One at a time, please!

They’re seasoned pros at successfully managing large companies, but put them in a room together and nobody knows what will happen.

That’s when you bring out the laptops.

In a series of private workshops held Monday and Tuesday at an undisclosed downtown Toronto location, winners

of the annual Canada’s 50 Best Managed Companies award met to discuss key barriers to growth. Those involved said it had all the ingredients to be the meeting from hell: big egos, a challenging agenda and more ideas than they could handle. To prevent utter chaos, the organizers tested out a technique, called “”electronic brainstorming”” conceived by researchers at Queen’s University.

The infrastructure for electronic brainstorming consists of the following: a series of laptops networked around the room, some custom-made collaboration software that allows all ideas to appear on a large screen, and a few human beings to facilitate. The setup takes about 30 minutes.

“”It was quick, it got us to consensus really quickly, and it got us very focused,”” said John Holmlund, CEO of consulting firm The Focus Corp., who attended the event. “”When (the discussion) was broken up and controlled and you could bring all these ideas together through this electronic format, it was great.””

Erik Lockhart, director of Queen’s Executive Decision Centre, said the mobile “”Decision Lab”” has helped run more than 500 meetings in the last seven years. Its software not only collects ideas and presents them to the group at large, it offers voting capabilities so meeting participants can narrow down ideas. But the simple technology involved is backed by research on successful brainstorming the university’s School of Business has been conducting since 1985. Over time, he said, the school brought in charities like Red Cross and the United Way to put their theories in action. Around 1995, he said, the school decided to offer its skills as a service to public and private sector clients.

“”You need the two sets of skills — the technology and the group dynamics skills,”” he said.

Holmlund said the approximately 65 CEOs came up with about 27 barriers to growth, and used the Queen’s software tool to narrow it down to about nine. No. 1 on the list was human resources: hiring, motivating and maintaining staff. Other topics included governance and the structure of companies, as well as marketing and sales in a mature or flat market.

“”I find people will stray off topic — that bothers me,”” he said. “”Too much chit-chat, not enough focus on why we’re there.””

Lockhart said the technology can help. “”You still go off on tangents — that happens,”” he said. “”But with the visual power of the front screen, with the top 10 ideas, you can come back from that tangent very quickly.””

Many well-known vendors, including Open Text and Lotus, specialize in collaboration software that helps companies conduct meetings over long distances. The Queen’s solution works the opposite way — helping a large group in one room keep their distance.

“”While they are very confident and articulate, there’s also some very dominant personalities,”” he said. “”To try and get consensus from 70 high-powered people, it’s very difficult if you’re using conventional flip charts.””

Though a crowd of confident CEOs may not be shy about voicing their opinion, Lockhart said the technology can have another psychological side-effect.

“”When you do some voting and prioritizing anonymously, they tend not to maintain authorship of their ideas,”” he said. “”In other words, if they see other people’s ideas with the anonymous voting that are better than their own, they don’t do the posturing that they normally do.””

Holmlund said he might consider electronic brainstorming to help manage The Focus Group’s shareholder meetings, where consensus is often difficult to reach. Lockart also recommended the solution for strategic planning and any session that requires a broad spectrum of opinion.

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