Who Says Brainstorming Works?

It is commonplace in meetings and workshops for the facilitator to ask attendees to brainstorm ways to resolve a problem. Everyone sits around throwing out insights and possible solutions. But if you notice, it doesn’t take long before people start repeating what others have said. Sometimes, they’ll even make a comment like, “Everybody else has mentioned the ideas I thought of.”

So how do we get around this barrier when attempting to gather ideas? Interestingly, there is actual research that has examined this issue. One group of researchers reviewed a broad range of brainstorming experiments. They concluded that productivity loss in brainstorming groups is significant and that the historical popularity of group brainstorming is substantially misguided.

Another study asked several groups of subjects to brainstorm ideas for solving a problem. Then they asked a selection of other individuals to brainstorm ideas on the same topic. The results were clear. The individuals outperformed the brainstorming groups, both in number of ideas and in their quality. Still, another study argued that group brainstorming is less efficient due to what the researchers call “production blocking.” In other words, having everyone thinking about the same idea prevents the parallel processing that makes groups so effective. This single focus of attention becomes a bottleneck.

So, does brainstorming work? Yes, but it is more effective to ask team members to brainstorm individually on an issue and then bring them together to share their ideas. Suggestion – Try this experiment with the teams you lead and see if, over time, individuals are better at brainstorming than your groups as a whole.

Teach Your New People the Top 15

It happens all the time. A new hire arrives for the first day of work. The supervisor rattles off a list of responsibilities and resources. The newbie nods over and over. The supervisor says, “You got that?” The newbie answers, “Yup.” And the supervisor says, “Good. Let’s get to work.”

Then the newbie bombards the supervisor with endless questions for the next several weeks until he or she comes up to speed. This is not the intent, of course. But it is the reality for more new hires than anyone likes to admit. If you think back to your first job, chances are it happened to you.

So how do you help new hires make routine decisions faster and with more confidence? The solution is simple and easy to implement – Build a list of the 15 most common decisions the person will have to make. Then teach them how to make those decisions. These decisions will cover the majority of problems they will need to resolve in any given week. Not only will you preempt the constant questions, the new employee will develop the confidence to act independently. Consider two examples:

Skylar has just been hired to work in the service department of a small manufacturer. Her job will be to resolve in-bound customer questions and concerns. If Jack, her supervisor, was to list them, chances are there will be fifteen that cover 80% of the problems Skylar will face. These might include delivery damage, missing parts, and customers asking for operating instructions. With little effort, Jack can explain the options available for resolution in each situation. Then he can role play each with Skylar for a few minutes. Chances are, Skylar’s up-to-speed time will be reduced by weeks. On top of this, Jack won’t have to deal with so many little questions.

Then there’s Colin. He’s been hired to manage a small art and framing shop. With a degree in management, Jill, his area manager, assumed that he can make the basic decisions required to run the store. But rather taking this for granted, Jill could make a list of the top fifteen daily decisions Colin will make. These might include employee absences, cash drawers that don’t balance, and customers asking for changes on already customized items. As with Jack, Jill can explain the options available for each situation and role play them with Colin. The result will be a confident manager after four week, instead of eight or even twelve.

The key to this process has to do with the development of intuition. Seasoned employees rely on their “sixth-sense” to act with ease and speed. This is because their brains recognize patterns in how they make decisions and apply these patterns to novel, but similar situations. (Consider, for example, the last time you were faced with a problem and your little voice said, “Oh, this is just like . . .” and guided you to act based on that experience. That’s pattern recognition.)

So the choice is yours. You can spend your time answering the endless questions new hires need answered or preempt many of them by teaching your new people the Top 15.

Have Your Young Professionals Learned How to Fail?

Yes, you read that correctly. As I speak with employers every week, one of the concerns they mention is the apprehension many new graduates display when compelled to make a decision for which there is no right answer. Sometimes this apprehension takes the form of endless questions. Sometimes it appears to be a lack of urgency. Sometimes it looks like procrastination. But regardless of what it looks like, most managers want to yell, “Just make a decision!”

