I’m traveling on vacation, with limited time and less attention for writing stuff. Which means it’s time for another re-run. This one from 20 years ago give or take a week, is about brainstorming and how not to do it. It’s one of my all time favorites. Hope you find some use for it yourself.

– Bob

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In the end, technique can’t substitute for courage.

Take, for example, brainstorming. By now, most of us in business have learned how to brainstorm properly. We sit at the table, politely waiting our turn while the facilitator asks for our ideas in strict rotation, writing them down verbatim while we all take great care to avoid offering even the slightest appearance of criticism lest it intimidate the flow of creative thought.

Then we get our milk and cookies and take a nap.

Not only can’t technique substitute for courage, but it can prevent the very benefits you’re trying to achieve. Brainstorming, or at least the form of brainstorming most of us have been taught in facilitation school, not only doesn’t work but can’t work.

Let’s start with the standard practice of presenting ideas in strict rotation. The reason for doing so is to make sure everyone gets a chance — important among children; ridiculous among supposed adults who by now ought to grasp how to converse in public. Forcing adults to take turns in a brainstorming session is a superior way to drain the energy out of a group. Jill makes a point that Fred wants to embellish. Fred, however, has to wait until three other people have presented entirely different ideas, not because they especially wanted to, but because it was their turn. By the time Fred’s turn arrives, any remaining shred of continuity has fled the room and the effort Fred must expend to restore it greatly exceeds the value of the embellishment, so Fred doesn’t bother.

Nor does Fred bother to do anything else. His mental energy has been used to repress the expression of his idea.

Meanwhile, Ralph has made an off-the-wall suggestion. Rather than offer her critique, Kayla bites her tongue because it isn’t time for critiquing right now. That’s too bad, because had she been allowed to do so her comments would have caused a mental light bulb to turn on in Zack’s mind.

So here’s a suggestion on how to make brainstorming work: Rather than spend a lot of time and energy preventing the flow of ideas so as to cater to the timid, why don’t we spend a small fraction of it counseling the timid on the nature of professionalism.

My parents’ generation charged pillboxes on Guadalcanal. Compared to that, is asking someone to speak up in a team meeting too much courage to ask for?

The First Amendment allows us to express our opinions free from undue governmental interference. But allowing us doesn’t obligate us.

My random sample of strongly held opinions suggests that while opinions are protected, more often than not silence should be encouraged.

Management has parallels. It has practices at its disposal that are legal, but whose legality doesn’t make them good ideas.

For this week’s example there’s the form of metrics abuse described in “The Rise of the Worker Productivity Score,” (Jodi Kantor and Arya Sundaram, New York Times, 8/14/2022), which tells of businesses that have installed automated monitoring systems to make sure employees aren’t exploiting their employers’ good will by not being provably busy at all times and in all circumstances.

Unsurprisingly, these monitoring systems exhibit all four metrics fallacies:

Metrics Fallacy #1: They measure the right things wrong, leading to the wrong results.

Metrics Fallacy #2: They measure the wrong things, again leading to the wrong results.

Metrics Fallacy #3: Anything they don’t measure you don’t get, because you’re only paying employees for what they measure.

Metrics Fallacy #4: They extend their system of metrics to individual employees, which pretty much guarantees they’ll game the system.

For a closer look:

MF #1: Measuring productivity isn’t intrinsically wrong. Productivity is, sometimes, a good thing. But these systems don’t measure productivity. They measure activity, which doesn’t matter a bit.

MF #2: In many employee roles, productivity isn’t what’s needed. For example (I’m not making this up) measuring hospice chaplains’ productivity through the accrual of “productivity points.” As the article explains the system, “A visit to the dying: as little as one point. Participating in a funeral: one and three-quarters points. A phone call to grieving relatives: one-quarter point.”

MF #3: Productivity tracking systems only track what they can detect, such as keystrokes and the presence of the employee in front of their laptop camera. But few employee roles can be fully satisfied by typing. Attending meetings is an obvious, but far from the only example. Once you’ve established a system of metrics you get what you measure and only what you measure. Anything you don’t measure you don’t get.

MF #4: Step 1 – sit in chair. Step 2 – bring up Wordl on your smartphone. Step 3 – idly rest your hand on your laptop’s keyboard. Step 4 – plug in a “mouse jiggler” (a physical one so IT can’t detect it). Step 5 – concentrate on solving today’s Wordl while drumming your fingers on the keyboard.

Bob’s last word: Two features demonstrate why these practices are, to borrow a movie title, dumb and dumber.

They’re dumb because they assume employees require this level of supervision or they’ll slack off. But if your business leaders have hired employees who will only work if Skynet is looking over their shoulder, your business leaders are hiring all the wrong people. You don’t need monitoring technology. You need better leaders.

And they’re dumber: Employers are complaining they can’t recruit and retain the employees they need. Employers like those chronicled in Kantor and Sundaram’s article won’t be able to recruit the employees they need because their recruiters will be epoxied to their chairs and only paid for their keystrokes, not for the talent they bring in.

They won’t be able to retain the good employees they have because who would want to work for a company like this if they had any choice?

Extra Credit: Assess these systems using KJR’s exclusive “7 Cs” framework and post your results in the Comments.

Bob’s sales pitch: Looking for some thoughts on how to approach a topic? Try searching KJR. That’s what the “Search for” box is for.

Or do you have a few minutes to spare and are bored with Wordl? Check out the Archives. Just click a month at random, or maybe click on whatever I published ten or twenty years ago to enjoy a blast from the past.

There’s good stuff in there, if I do say so myself.

Now on CIO.com in the CIO Survival Guide:Why every IT leader should avoid ‘best practices.’” Short version (but the whole article is worth taking your time to read), it’s because there are no best practices, only practices that fit best.