A better format for brainstorming

Maoz is a not for profit which helps leaders in the Israeli public sector make better decisions by inviting input from a network of smart volunteers. This is how they conduct their brainstorming sessions:

  • The “owner” presents the problem / issue.
  • Participants ask questions for 15 minutes.
  • Participants discuss possible answers and approaches; the owner observes the discussion but doesn’t participate in it.

Notes:
(1) Brilliant. Dedicated question time forces participants to ask questions before expressing opinions. And excluding the owner from the subsequent discussion removes the risk that the owner will get defensive, anchor the conversation in their current approach to the issue, or not listen because they’re thinking what to say next.
(2) Cf. Group brainstorming doesn’t lead to creativity; this does. Perhaps Maoz’s brainstorming is different because it involves external players, not the members of a team responsible for achieving a goal.
(3) Cf. When you’re given advice, here’s how to listen with an open mind.

If you want to be a better listener, here’s a simple tip

Edited excerpt from Startup founders’ most common mistake in meetings — and how to avoid it:

Before you talk with someone, set a target for what % of the conversation you want them to be talking. Remind yourself of that target during the conversation.

Notes:
(1) Cf. How to have more valuable and rewarding conversations with people.
(2) Cf. How to listen when you disagree.
(3) Cf. How to be a better listener.

How to have more valuable and rewarding conversations with people

Edited excerpt from 10 ways to have a better conversation by Celeste Headlee:

I’d like to teach you how to talk and how to listen. A lot of advice on this, like “look, nod and smile to show that you’re paying attention”, “repeat back what you just heard or summarize it”, is crap. There is no reason to learn how to show you’re paying attention if you are in fact paying attention. I have 10 basic rules:

1. Don’t multitask. And I don’t just mean set down your cell phone or your tablet. I mean, be present.
2. Don’t pontificate. Enter every conversation assuming that you have something to learn. The famed therapist M. Scott Peck said that true listening requires a setting aside of oneself.
3. Use open-ended questions. Start your questions with who, what, when, where, why or how.
4. Go with the flow. Thoughts will come into your mind and you need to let them go out of your mind.
5. If you don’t know, say that you don’t know.
6. Don’t equate your experience with theirs. It’s not the same. It is never the same. All experiences are individual. And, more importantly, it is not about you.
7. Try not to repeat yourself. It’s condescending, really boring, and we tend to do it a lot. Especially in work conversations or in conversations with our kids.
8. Stay out of the weeds. Frankly, people don’t care about all those details. What they care about is you, what you’re like, what you have in common.
9. Listen. Listening is perhaps the number one most important skill that you could develop. Buddha said, and I’m paraphrasing, “If your mouth is open, you’re not learning.” And Calvin Coolidge said, “No man ever listened his way out of a job.”
10. Be brief. My sister says “A good conversation is like a miniskirt; short enough to retain interest, but long enough to cover the subject.”

All of this boils down to the same basic concept: Be interested in other people.

Notes:
(1) Thank you Karen Jackson for the tip.
(2) Re. “Use open-ended questions” – see How to ask great questions.
(3) Re. “Listening is perhaps the number one most important skill that you could develop” – see How to be a better listener.

How to listen when you disagree

Edited excerpt from How To Listen When You Disagree: A Lesson From The Republican National Convention by Benjamin Mathes:

If there’s one question I get asked more than any other, it’s this: How do I listen to someone when I disagree with them?

It takes a lot of forgiveness, compassion, patience, and courage to listen in the face of disagreement. I could write pages on each of these, but let’s start with the one thing that makes them possible: We must work to hear the person, not just the opinion. My friend Agape says it like this: “Hear the biography, not the ideology.”

When someone has a point of view we find difficult to understand, disagreeable, or even offensive, we must look to the set of circumstances that person has experienced that resulted in that point of view. When you find yourself in disagreement, just ask one question:

“Will you tell me your story? I’d love to know how you came to this point of view.”

Notes:
(1) This is another case where trying to “listen with intent to agree” won’t work. Rather, listen for its own sake.
(2) Cf. (i) How to listen without judging — a guide for managers and (ii) When you’re given advice, here’s how to listen with an open mind.

