Do This One Thing...

It’s the time of year where many of us reflect on the past 12 months and contemplate what we’ve accomplished (hello performance review). As I reflect on the past year, there is one concept I implemented that had a profound impact on my work. Brainstorming — to try to solve a problem or come up with new ideas by having a discussion that includes all members of a group. It's so simple, but produces amazing results. Read on to find out how to leverage this idea in your data projects, annual planning process, or even for your 2021 goals.

This small concept impacts projects I manage, programs I implement, groups I organize, and the thesis I’m working on. Brainstorming not only allows me to consider options I might not typically think of, when I involved other people, our solution ended up being better and people were much more supportive of the end result (psychology is fun).

It might seem like a waste of time, but I’ve found when I take a few minutes to stop and think about what it is I’m doing, why, and what the best approach is, I end up saving time. Take for instance my thesis, a massive beast of a research project — I’ve found myself trying different modeling techniques almost randomly, trying to find an interesting approach, but really I'm just spinning my wheels. When I notice myself in that mode, I grab a notebook and pen (or my iPad), go into a different room, and think about my research. I’ll write notes about my process and ideas for things I want to try. After my brainstorming session, I’ll go back through my ideas and order or prioritize them. The result is a much more methodical and thoughtful approach to my research. Ultimately, I save time and make faster progress.

Beyond the idea of saving time, taking time to brainstorm ideas has led to better outcomes in my projects. Lately, at the beginning of a project (after the project kickoff but before any technical implementation), I have been scheduling brainstorming meetings with my team. I let everyone know the goal of the meeting is to throw out a bunch of ideas, to get it all out on the table, and that we will sort through it all (and determine a solution) later. It puts people in a different frame of mind when the goal is just idea sharing. 

I love this approach so much I’m using it as my team thinks about our roadmap and goals for next year. I use it when I come up with next blog topics, ideas for Tableau user group content, and an outline for our data literacy program. You can do it alone or with a friend. It creates a sense of community as well as a safe place for people to offer feedback. When brainstorming in a group, I’ve found it’s important to keep my emotions in check and remember that to achieve the best result, I have to open my mind to new ideas. The whole point of brainstorming is to consider new and different ideas, so it’s critical to listen. Many times, some of the best ideas are ones that come from building on someone else’s idea, or having someone else’s idea trigger a new and different idea of your own.

Of course, it’s all about balance. If we spend all of our time brainstorming, nothing would get done. So I recommend including a brainstorming step in your process, but give it a time limit and be sure to synthesize the results.