How to encourage creativity in meetings
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According to an article on MSNBC, a study was done which indicated that meetings are not a productive environment for creativity. I could have spared them the money and time for the study. Getting involvement from all your meeting attendees is difficult, because people think in many different ways and in many different environments. Some are confident enough to speak up in the midst of others, and some like to think out loud. But, others prefer to hear of a problem, and then have time to themselves to ponder possible solutions. As well, many people are problem solvers, while others are those who like to shoot holes in everything. While that is a necessary skill set on any team, it is inappropriate in a problem solving, brainstorming meeting, and it discourages the creative thinkers from speaking out.

To encourage input from everyone, I suggest the following. Call a meeting to identify the problem, and warn attendees before hand that no solutions will be discussed. The goal for the meeting is only to identify the problem and any parameters involved. Then dismiss everyone. A good manager, who pays attention to the skill sets on the team, is hopefully aware of the team members strengths. After some time is given for creative thinking, call two followup meetings. The first will be with your creative thinkers. State at the beginning that it is a time for creative thinking and brainstorming and that no decision will be made in the meeting. As well, state up front that time will not be spent to critique the ideas and solutions. This is an idea generating time only, and is for your creative, outside the box thinkers.

In the next meeting, you will have your more analytical members who analyze everything without mercy. Present each idea to them and let them tear into them. If they have their own suggestions listen to them, but do not be surprised if they do not have any suggestions, but only propose reasons why none of the current suggestions will work. Record their objections and send them in an email to your first creative group, but do not identify who objected to their ideas. Give them time to consider them, and then convene again to hear their follow up ideas.

Continue this cycle, until a solution is apparent and can be chosen. Keep the two groups separate. If you are aware that some of your team members do not like to speak up in larger meetings, meet with them individually or in small groups of two. This more private setting will allow the less confident to have their say. You may also tell everyone after the first meeting, that they can email you their suggestions as well, again providing a method for them to participate but not in front of the group.

Be sure to keep every meeting focused on the task at hand, and when communicating between each team do not identify the originators of the ideas or the critiques.

This process works well to involve all team members, and to allow each to use their strengths.

Do you have any other suggestions for making problem solving meetings more productive?

Read the article on MSNBC.

The beginner mind
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“I am defeated, and know it, if I meet any human being from whom I find myself unable to learn anything.”
– George Herbert Palmer

I’m sure we’ve all worked with someone we found it very difficult to learn from and someone who seemed to do everything with the sole purpose of proving their knowledge and worth.

On the web site Escape from Cubicle Nation, the author Pam Slim explains two types of mindsets: the beginner and the expert. She relates the differences in the two ways of thinking to Entrepreneurs, but the same advice applies to the IT industry.

She explains that the beginner mindset is curious about how things work and why, is interested in other’s opinions and why they have the opinion, is interested in how others think, and is always seeking to learn more.

Whereas, the expert is constantly trying to prove to others that he/she already knows what needs to be known, and is always seeking to teach others and to be understood by others. The expert frequently sees training sessions and certain discussions as a waste of their time.

It’s easy to let it happen in an area where you have a lot of experience, but we should strive to always have the mindset that we can learn and learn from anyone. Sometimes you can learn from the most unexpected people.

From my own experience it is when I have the beginner mindset that I am most engaged with what I am doing, and it results in a strong passion to continue to improve and learn. Whereas, when I let myself fall into the expert mindset, I tend to get bored with what I’m doing; I subconsciously convince myself I have nothing left to learn and when that happens, I lose interest.

“Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily.”
– Thomas Szasz

To read Pam’s original article, visit her web site.

Alone and Offline
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Technology changes so fast in our society, that our methodologies, procedures, and comfort zones often lags behind. I’ve discussed the lag in acceptance for Telecommuting in my article, Telecommuting: Old-thinking vs New-thinking as one example of societal trends not keeping up with technology.

Another, is in our form of communication. In the past, we communicated almost exclusively with telephones and in person discussions. Now, we have email, chat rooms, and IM. We can access fellow team members at our every whim, even when they are working remotely. But this luxury of communication has it’s drawbacks. We all struggle with distractions, and these forms of instant communication create even more than we would already have. Focusing on a single issue at a time is generally the best method of completing a task, but being bombarded constantly with requests for help on other issues from teammates, requests for status updates on tasks by project management, and spontaneous team brain storming and problem solving meetings all serve to derail us from our train of thought and prevent us from completing the task at hand.

There must times when team members are allowed to focus on their current task, without risk of interruption in thought process. When developers are problem solving, it takes some time for the brain to get into the problem, thoroughly digest it, and get the creative juices flowing to find a solution. But how any times have you been involved in this process, only to be called into a meeting, get involved in an email thread, or be bombarded suddenly with IMs?

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Free Online Whiteboard Tool
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I mentioned in my last post that I think and design better when I can use a whiteboard. I even carry a portable whiteboard in my laptop bag for when I work at a cafe with wifi. Another great solution for whiteboarding is provided by GE. It not only allows easy and free whiteboarding, but also allows you to print and save your drawings, and invite friends to participate in the whiteboarding.

You can use the tool at this link.

DENIM: A must have tool for Web Site Concepting and Storyboarding
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I love drawing on whiteboards. I’m very visual, and most times, can’t think through a problem, nor plan a problem without drawing it out. I’m terrible at drawing, so its not about drawing something that looks visually interesting, simply about using visuals to organize concepts, data, and flow.

I use the same technique when planning out a new web site. I like to draw a box for each page, and use lines to link them together. I also design the basic idea of each page, either on a white board, or on paper. In the past, I’ve mocked up my pages using HTML/CSS, and at other times done it in Photoshop or Gimp. The problem is, I waste so much time fooling around with the tools, or trying to get that CSS to look just right, that it takes longer than it should to come up with my basic design.
Thankfully, I’ve found a solution to all that, which I’ve already used to design my next project. With the new tool I’ll introduce you to in this article, you can sketch out which pages you need, and the linkings between them, as well as sketch out the look of each page, all with the ease of using a pencil and paper, yet, save it for later use and editing, and turn it into a functional mockup, perfect for handing to a HTML/CSS developer and a graphic designer.

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