Ask positive questions

Edited excerpt from What’s the recipe for effective communication? by Emma Chilvers:

Start a meeting by asking people positive questions. This encourages people to share, contribute and focus.

The questions could be simple such as: What has gone well for you the last week? Can you name someone who has helped you achieve things? What are you looking forward to most this week?

Too often, when we review projects and performance we discuss how we could improve things next time, without pausing for a moment to say what went well and well done.

Starting off on a positive note primes the brain to adopt a more open attitude towards the forthcoming discussion – and it gets all of the voices in the room ready to contribute at the same time.

What’s more, recognising and celebrating good work makes people feed valued, that they matter; it boosts their energy levels, reconnects them to their purpose in the company and can increase their well-being and productivity.

Notes:
(1) This advice is widely applicable, not just to meetings. For example, you can ask individuals “What are you most excited about?”, “What’s working best in your area right now?”, or “Who are you most enjoying working with?”. And you can help people to feel happier and more motivated about their work by asking them this question.
(2) Cf. (i) Ideas spread inside a company due to positive energy; 8 ways to increase it, (ii) Smile.
(3) “Recognising and celebrating good work makes people feed valued”. See: (i) Why celebrating wins is so hard, but so important, and (ii) Is this the way to celebrate wins?

To make meetings more effective, learn to listen

Edited excerpt from What’s the recipe for effective communication? by Emma Chilvers:

In her work Time to Think, Nancy Kline advocates that everyone must have the chance to think and speak uninterrupted. This works wonders in terms of eliciting the best thinking from the whole group. Giving everyone equal voice, thinking time and the chance to contribute can transform the effectiveness of communication in a meeting.

Nancy Kline also found that rather than listening in meetings, people spend the majority of their time either working out what they are going to say or defending what they are saying and that a verbal interruption has the similar impact on thinking as a physical fight. It is no surprise that without strong agreements on giving equal voice and listening, the quality of the thinking goes down in teams.

Notes:
(1) I’m not a fan of meetings, particularly if the goal is to elicit creative thinking. See Group brainstorming doesn’t lead to creativity; this does and The optimal number of people in a meeting is…
(2) So for me, the valuable insight here is that listening transforms communication and makes people feel more secure. Cf. (i) How to be a better listener, (ii) When you’re given advice, here’s how to listen with an open mind, and (iii) How to listen without judging — a guide for managers.

Five tips for founders to get the most out of external meetings

After meeting with a bunch of startup founders a while ago, I wrote a post containing tips about how to get the most out of meetings if you’re a founder. Since then, I’ve met with a bunch more founders, and on the basis of that experience I’ve updated and improved the post. I hope you find it useful:

Startup founders’ most common mistake in meetings — and how to avoid it.

How to overcome objections and open possibilities

This is something we taught ourselves to do in Seeking Alpha, with tremendous results:

Many times someone makes a suggestion and someone else raises an objection:

Person 1: Wouldn’t it be great if we did X?
Person 2: Yes, but the problem with doing X is Y.

The problem is you’re now at a dead end. The objection means that Person 1’s idea can no longer be discussed. The solution is to flip the suggestion into a question, and incorporate the objection as a constraint:

The question to answer: How can we do x in a way that ensures that y doesn’t happen?

Here’s a concrete example:

Seeking Alpha employee’s suggestion to hedge fund manager: You should launch a subscription research service in our Marketplace. Other hedge fund managers have found that doing so generates meaningful income, valuable feedback on their ideas, and valuable ideas from their subscribers.

Hedge fund manager’s objection: Yes, but I’m a long term investor and I invest in relatively few stocks. If I publicize my ideas on Seeking Alpha, there will be no reason for anyone to invest in my fund, so I’ll cannibalize my main business.

The question to answer: How can hedge fund managers generate meaningful income by launching a paid service in the Seeking Alpha Marketplace while ensuring that there is no risk that they cannibalize their fund?

Once you’ve formulated the question in a way which incorporates the objection as a constraint, it’s easy to brainstorm about possible answers. In this case, for example, the hedge fund manager could limit the subscription research service to ideas which aren’t suitable for their fund, or they could write about stocks they own only when the prices have appreciated from when they purchased the stock for their fund.