Without going into a long dissertation on why this is happening, it’s important to understand the origin of the problem – a lack of experience with failure. Those of us who came of age prior to the digital conveniences, learned how to “figure it out,” whatever “it” happened to be. There was no escape button or option to go back a screen. When our choice turned out to be wrong, we learned to recover. There were no helicopter parents or rules mandating second chances. We suffered embarrassment, loss of time or money, and even the laughter and humiliation of others. BUT WE GOT OVER IT!

We also learned these lessons earlier in life. Ask those 35 and older when they held their first job and most will tell you 14, 15 or 16, many even younger. I managed a paper route in high school. Did I learn how to fail and get past mistakes? Weekly. But in addition to developing a bunch of problem solving skills, I developed the confidence to act. When I took my first professional job, I already possessed a reservoir of “street smarts.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that everyone in their early twenties and younger is a “snowflake.” But there are millions of emerging professionals who are just now being compelled to think for themselves and adapt to the consequences. So what do you do?

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2) When they get stuck, let them stew. People have an amazing ability to come up with solutions when there’s no alternative. But if you don’t force them to do so, they won’t try.

Employers who are also parents: STOP SAVING YOUR KIDS’ BUTTS! I know you mean well. But you’re doing to other employers what you don’t want happening to you. The earlier they learn how to fail and recover, the earlier they’ll learn how thrive. Do you really want your kids struggling in their first job at age twenty-two because they didn’t start learning the basics at twelve? Want an award-winning book on the subject? Read Figure It Out! Better still, give it to your kids. I’ll send you a free copy. All you have to do is ask.

Making a Game of Repetitive Work

Like anyone, there are times when I am saddled with a repetitive task. Whether it’s raking the lawn, stuffing envelopes, or painting the kitchen, it can be tough to make the time go by. But I  have learned to re-frame this boredom by making a game out of it. So have most of those who grew up before the digital age. “How many envelopes can be stuffed in five minutes? How many brushstrokes does it take to paint this section of the wall?” You get the idea.

With the advent of digital technology, we have a generation, however, that has failed to develop the skills and creativity to amuse themselves without relying on a source of external stimulation. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with digital technology. But it has also become the vehicle for endless distractions. How many times a day do you check Facebook, watch a cute kitty video or check CNN for the latest political debacle?

There are still lots of tasks in life where constant smart phone checking slows productivity, distracts from the work at hand or is downright unsafe. One utility executive told me the number one safety issue for his organization is the young lineman who instinctively reaches for his phone when it rings, beeps or chirps. “That’ll get you killed if you’re close to live wires,” he said.

Recent research has shown clearly that many of those coming of age with a smart phone in their hands experience physical and emotional distress when deprived of its use for more than a few minutes at a time. While we may lament this impact, it has become a fact of life for millions. The issue becomes how to keep restless digital natives engaged when the task you’ve assigned is essential, but downright boring.

Here’s are a few simple suggestions:

1) Make it a game. Regardless of the task, there’s always a way to “gameify” it. How long will it take to . . .? What the least number of steps it will take to . . . ?

2) Turn the task into a competition. While working for a moving company in the 1970’s, I and a co-worker were assigned to tighten the bolts, lubricate the wheels and burn the company name into 1000 furniture dollies. We turned this three-day project into a competition. The loser bought lunch.

3) Distract them with a mental challenge. I’ve seen ski-lift operators yell out questions from Trivial Pursuit to those waiting in line, for instance. The first person to yell out the correct answer, gets to jump the line. How can you adapt this?

4) Argue with them. Yes, that’s what I said. I wouldn’t bring up politics and social issues. But TV shows, sports, and most every other topic is fair game and can make the time fly.

