No Need to Ask – I’ll Tell You

As so often happens, the internet tends to feed you a lot of what you do not necessarily need at the time (that’s what your favourite read-it-later or bookmarking/archiving service is for). Then, some days it slaps you in the face with those “you’ve got to be kidding me — that’s what I was just thinking” moments.

This post has been written after the latter occurred last week. Two posts — each written with a different focus — yet I believe, concepts which are inextricably linked. Introversion, and that old chestnut — the corporate “brainstorming session” — yes, you may shudder at the thought. I know I do.

The writing in question:

Introvert by Iain Simpson on his personal site (shared on Twitter by Matt Gemmell)

Isaac Asimov’s Advice for Being Creative (Hint: Don’t Brainstorm) by Cal Newport, on his Study Hacks site.

Some background

I work in a corporate office. There is brainstorming. Thankfully not often, with my role as a manager providing at least some authority to dictate the frequency of such sessions.

Occasionally this is not the case, and the result would be familiar to many of you. The “brainstorming day” which is beyond my authority to avoid. The large room of 20-30 people; the introduction of why we are here and how it will work; the groupings; the breakout sessions; the ideas we will generate which will create immediate solutions to problems years in the making; the solutions no-one has thought of in the past five years. Yet we will come up with them on this very day — oh yes we will.

I think you get the picture.

As far as introversion is concerned, I would certainly say I fall somewhere towards that end of the spectrum. Iain Simpson’s opening paragraph:

I hate attention. I can’t think of anything worse than being the centre of focus in a room. Everyone looking at you, thinking about you, listening to what you say. I feel unwell just thinking about it.

I describe myself as a very private person1, so in one sense I can relate to the above — yet mainly the first three words. I am the first to admit I am not great at small talk or self promotion, and am often fairly intolerant of the office loud talker — though here I am talking on the inside — as of course, I understand we are all different.

As my working life progresses, I have become more adept at leading my team and conducting group training sessions and seminars both in-house and across the industry in which I work. I would not therefore, say I have any great problems with everyone looking at me and listening to me, and certainly don’t feel unwell thinking about it.

Would I choose a career solely as a presenter and group trainer? Absolutely not, however my role dictates that I have important, relevant and valid things to say, and I am happy to share them to a group.

If I am guilty of anything in relation to these presentations it is over-preparing, however my experience indicates I have very different views on what constitutes “over preparation” to those around me.

The eye of the storm

So, away we go. Into the room, butcher’s paper strategically placed in every corner, ready for those ideas to be scribbled illegibly for all to see (and vainly attempt to read); spoken aloud by the group representative standing in front of the easel — back half turned to their audience — often articulating their idea with:

.. err.. I’m not sure why we wrote that. That was Jim’s idea.. uh.. umm.. ah.. Jim? Do you remember what we meant by that? Actually I can’t even read the rest um.. so uh.. I’ll just keep going..

Ground. Breaking. Idea. Lost.

Of course it wasn’t — and you know how these sessions go. You hear from the same people you always hear from — repeatedly. Good for them, I have no problem with that, otherwise there would be silence and all we would see on those easels would be large blank sheets of white paper. In fact I applaud these people for continually showing up and shouting out.

My main issue lies with the fact you don’t hear from the same people you always don’t hear from. Some are disinterested perhaps, however many simply are not suited to be thrust into the limelight at a moments notice, expected to give their thoughts — on what is often a complex and broad problem — to a larger group who wait expectantly in deafening silence for a response.

What comes with the “we’re having a brainstorming session today” is of course the “I expect everyone to contribute”. Because supposedly, in that deafening moment of silence I referred to above, the past six years of a person’s employment — grinding and grafting away day in and day out, making small suggestions quietly to their manager about how things perhaps could be done a little better is not — at that moment — a contribution. Well, today it’s not my friend, unless we hear something right here, right now.

Somehow the suggestion that these ideas are not real, meaningful, or actionable unless the form part of the “Action Plan” emanating from today’s “session” is laughable, and shame on you manager if you do not at least acknowledge and listen to these “grafters” from time to time in your day-to-day operations.

Why on earth we expect the best ideas to come out of a brainstorming meeting between 3:00 and 4:00pm on Tuesday when it is scheduled — wait..what? Oh, its been rescheduled — so the best ideas to complex long-term problems will now be generated between 9:00 and 10:00am on Thursday. Of course. If you must strike gold with a great idea on Tuesday – please hold until Thursday – but as God is your witness you certainly better have one when standing at that butcher’s paper come Thursday.

This is where I like the explanation from Asimov as outlined in Newport’s article:

The goal for creative meetings is not to come up with new ideas, he argues, but instead to transfer the raw material for these ideas between participants. As Asimov explains: “No two people exactly duplicate each others’ mental stores of items.”

Once done — we just need to get back to work (Newport again):

The goal of collaboration, in other words, is to quickly increase the store of material that the creative can then work with once returned to his or her isolated cogitation.

Further, as Newport opines, chatting around tables with butchers paper or in open plan offices is not likely to generate “deep insight”.

Don’t even get me started on open plan offices.

The intersection

If you are still with me at this point, then an explanation of where these two aspects of introversion and office practices intersect is probably unnecessary. That said, a couple of things bear highlighting.

Remember, deep thinkers are not by default slow thinkers — they simply consider things in more depth; require more information to formulate an opinion; and do not necessarily like to express it prematurely. Deep thinkers who may also be introverts to varying degrees by nature — do their best work alone, quietly, and without undue attention or fuss.

As Iain Simpson puts it:

If I haven’t told you how I feel about something, it’s probably because I haven’t decided how I feel about it. I can’t make decisions without all the information, and I don’t offer solutions without understanding the problem.

When they have something meaningful to say, they will say it, and expect you to listen. Conversely – at the very least — respect their silence. They are not disinterested, but are most likely thinking.

And when they’re done thinking and have a well formulated, meaningful answer?

No need to ask. I’ll tell you.


  1. Yet I write here, for the world to see – touché reader. Small fish – very big pond.


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