Can you think of an example from your startup where you can apply this approach? If so, write it as a comment below.

How to listen without judging — a guide for managers

Edited excerpt from Practicing Non-Judgment by Leo Babauta:

What I’ve noticed when I experience anger, frustration, and disappointment, is that I am judging my experiences (and others, and myself) based on whether they are what I want, whether they are good for me or not. But why am I at the center of the universe? What about the other person? What about the rest of the universe?

If I drop away my self-centeredness, I no longer have reason for frustration. The experiences are just happening, and have nothing to do with me. They are neither good nor bad, they’re just happening.

Now, I realize we can’t do this all the time — as humans, it’s part of our experience to judge. And that’s OK. I’m simply suggesting that, some of the time, we drop the judgment and just experience.

Notes:
(1) For managers, there are positives and negatives to being judgmental. The positives: You have to be judgmental if you want to set high standards and create a culture committed to excellence. The negatives: Put yourself in your team’s shoes — it’s debilitating to feel constantly judged and criticized.
(2) How do you get the balance right? This is a personal issue I grapple with. I’m extremely judgmental, and I think I often get the balance wrong. Suggestions, anyone?
(3) See (i) The 5 psychological traits of successful startup founders, (ii) Which is better: a CEO who tolerates mediocrity or one who throws tantrums? (that post caused a furore inside Seeking Alpha), and (iii) How the “too nice” manager kills your career.

When you’re given advice, here’s how to listen with an open mind

Edited excerpt from Advice or Criticism? by Seth Godin:

Here’s a simple way to process advice: Try it on.

Instead of explaining to yourself and to your advisor why an idea is wrong, impossible or merely difficult, consider acting out what it would mean. Act as if, talk it through, follow the trail. Turn the advice into a new business plan, or a presentation you might give to the board. Turn the advice into three scenarios, try to make the advice even bolder…

Notes:
(1) In my experience, two factors enable you to listen to advice with an open mind: (i) Never forget that you are the decision maker. Whatever advice you get (and “try on”), the decision is still yours. (ii) Never give your opinion about the advice, or make a decision, on the spot. If you do that you’ll get you into an argument, and lose your feeling of being the decision maker.
(2) An application of this: never make decisions in board meetings.
(3) Note the similarity with the most effective advice for how to be a better listener — listen with intent to agree.
(4) Other advice from Seth Godin which we’ve implemented in Seeking Alpha: exhaustive lists.

Are you willing to ask hard questions?

Edited excerpt from Back to childhood for a day – or more by Andrés Spokoiny:

We seem to have relegated the question-asking to children, while we, adults, seem confident in our answers and certain of our responses. Indeed, we live in a world where asking questions is a signal of weakness, where doubt is an undesired chink in the armor. Questions are tolerated only when asked by the children, for they are, after all, too young to have any answers.

Our love for unambiguous answers betrays a hidden fear, which rears its ugly head through the high walls of our self-sufficiency: we are afraid of the open-endedness of the question.

Wouldn’t it be liberating to become children again and have the freedom to ask? Shouldn’t we try to abandon the ramparts of our certainties and embark in an adventure of doubt and surprise?

Primo Levi, the holocaust survivor and author of If This Is a Man, was once asked about the monstrosity of Nazism. He said, “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”

Our inability to question our own beliefs is creating a world of unprecedented polarization and intolerance. Because of our fears, we choose to listen to those who don’t question us, to those who reaffirm our biases. We build echo-chambers, where the same rusty arguments are repeated over and over, and we demonize those that don’t think like us. Because of our fear to question, true conversations have become an endangered species. After all, the requisite of a true dialogue is the capacity to be challenged and transformed.

Notes:
(1) With time, I increasingly appreciate the value (and difficulty) of asking good questions — in work as well as in other aspects of life. That’s why I devoted a category of this blog to Asking questions and listening.
(2) Re. “embark in an adventure of doubt and surprise”: Doubt can lead to paralysis and inaction. Success comes from proceeding — confidently — based on our best answer to a question. That doesn’t rule out periodically questioning our best answer with a genuinely open mind.

