How to: Better brainstorming with private collection

Most brainstorming exercises are acts of “public collection” of data. We put a question on the board and ask everyone attending our meeting for ideas.

Brainstorming, when done well, can be a really fun and energizing exercise. But, it turns out that brainstorming is rarely done well. A small minority of people tend to dominate air time and the shy folks stay out of the discussion altogether.

A simple tweak that helps brainstorming is “private collection.” This involves giving everyone in the room post its or pieces of paper, a few minutes of time and encouragement to write down their ideas.

As a moderator, when you open up the floor for brainstorming, you know for sure that everyone has ideas. So, you can now facilitate the discussion to ensure everyone’s participation.

Brainstorming sessions succeed because of the diversity of ideas on show. Diversity, in turn, can be encouraged by good session design.

Electric brush defaults

Most electric brush manufacturers use a 2 minute timer. This means 2 minutes is the industry standard default minimum time for a round of brushing.

I started using electric brushes two years ago. It occurred to me recently that the average time I’ve spent brushing in the last two years is 2 minutes.  That was definitely not the case pre-electric brushes. I hardly ever timed it but I’d imagine I regularly found an excuse to stop around 45 seconds in.

Of course, it is no coincidence. It is simply the power of defaults in action. There’s the obvious takeaway for product designers – be thoughtful about the defaults you put in your products. The 2 minute electric brush default may be the single greatest electric brush product feature.

But, I found myself wondering about the defaults I had in place in my day-to-day life. One such initiative, for example, involved having books in most corners of our home. My reading time at home more than doubled.

Some defaults are mental. Toward the end of last year, I switched my mental default of going into meetings with my laptop open and decided I would only try a dessert if I really wanted it (versus my previous “this looks interesting” approach). Similarly, my default desk posture is standing. Each of these mental defaults have dramatically changed my behavior.

We have defaults in place all around us. Here’s to being more thoughtful about them.

This meeting will be a success if

“This meeting will be a success if…”

“The purpose of this meeting is…”

“The 3 things we absolutely need to get done in the next 30 minutes are…”

“We’ve gathered here as a group to…”

There are many variants of the same idea – set up a meeting with the purpose upfront – and it doesn’t really matter which one we pick.

But, ensuring every meeting we participate in starts with quick alignment around the purpose is likely one of the best things we will do for our long term meeting effectiveness.

Executive vs. Manager

I had some vague notion about the link between an executive and the velocity of decisions. But, Foundry Group VC Seth Levine shared an interesting perspective on the difference between an executive and a manager.

My synthesis – a manager focuses on solving problems by asking – how can my team do this? – while an executive solves problems by asking – how can our company do this?

I found the framing around the perspective behind decisions useful and accurate.

While there are obvious takeaways for our careers, I thought the takeaways for our personal life are equally, if not more, interesting. When we make decisions to optimize one sub system in our life, e.g. our career or the work crisis of the moment, without paying heed to how the various sub systems (family, health, et al) co-exist, we behave as managers.

And, when we focus on making decisions based on what we’re trying to optimize for the system as a whole, we behave as executives.

As with many powerful distinctions, it all begins with a choice.

Designing for what we will remember

We generally design our days around what we want to get done. But, what we get done and what we remember are two very different things.

Getting things done is important for our happiness on a day-to-day basis. But, good memories are a key driver to our long term happiness.

If we designed the next month for what we will remember, we might just..

…make more time during the day for a walk with a teammate.

…spend more time being present with our family instead of rushing to get the next thing done.

…check our email and notifications less frequently.

…leave more time during work offsites for the team to get to know each other.


…walk to the park everyday.

…create more excuses to celebrate and appreciate others.

…share more, teach more and, in that process, learn more.

We will need to think about and prepare to get things done this month. That’s the stuff that helps us make a living.

But, we it is on us to choose to spend a bit more time ensuring we also make memories.

For that’s how we make a life.

Learning about gravity

Kids learn about gravity through a process of experimentation and reflection. They learn by throwing everything they set their hands on. And, in that process, they realize that nearly every thing goes down, never up.

They keep running these experiments for a long time until they intuitively understand the concept of gravity. Experimentation is also a lot of fun.

So, how do adults help in the process? First, we help by creating a safe space for experimentation. That means ensuring they only have balls and light toys in sight instead of knives or other objects that might hurt them.

Second, we help by making it easier for them to synthesize as they reflect. In this example, we can do that by joining them in their game and dropping things to the ground. As we participate at their level, we earn the right to explain that things always fall down. Over time, as they become ready to learn abstract concepts, we can talk to them about a force that pulls everything downward. And, in time, they’ll learn that the force is gravity.

Of course, this continues through life and is applicable to us both as learners and teachers. As teachers, the most powerful thing we can do is to create a safe space for experimentation that encourages thoughtful conversations and synthesis.

And, as learners, we need to consistently experiment and reflect. However, in our quest for daily performance, many of our lives leave no time for either – sucking the fun out of it all.

If all we care about is being, we can never make time for becoming. That is, in many ways, the tragedy of performance focused lives because, in the long run, becoming matters more than being.

And, it is also a lot more fun.

Bad boss

Imagine a boss who…

…publicly expresses doubts about your ability to follow through on your commitments.

…keeps an almost maniacal look out for any negative comments about you while brushing away the positive.

…always focuses on what you need to do while promptly ignoring the journey so far.

…chooses to think of you as incompetent unless you repeatedly prove otherwise.

…pays heed to anybody’s doubts about you – even if they didn’t know you half as well.

…over played your fears of failure – especially when you most need confidence and assurance.

How long would you work under such a boss?

And, how many days a week are you that person, via self talk, to yourself?