approach is that

1 People can spend time developing ideas on their own, without the influence of others. Introverts love this.

2 Ideas have time to germinate and evolve over a period of time. Great ideas rarely arrive fully formed. You can generate ideas in your own way.

3 During the session itself, there’s less pressure to generate ideas from scratch. The work’s already been done. 

The secret is to create and send everyone an inspiring creative brief. Then provide clear direction on what a great idea looks like. And of course, you need to allow time to plan. By the way – extroverts look this approach too. 

2 Build in quiet time

There’s a lot of focus on maintaining high energy in workshops. This is important to maintain forward momentum. Yet, to get the best out of introverts, it’s important to modulate the pace. Allow periods of reflection, to allow for solo flights of thought. 

Early on, ask people to write up their ideas individually, without interruption. Then give individuals time to critique ideas on their own. Without the influence of others, before the discussion and group work begins.

3 Focus on writing as much as speaking

Often at workshops we ask people so shout out ideas and the facilitator scribes. This is fine. Extroverts love this. Ideas get created quickly and everyone joins in.

To help introverts, ensure there’s an equal emphasis on writing down ideas before sharing. This is the beauty of post-it notes. It equalises airtime and stops the extroverts dominating conversations.

4 Be direct

Sometimes introverts need some encouragement to step up to the plate. It’s not that they’re shy or lack confidence. Their natural preference is to reflect and hold back. But, with the right kind of encouragement, they should be able to take centre stage.

So, ask them directly for their ideas and encourage them to present back the group. Some may decline and leave it others. If that’s the case, don’t force them. Equally, don’t ignore them, just because they’re quiet. Remember to prompt them to contribute.

5 Follow up

Pay particular attention to the introverts in the post-workshop feedback session. They may not have been particularly forthcoming during the workshop. Make sure you’ve had a one on one session with them post-workshop to make sure their ideas are captured. You may find they open up to you and contribute more fully.

So to summarise

We all need the brilliance of introverts during the innovation process. The workshop environment may not be their natural habitat. Bear this in mind when designing a session. Identify who they are during the planning phase and adopt these approaches. Yes indeed, ensure your innovation session is dynamic and stimulating. But remember to allow for periods of contemplation. Periods of ‘Quiet’ so introverts can perform at their best.