How to come up with the right questions to ask

Edited excerpt from Use Catalytic Questioning to Solve Significant Problems by Hal Gregersen:

Catalytic Questioning incorporates five simple, unconventional steps to help change our questions — and creatively solve significant problems both in our personal and professional lives:

Step 1: Find a white board or flip chart where your team can do its question-centric work. (For what it’s worth, standing up seems to jumpstart better questions than sitting down.)

Step 2: Pick a problem that your team cares about intellectually and emotionally. Double check to make sure that the problem (or opportunity, for the optimists of the world) is one that you honestly don’t have an answer to.

Step 3: Question everything. Engage in pure question talk, with one team member writing down each question verbatim. This gives everyone the chance (especially introverts) to see each question, reflect a bit, and then create even better ones. Don’t give preambles to the questions and don’t devote any time or energy to answering them. Just ask as many questions as you can. Go for at least 50, perhaps 75. But don’t give up when your mind goes blank around question 35. Savor the momentary dead space and continue the search for even better, more provocative questions, which will come with patience and persistence. It usually takes 10 to 20 minutes to exhaust a group’s questioning capacity. Push for exhaustion.

Step 4: Decide which questions on your list seem most “catalytic,” or which ones hold the most potential for disrupting the status quo. Focus on a few questions that your team honestly can’t answer but is ready and willing to investigate. Winnow your questions down to three or four that truly matter.

Step 5: Get to work! Find some answers.

Notes:
(1) The power of this approach is that it separates the process of coming up with questions from prioritizing them or answering them. This is important, because often a bad question contains the kernel of a great question, and you won’t get to the great question without first coming up with the bad question.
(2) This reminds me of Seth Godin’s use of exhaustive lists to get unstuck. Since reading Seth’s post, I’ve used exhaustive lists in Seeking Alpha to brainstorm answers to questions or solutions to problems. I’ve found that using exhaustive lists to answer a question is successful because it separates coming up with ideas from evaluating them. Bad ideas are worth listing, because they often lead to great ideas.
(3) The net result is a four step process: (i) Come up with an exhaustive list of questions. (ii) Prioritize them. (iii) Come up with an exhaustive list of answers to the top questions. (iv) Prioritize the best answers. This is extraordinarily powerful. It helps you to ask the right questions and come up with the best answers to them.
(4) Thank you Seth Godin and Hal Gregersen.

How to turn challenges into answerable questions

Edited excerpt from Transform 2013 by Turning Goals into Questions by Hal Gregersen:

Have you ever been in a meeting where a group was asked “What challenges do you face?” Funny thing is that most challenges are problems “out there,” not “in here.” Problems are often framed as a “system issue,” a “top management issue,” a “supplier issue,” or a “direct report issue.” Rarely are they framed as an “I’m part of the problem” issue.

But when you push a group to take their top three challenge statements and translate them into concrete questions, it often refines their understanding of what the problem really is. Here are a few examples to illustrate what this dynamic looks like:

Challenge statement >> Question goal
1. New ideas never move forward >> How can we translate new ideas into tangible results more successfully?
2. Overwhelmed with too many urgent things to do >> How can we find time to think much further in advance?
3. Employees aren’t engaged >> What is causing employees to emotionally check out from their work?

Turning a challenge statement into a challenge question consistently turns the finger of responsibility away from others and back to ourselves.

Notes:
(1) Perhaps a good way to transition from challenge statements to question goals is to use 5 Whys.
(2) Asking great questions is a skill, and often doesn’t come naturally. I try to step back from making assertions, to articulating the question which the assertion was supposed to answer. Someone else may come up with a better solution to the problem you’re trying to solve, but you won’t know if you don’t ask.
(3) Must read: The two greatest indicators of what we view as important.

Relentless questioning

Excerpt (edited) from Adam Bryant Of The New York Times On What Makes Great Leaders Great:

One [characteristic of the best CEOs I’ve met] is what I call “passionate curiosity,” which is this relentless questioning mind that I see in so many of the leaders I interview. They are really deeply engaged with the world. They are curious about people, their back stories. They go into new situations trying to figure out how things work, and then how they can be made to work better.

When CEOs present a face to the world, it tends to be one that suggests they have all the answers. We can all imagine the glossy business magazine with the CEO on the cover with their arms folded, and they have that “I can see the future” look in their eye. That is the face that they need to project for the customers and shareholders. But I think they play a very different role inside their companies, which is to ask the right questions. Because if you ask the right questions, that can really take the organization into important new directions.

