Last Updated on August 28, 2017 by karwisch

With each day that passes and with each new advancement in technology, our brains are freed up from carrying around facts like phone numbers, addresses, and birthdates. We are now able to retrieve information almost instantly from anywhere and then backup new data in the cloud where a hungry washing machine or a cup of coffee cannot destroy it. We trust these outboard brains so much that most of us cannot recall more than a few phone numbers of friends and family.

Outboard brains can take many shapes; a dry erase calendar in our kitchen, a journal, a smart phone or a post-it-note on the corner of our monitor where we prominently display our network password. There is a moment, however, that we often do not think to use an outboard brain, where it could help us shift seamlessly from informal conversation into idea generation. 

The issue we are attempting to overcome happens when we have entered into a state of flow in our conversation but we have not yet entered into a recognizable collaboration session. It often starts at lunch or on a coffee break or at the tail end of another discussion.

When the shift occurs from conversation to collaboration we often make mistakes due to a fear of losing that great idea we just generated, or getting lost within the overall idea landscape. These mistakes usually take the shape of either minimizing our listening or maximizing how aggressively we push our ideas forward in the conversation. Many times it is both of these combined.

If we cannot perfectly hold an idea in our mind while fully listening to ideas that are already being shared, it makes sense that we would entrust these ideas to an outboard brain.

So let’s talk about what the shift in conversation looks like so we know when and how to incorporate the outboard brain.

  1. The reason we are in the same room together is not formally for the purpose of problem solving or idea generation.
  2. Our enjoyment of the conversation and lack of self-consciousness causes us to enter into a creative state of flow.
  3. Through the course of a regular discussion, a need or problem is discovered.
  4. Without those involved realizing it, all of these factors combine and form a rapid generation of ideas.
  5. One or more individuals involved in the conversation becomes overwhelmed by the sheer number of ideas that are being generated or by a lack of vision of how these ideas combine together.
  6. One or more individuals involved stops listening in order to retain their idea, interrupting others and start pushing their idea harder, or begins to take notes vigorously on a notepad and disconnects from what is being shared.

The trouble with legal pads as your only outboard brain

Capturing information in an informal environment often takes the form of opening up a legal pad, or journal, and taking notes. The trouble with legal pads is that they are only usable as a map by one person in the conversation and we often are forced to dominate the flow of the conversation to make sure that we get all of the ideas captured. We usually end up with two separate note pads or with someone depending on another for capturing and restating the ideas.

The trouble with whiteboards as your only outboard brain

Many workplaces are equipped with whiteboards and markers to capture ideas the are generated in brainstorms and meetings. Whiteboards are fantastic when they fit the need of the meeting, however, there are a few times when they are not the best fit. Here are a few problems with whiteboards.

  1. In order to use them, we often must rise from our chairs, uncap a marker, and turn our back on our fellow conversationalist in order to capture the thought in our head. When we are in a conversation that is shifting into idea generation, rising from the table can disrupt flow by being an unexpected gear shift.
  2. Holding the marker is also a single point of power in the conversation and we often feel that only one of us can hold the marker at the same time. Two people uncapping markers at the same time can cause a feeling of conflict and cause a disorganized feeling within the conversation.
  3. Once something is written on the board, the only way to move it is to erase it and rewrite it again somewhere else. What often happens instead is that we continue to write further and further away from our original space and we end up with ideas that are not sorted, prioritized or as clear as would benefit the current conversation.

Post-it-notes to the rescue!

The best method I have found for engaging an outboard brain spontaneously during conversation is to make sure that I always carry two sharpie markers and a post-it-note pad on my person. I also make sure these simple tools are available at all times in locations where conversations occur naturally in the work environment.

At the moment when someone involved in the conversation recognizes that lots of ideas are happening, they simply uncap a sharpie marker and write one of the ideas down in large letters on a post-it-note. They peel off the post-it-note and set the note over onto table, desk or whatever is available. This can be done in a way that shows the current speaker that you have an idea to capture but also that you want to return back to their thought as soon as possible.

The key to making this work is simple. If I am speaking and in mid thought and I see you reach over and write something on a post-it-note, I take that moment to write the concept words of the idea I am sharing on a post-it-note pad as well. When we are both finished I launch back into my idea and finish it up. Because I saw you write on your own note I know the topic and can ask you to share it with me.

Using Legal pads, post-it-notes, and whiteboards together well.

  1. Capture main ideas onto post it notes and place where they can be seen by the group
  2. Capture specific turns of phrase into your journal and note the main topic that it is attached to for future retrieval
  3. Use whiteboards to map out the inner workings of ideas once you have posted them, discussed them and prioritized them.

I hope this breakdown has helped you to think through those shifts from conversation to collaboration. What have I missed? Let me know in the comments below!

Shoulders of Giants (what does this mean?)

 Photograph by Brodie Vissers

Tools of the trade