Although most of the risks and burdens of Covid-19 are still with us, now is the time to plan for growth rather than merely continuing to hang on. If we wait till all signs of the pandemic are gone before planning for a more robust future, we may miss the optimal time to take action.

The need to take a rigorous look ahead is becoming particularly apparent as I work with organizations that hunkered down as best as they could during Covid, trying to pivot their offerings, doing the crazy work necessary to obtain PPP loans, and reassuring staff that there was still a place for them. Planning is vital even for the companies that pivoted so well they’re overwhelmed by unplanned growth and rely on workarounds and overtime rather than sturdy infrastructure and processes.

You Can Build for Growth

It’s really tough to sustain a big shift in an organization’s trajectory if leaders isolate themselves or rely on the cleverness of a few people. Better to keep the energy and commitment of the entire team propelling you forward through their belief in the company’s goals and mission and their dedication to their teammates. Here’s a multi-stage process I’ve been using with clients to ensure that everyone is pointed in the right direction.

Step 1: Generate Ideas

Whether you’re working in-person or remotely, set the context and ground rules clearly to avoid the typical problems associated with brainstorming sessions: the most assertive people’s ideas getting the most attention, the group glomming onto one idea and ignoring the others, introverts not having their ideas heard, or none of the ideas even being used.

Specify the general direction you want the discussion to go. You might be considering how to increase the business you already have, enter new markets, penetrate a particular market niche by another 20 percent, or become No. 2 in the field when you’ve been trundling along at No. 9. Prime the pump by providing advance materials to the group: from analyses of market conditions to relevant scientific reviews of new developments in the field.

At the beginning of the meeting, explain that for this first step, the focus is on ideation and aggregating as many new ideas as possible — not on critiquing or investigating the ideas. Consider using unfamiliar language for emphasis: “Now we’re in the idea-proliferating stage, not the scrutinizing stage. We won’t be considering risk assessments or conflicts; we’ll just generate as many ideas as possible.”

To forestall the typical brainstorming session norm of braver or more extroverted people calling out several ideas and everyone else shrinking in their seats, give the participants 15 to 30 minutes of silence to write down as many ideas as possible. Mute anyone who is on video and let participants turn off their cameras if they prefer. Collect the ideas, and then either end the meeting or take a significant break.

Step 2: Group the Ideas

When you reconvene, all the ideas should be available for everyone to review. If you meet in person, you might write the ideas on easels or whiteboards positioned around the room. For a remote or hybrid team, you could collect their ideas in the chat or by email, and then provide a shared document or a compilation of all of them. The medium doesn’t matter much, but make sure everyone can see both the ideas they’ve contributed and everyone else’s.

Use your new language and announce, “We’re not yet in the review stage — now we’ll array or sort ideas.” To share the ideas with the entire group at once in a neutral way, you or a facilitator can read the ideas aloud without naming the source, or you can go around the group and have everyone read two or three ideas. Ask team members to identify connections or similarities among ideas, so you can code, physically move, or otherwise assemble the ideas to show the multiple aspects or facets to each.

Step 3: Add What’s Missing

Now begin examining each group of ideas, adding critical factors to make each idea strong enough for scrutiny. Is the desired outcome specified in both quantitative and qualitative terms? What’s the proposed timeframe? What resources will be needed? Position this discussion as best-case scenario planning: “We’re going to make each of these ideas as appealing or robust as possible to help us get value even out of the ideas that we ultimately decide not to pursue. They may highlight something we haven’t been paying attention to or provide prompts for new experiments.”

Step 4: Note the Risks

Ask the participants to scrutinize each idea fully, identifying the downsides, challenges, and outright problems with pursuing any particular course of action. Because the participants already invested in building all the ideas up, they’re less likely to go negative or pick at ideas they don’t like. If it’s obvious that some ideas aren’t strong or pertinent enough, you can edit them out.

Step 5: Set Priorities and Assign Implementation Teams

Depending on the makeup of the group and your organizational structure and culture, you may need to take the vetted ideas back to the leadership team to determine sequencing, funding, and other resourcing, including staffing and external expertise. Then reconvene the participants who generated the original ideas to announce which ones will move forward and who will work on them as well as which ideas will be addressed at a later date; also, you should be ready to explain why certain ideas may have been rejected.

Don’t skip this final step, or the value of the participants’ work will be diminished, and they’ll be unlikely to want to engage in this kind of planning initiative again. When you express your appreciation for their input and dedication to the process and share your plans for implementation, you’re more likely to be aligned as you move forward on the actual work of building for growth.