Notes:
(1) “Relentless questioning” – I think this doesn’t only mean asking questions about many things, but relentlessly asking the same important question (“Why aren’t people buying my product?”) until you have an utterly convincing answer.
(2) On not being satisfied with partial answers, see the comment on dichotemous thinking (“sees black and white, little grey”) in The 5 psychological traits of successful startup founders.

Asking questions to build relationships

From Starting Anew by Apple SVP Retail Angela Ahrendts:

My father used to always say, “Ask questions, don’t make assumptions.” Questions invite conversations, stimulate thinking, break down barriers, create positive energy and show your willingness to understand and learn. Questions show humility, acknowledgement and respect for the past, and give you greater insights into both the business and individuals. And don’t be afraid to ask personal questions or share a few of your personal details. Talking about weekend interests, family and friends can give you a more complete view of your peers and partners, their passion and compassion. Building a relationship is also the first step in building trust, which quickly leads towards alignment and unity.

Notes:
(1) Many others have pointed out the importance of asking questions. Angela Ahrendts adds a new perspective: questions as relationship builders.
(2) Cf. How to ask great questions.

Great managers ask great questions

From Five Things Every Leader Should Do by Brad Smith:

Lead With Questions Not Answers

The best leaders don’t need to have all of the answers. They surround themselves with great people, and ask the right questions. It’s not what you know. It’s the questions you ask that help you become a more effective and inspiring leader.

The two greatest indicators of what we view as important are (1) how we spend our time and (2) the questions we ask.

Notes:
(1) Cf. The power of asking questions: What Warren Buffett asked Bill Gates
(2) Cf. How to ask great questions

Don’t ask multiple choice questions

From The one conversational tool that will make you better at absolutely everything by Shane Snow:

When people are nervous, they tend to ramble, and their questions tend to trail off into series of possible answers. (“What’s the most effective way to find a good programmer? Is it to search on Monster or to go on LinkedIn or to talk to people you know or … uh… uh… yeah, is it to, um…is there another job site that’s good …?”)

You’re the one with the question; why are you doing all the talking? Terminate the sentence at the question mark. It’s OK to be brief.

On that note, learn to be comfortable with silence. Allow your respondent to think; don’t jump in with possible answers after a few seconds pass. You won’t get answers if you keep talking, and you’ll rarely learn anything if you offer all the answers.

Notes:
(1) Compare to Mark Suster’s wide (and uninterrupted) questions.
(2) Thank you Zvi Provisor for the tip.

How to ask great questions

From Asking Questions More Effectively by Mark Suster:

The ability to ask questions effectively is one of the most important skills in business as is the ability to actively listen.  Yet as important as these two skills are they really don’t seem to ever be taught in school.

The “Wide” (and uninterrupted) Question: 

You ask a very broadly defined question and intentionally don’t try to offer specificity in what you mean by the question.  It is designed to get the person you’re asking to reveal more than they would if your question directed them toward a more narrowly defined path.  There are definitely times where a more narrowly defined question makes sense and where you want to guide the person you’re talking with to a narrow boundary to elicit a certain type of response.  For extracting the maximum range of information in an interview nothing beats “wide” and nothing beats silence from your side.

Notes:
(1) Asking great questions is the key to interviews, reference checks, employee reviewsfinding problems, and exit interviews. It can even help with motivating people and selling.
(2) Mark suggests that you ask wide and uninterrupted questions. But I’ve found that the best questions are open ended enough that you’re not anchoring the person answering the question, but specific enough that the question is easy to answer. For example, I have a friend who I see every weekend. Instead of asking “how are you?”, which is too wide for most people, and therefore elicits a bland or evasive response, he asks “How was your week?”.
(3) See: The questions Warren Buffett asked Bill Gates.

To sell, ask and listen

Excerpt from How to improve your abilities to close sales by Robert Waddington:

Why do questions work so well with closing sales?  Using questions balance out the ebb and flow of natural conversation. If a conversation is not natural, it will quickly fade and stop. The more you talk, the less chance the person you are talking to will feel like listening.  This aversion to not listening is exponential as you continue to drone on.