Once people get invested in a distraction, they’ll forget about checking Facebook, Pinterest, Snapchat, Twitter, and the Internet’s other digital memes. It just takes a little re-framing.

The Blessings and Curses of Conveniences

Dan, a senior executive, recently told me of driving around in his prized 1977 Chevy pickup with his 16-year-old grandson. “Hey Grandpa,” the young man said, while holding a latte, “Where are the cup holders?”

“We didn’t have cup holders forty years ago,” answered Dan who then added, “Roll down the window. Let’s get some air in here.” It took the better part of a minute for the grandson to solve that problem. Then there was the manual gear shift . . .

As much as older folks laugh about incidents like this, we should keep in mind that conveniences like cup holders, electric windows and automatic transmissions are both blessing and curses. Those who create these inventions do so because they’ve felt or observed a need. Their creativity allows those who have felt this need as well to save time or enjoy a “creature comfort.” But those who come of age after the convenience’s debut take them for granted and can founder when the convenience doesn’t work, the battery dies or simply isn’t applicable.

I have argued endlessly that there is an inverse relationship between convenience and resourcefulness. The more conveniences we create, the less resourceful the next generation becomes. Now, I’d be the last person to argue for the “dark ages,” as some refer to the time before digital technology. But how do we compel those coming of age to develop the skills and confidence necessary when there’s no button to push or app to open?

Number one, stop saving their butts. Most managers discover that answering “quick questions” results in an ever-increasing volume of quick questions. This practice inhibits the development of resourcefulness and creates a giant time suck. If you start telling them to “figure it out,” they will do so a surprising amount of the time. Establish this as an expectation and over time those around you will rise to the occasion. (For more on this, read my post on think-alouds.)

Number two, help them scaffold their learning. The good decision makers I know carry a diary, notebook or some other means of recording insights as they occur. By the way, when you write ideas down, rather than typing or dictating them, the brain does a better job of creating schemas. Schemas are what the brain uses to categorize and organize what you learn. (Knowing how to change a tire or fry an egg are examples of schemas.) When those you supervise discover something new, ask “What have you learned? And wait for them to put it in their own words. (This works on your kids as well.)

Number three, praise them for “putting their mind to it.” You could say, “Good job” or “Atta-boy.” But it’s more effective to compliment the specific behavior by saying something like, “I like the way you . . .” That way, they will be encouraged to try that approach the next time they encounter a similar challenge. None of this is rocket science. But the best managers make these ideas a ritual with those around them. How about you?

Critical Thinking: The Economy’s “Other” Skills Gap

A lot has been written recently about the skills gap facing today’s economy. Researchers credit several sources for this phenomenon. First, the Baby Boomers will finally retire in droves over the next decade. Second, there has been a diminished interest in the hard sciences, resulting in a deficit of healthcare professionals and scientific researchers. Third, significantly fewer young people are choosing the skilled trades as a career. This is creating headaches for contractors, manufacturers and service companies. (It is also why we pay plumbers $100 just to walk through the front door.)

But there’s another skills gap that is dogging the productivity of virtually every organization in the US. That’s the deficit of critical thinking and problem solving skills among those entering the workforce. It’s what Nobel laureate Daniel Kahnemann calls “an invisible tax on the bottom line.” Ask the average employer. He or she will relate story after story of young workers who lack “common sense.” Translation? They do not possess the nuanced problem solving skills to perform their jobs independently.

Now, before I’m attacked by the Millennial hordes seeking my scalp, let me stipulate that there are millions in this generation who are contributing to our economy in amazing ways. But for every one of them, there is a multiple of those the same age lacking the basic thinking skills that will enable them to thrive in their jobs. Tragically this includes those both graduating from high school and college.

Responsibility for this phenomenon is shared among a number of sources: 1) The influence of digital technology, resulting in “menu-driven thinking,” defined as an over-dependence on digital cues; 2) The breakdown of the familial structure from which those in past generations learned norms and practices essential to the development of critical thinking skills and the confidence to use them; 3) Societal messaging focusing on convenience, immediate outcomes, and victimization. (“If I can’t figure it out, it’s not my fault. Something or someone else is to blame.”)

But playing the blame game will not resolve this issue. Neither will public policy. Billions of dollars have been spent on education legislation including No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. These have not, however, resulted in any measureable improvement in the problem-solving skills of those graduating from high school. Yes, many have been taught the principles of critical thinking. But here’s the thing . . . teaching students how to think critically does not produce critical thinkers. Compelling them to think critically does. Sadly, so much time is spent on content delivery in the average classroom, little time is left for application. Yes, they can pass the state assessments. But many struggle to thrive in the average workplace.

As much as employers might object to the added burden, it falls to them to correct this situation. This has to be accomplished in three ways:

Improve employee selection. I’ve written and spoken extensively on hiring over the years. What I hammer home each time is the use of practical applications during the screening process. Let’s face it, interviews don’t work. Compelling applicants to demonstrate their thinking skills is the closest you’ll get to ensuring an accurate evaluation of how they can perform on the job. Experiencing a shortage of applicants who meet these requirements? Hire the best you can find and be prepared to train and coach them from the get-go. At least you’ll know in advance where the work is needed.

Partner with local schools. This advice has been shouted from the rooftops for years, yet I am shocked at how few employers reach out in this manner. Want the best local people? Talk to those who teach them. If you don’t plant seeds, nothing will grow. I’ve met employers who have had great success acquiring good people just by being more present in the community. Buy a lunch. Teach a class. Serve on a workforce panel. Sponsor a contest. The ideas are endless. Over time, educators in the know will call you first when they spot top talent. (Note: In some cases there are publicly funded resources and incentives that will compensate employer for hiring and training for certain skills. These may be applicable to your needs. Local schools and agencies should be familiar with the requirements and processes.)

Train on critical thinking and decision skills from day-one. Just because they graduated from high school, college, or trade school, doesn’t mean they understand how work works. They have book smarts. You want work smarts. Some will arrive with it. Others, not so much. Assess their reasoning skills and build from there. Some will catch on faster than others. Some will possess more native confidence to try new things than others. Meet them where they are and stretch. One leader I know used to say, “Take 5’10” people and put them in 6’0” jobs. Remember, this is up to individual managers. All the training in the world won’t help if the supervision is inadequate. That’s up to organizational leadership.

A Newsboy’s Lament

When I was a kid, I had a job that no longer exists – a paper route. I had 150 customers. Every afternoon, I would get out of school and rush to a house two blocks away, where I would pick up 150 papers from the local distributor. I would fold them, stack them in a wagon with high slatted sides that my mother nicknamed the giraffe cart.

On Sunday mornings, I’d be up at the crack of dawn doing the same thing with papers that weighed four times as much because of the ads and supplements. On Wednesday evening, it was collections – 35 cents a week times 150 houses. I carried a ring with a card for each account. When the customer paid, I’d punch out that week on the card.

So why tell you this story? Because this was the experience, more than any other, that taught me problem solving and resilience. You see, I got pelted with snow, rain and hail accomplishing my appointed rounds. I sweated in the heat and froze in the cold. Newspapers arrived late. Newspapers got wet. Newspapers got torn. Newspapers blew away. Even the wheels came off my wagon at one point.

Then there was collections. Not all customers paid on time, of course. So I’d have to chase them down. I discovered at an early age what lengths some people would go to avoid paying their bill, even one totaling three dollars or less.

I had days where I came within a whisker of quitting. I didn’t, however, not the least because my parents wouldn’t let me. Besides, the money was pretty good and I had mastered the job, so there was a sense of pride involved.

Sadly, kids no longer have this opportunity and many similar. I say opportunity, because the skills and attributes this job compelled me to develop have served me well for the past 40 years. Educators talk of how learning is scaffolded as one experience is built upon another. In many ways, delivering newspapers became the foundation for the success I’ve enjoyed.