Asking questions show that you are willing to listen and that you are interested in what this person has to say.

People love to talk about themselves. A few well-placed questions will get even the most reticent of people to open up. When people start talking about themselves they generally brighten up, which will make it easier to move forward in the sales process.

Questions enable you to listen. Once you know what the needs are, it is easier to close the sale because you have an authority or command of the situation. Establishing yourself as an authority is crucial in establishing trust.  There can be no trust if there isn’t an environment to listen.

The right question to ask to motivate people

Excerpted from A Question You Should Ask Every Day by Geoffrey James:

In my experience, there is a question you can ask almost anybody and make them feel better about themselves and their place in the world.  I’ve used this question for decades on people I meet at work, always with excellent results:

Just out of curiosity, what do you like best about your job?

When asked with true curiosity,  this question always gets a positive response, for three reasons.

First, when you ask somebody a question that requires the other person to find positive things about their job, their mind immediately finds them. Second, when you show true curiosity about what makes other people happy, they are complimented by your interest, feel more comfortable talking to you, and feel more positively about you. Third, the question is an invitation for the other person to talk about themselves, which in my experience is everyone’s favorite topic of conversation.

Interesting to compare this to The two factors which determine how successful and happy you will be at work and How would you feel if you were asked to write a self-evaluation like this?

How to be a better listener

From The Plateau Effect, via Farnham Street:

If you try to improve your listening skills, you’ll notice a lot of discussion about “listening with intent.” Most people listen with intent to do something – usually to defend themselves, or to solve a problem. Nearly everyone listens with the intent of having something ready to say as soon as the speaker is finished. Have you ever wondered how crazy that is? Shouldn’t there be a pause once in a while, as one of the speakers actually thinks about what to say, or even better, thinks about what has been said?

Try something very different: Listening with intent to agree. Before you offer an explanation or defense, just imagine that whatever the other person is saying must be true. It sure is the fastest way to get new ideas into your brain.

Notes:
(1) Listening with intent to agree is similar to Seth Godin’s approach to unsolicited advice: Try it on.
(2) However, listening with intent to agree doesn’t always work, because sometimes you can’t agree. A better approach might be to listen with intent to understand.
(3) A work around to being a bad listener: Try asking questions in writing, for example using email and Google docs. That way you can read and re-read someone’s answers.
(4) A personal update: In a lecture I heard, Rav Yakov Nagen said that the Jewish mystical work Sefer HaYetzira states that a person has 3 organs for love — a heart and two ears. The statement is surprising because you would have thought that you care for other people by what you say and express to them. Sefer HaYetzira, in contrast, seems to be saying that people have a deep need just to be listened to with empathy, and that listening is an end in itself, not to be followed by speech. The implication for listening more broadly, including in work contexts, is that we shouldn’t listen with intent to do or think anything; just listening is valuable in itself. (This is consistent with listening with intent to understand.) After hearing that, I found my motivation and ability to listen rocketed.

The power of asking questions: What Warren Buffett asked Bill Gates

From Bill Gates’ description of the first time he met Warren Buffett:

I have to admit, when I first met Warren, the fact that he had this framework was a real surprise to me. I met him at a dinner my mother had put together. On my way there, I thought, “Why would I want to meet this guy who picks stocks?” I thought he just used various market-related things—like volume, or how the price had changed over time—to make his decisions. But when we started talking that day, he didn’t ask me about any of those things. Instead he started asking big questions about the fundamentals of our business. “Why can’t IBM do what Microsoft does? Why has Microsoft been so profitable?” That’s when I realized he thought about business in a much more profound way than I’d given him credit for.

It’s striking that Bill Gates identified Buffett’s brilliance from the questions he asked, not from statements or assertions. Note also that Warren Buffett’s questions were open ended, something Mark Suster advocates. And, in Bill Gates words, they were “big questions”.

Asking great questions is a skill, and often doesn’t come naturally. I’m particularly bad at it. So in discussions inside Seeking Alpha, I try to step back from making assertions, to articulating the question which the assertion was supposed to answer. Someone else may come up with a better solution to the problem you’re trying to solve, but you won’t know if you don’t ask them.