I’ve heard some parents, teachers and counselors tell students and graduates not to include menial jobs on their resumes. I have mixed feelings about that since these kinds of positions can teach perseverance, the overcoming of obstacles, dealing with disappointment and the blood, sweat and tears that the internship in the fancy office does not.

Progress, like new technology, is always a mixed blessing. I have to wonder if, in certain ways, we have progressed ourselves out of the development of work ethic that has served this nation so well.

How a Top Leader Organizes Her Time

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Laurie, the chief operating officer for an organization of 12,000 people. While time management wasn’t our topic, she began to describe how she works as a part of our conversation. “I divide my days into 15 minute chunks,” she said. “I typically work from 8AM to 6PM everyday, so I have 40 chunks with which to get things done. I’ve allotted 30 minutes for this interview, for instance, or two chunks.”

Laurie went on to explain that while she didn’t enter senior management with this kind of strategy, she learned very quickly that she needed a system in order to manage the pressures of her responsibilities successfully. As we continued to discuss her approach to decision making, she referenced this time management system a couple more times. “You see,” she said, “my reports have learned manage their contact with me according to this approach. This has had several positive results. It compels them to thoroughly consider questions and concerns before getting on my calendar. It also forces them to be succinct. Fifteen minutes is not a lot of time. Finally, it encourages me to remain disciplined and make decisions in a timely way.”

Few of us have the position power to simply divide our days into fifteen-minute chunks and expect our colleagues to respect this parameter. But there are still a few ideas we can take away from Laurie’s practice:

  • Adopt a means for organizing your time into chucks. You may not be able to maintain this practice for the entire day, but begin by choosing one to two hours when you’re able to concentrate on tasks and projects. If your team continually interrupts, explain that you will not deal with the day’s minor questions and crises during this time. If you enforce it, they’ll respect it. Over time, you might expand from two hours to three hours and from three hours to four hours. You get the idea.
  • Assign your tasks to the chunks you have set aside. Determine how much time you think it will take to complete each project and then work hard to stick to that parameter. For instance, I’ve set aside two hours to write this blog post and I’ve pretty much done it.
  • Discipline yourself to follow through. This strategy, like any other, is embraced until the normal routine attempts to erode it. Stay the course. Say no to distractions. Refuse to yield to “emergencies” and don’t make exceptions. Within a couple of weeks, your habits and the habits of those around you will adapt to the new approach. You must remain consistent and disciplined.

By the way, don’t assume you need permission to implement a strategy like this. Just begin. You might be surprised how your colleagues, and even your boss, will respect your effort at getting more done in an organized way.

How Presence of Mind Adds to the Bottom Line

My wife and I just spent a wonderful week in Hawaii, a chance to relax and reflect. Of course, my mind is never far from the topic of decision making. The first night we were there, Wendy discovered the clothes iron in our room wasn’t working. She called the hotel’s front desk to ask for a replacement. Five minutes later, there was a knock on the door. The housekeeper asked what she could do to help us. My wife told her the iron didn’t work and asked for a replacement. The housekeeper said, “Absolutely,” and disappeared to retrieve one. Ten minutes later, she was back with the replacement and life moved on.

But I got to thinking, wouldn’t it have been easier to bring a replacement iron on the first trip? Between the time my wife first called and the replacement iron arrived, about 30 minutes elapsed. That’s a half an hour of someone’s time, at probably $15 per hour. Wouldn’t it have saved time and money to bring the replacement iron on the first trip? While this may not seem like a big investment of time and money, this sort of thing probably happens 50 times a day in a busy hotel. If each incident consumes 30 minutes, that’s 25 hours at $15 per hour or $375. Multiply that by 365 days and housekeeping is spending $136,875 replacing irons, delivering towels and so on. I recognize these are essential services, but reducing this amount by half if the staff is on it’s toes saves the hotel $68,438 per year.

Now you may be thinking, “Who’s got time for focusing at such a granular level?” But what could the hotel do with $68, 438? Even if you’re not in hospitality, what could you do with this kind of money in your business? This is a presence-of-mind issue. By thinking one or two steps ahead, this housekeeper would have saved herself 20 minutes and a lot of walking. Of course, we have to assume the person at the front desk communicated the message properly. If, instead the housekeeper heard something like, “Hey, some lady in 302 needs something,” on the radio, that’s a whole different issue.

So what can you do to improve presence-of-mind in those you supervise? Here are three simple suggestions: 1) Collect examples of the little ways to save time and money in your workplace, such as the one I mentioned above. Rather than dismissing them as too small to worry about, calculate the impact over a year. You might be surprised at how much money is involved.

2) Explain these examples during your regular staff meetings. Rather than covering them all at one gathering, discuss a different one each time. In the process, you’ll be planting seeds and getting your people to think about similar situations. After all, you can’t dictate the way they solve problems, but you can encourage their creativity.

3) Reward those who make the effort to sharpen their presence of mind. This might be a gift certificate, a day off with pay, buying a tank of gas or something similar. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but it does have to be meaningful. Your people need to see that thinking one or two steps ahead has a measureable impact on their efforts, the company’s time and the bottom line and that they will be recognized for doing so.

Are You a Student of Error?

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Do you learn best from success or failure? Upon reflection, most people will say failure. The question is what do you learn? Mistakes can cause all kinds of heartburn, fear, and frustration. But they are a fact of life. When you make a mistake, you are really faced with two choices: 1) You can relive the event, wallow in it and generally depress yourself or 2) You can take a step back and become a student of the error. Now, you might be thinking, “Why would I want to relieve something that went wrong?” Here’s the secret . . . Those who thrive in any environment, develop the habits of mind to move past the emotion and move on to the opportunities for learning.

At one point in a presentation last week, for instance, I got a little too glib. In the process, I came off as a smart-ass rather than an expert. I won’t share what I said. But the second I said it, I watched the audience begin to shut down. I quickly apologized for the goof, but the damage had been done. After the presentation, my first inclination was to beat myself up for going too far in trying to be funny. Then I took a step back and reflected. Ninety-nine percent of the presentation had gone very well. I just need to more careful in my attempts to be amusing.

Now, changing habits of mind requires practice and determination. Sadly, most of us have gotten very good at wallowing in what goes wrong. That’s human nature. The best thinkers don’t despair, however. Instead, they become students of error, determined to learn from what goes wrong. How? Here are three things I’ve learned from interviewing lots of them:

Take time to reflect – When you make a mistake or something goes wrong, learn to interrupt your pattern of worry and examine the incident in perspective. With few exceptions, the mistakes we make are never as bad as our emotions make them out to be. Mark Twain once said, “My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes, most of which have never happened.”

Discuss the error with others – Proverbs 16:18 says “Pride goeth before the fall.” The best decision makers swallow their pride when things go wrong and ask for help. Call a couple of friends. Take a colleague to lunch. Explain the situation, the outcome, and ask what they would have done differently. Ask them to be frank. As the old saying goes, “In adversity, there is opportunity” . . . to learn. Chances are, by the way, they’ve made similar mistakes.

Learn from others’ mistakes – Many of those I’ve interviewed read lots of biographies. They glean insights from those who have come before. I’ve spent the past year interviewing small business owners. One of the questions I always ask is, “What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made and what did you learn from it?” You can do this same sort of thing with the leaders and decision makers you admire. I think you’ll be surprised at how open most will be.

With each mistake we face a choice. On one hand, we can dwell on what went wrong and brace ourselves for the next mistake. One the other hand, we can compartmentalize our emotions and seek out the learning opportunity. One reinforces negative beliefs. The other will make us better decision makers.