Brainstorming; solo think sessions

So there’s brainstorming in a group and then there is what I think of as brainstorming alone. I often brainstorm alone. The reason for this is that I frequently work alone on projects. The other reason for my solo brainstorming sessions is bundled up in my INTJ personality and my preference to have alone time to think through situations and problems without distractions or other people’s influence (at least sometimes). I like to have my own grounding time before noodling on a problem with other people.

I’ve been thinking about how to describe my solo think sessions. The reason is that I’m actually quite curious about how people analyze things. I’d like to analyze analysis.

I know it sounds heady and perhaps like I’m over-caffeinated and under-slept again but stand back and think about it. Do you know how someone else analyzes and if you could get inside the head and thinking process of someone else to learn how to think better, clearer or just to gain alternate way to think, wouldn’t you want to?

I’ve gone to bookstores and the library to ask if there are books on the analysis of the analysis process but I’ve gained mostly odd reactions from booksellers. Seems like a reasonable question to me but … so I thought I would share some of my own thinking process here – how I brainstorm alone. I’m hoping other people will think about how they think and perhaps share some ideas.

Movement. I’ve found some of my best thoughts come when I’m moving, especially when I’m walking. I’m learning that brain activity and physical movement isn’t surprising – a book I’ve been reading recently is Brain Rules and movement is discussed. I know I’ve long found the drab colored walls of most offices to be exactly uninspiring. When I have a particularly gnarly problem to work through a couple of things happen – here’s one tactic I’ve developed, I have planned walking routes.

Walk. I go for long walks. I’ll take a problem in my head and more or less state the issue to myself. Then I pick a walking route that I know (I have several where I know the length and approximate time so that I can somewhat auto-pilot my walk). I then make timed sessions with myself, challenging myself to think only of X problem until I reach a destination. I can be a pretty disciplined person, sometimes the discipline works for me – it forces me to focus, the physical movement helps and odd solutions and ideas will pop up in my mind. If I find myself without index cards or a notebook in hand to record my ideas, then I use the voice recorder on my blackberry. I’ve been surprised a few times the ideas I’ve recorded – ideas I thought I would not forget, but I’ve been glad I recorded and replayed my notes.

Trying the opposite of movement, sometimes I have planned seated sessions.

Coffee. I mention all the time that I sit in Starbucks and create many test strategies and plans in various Starbucks locations and it’s true. The combination of coffee and large glass windows seems to work well for me. The only exception is the occasional over-yuppied location or loud days in acoustically poor locations. An alternative is my local library, I have a couple of favorite chairs and locations inside my local library but I’m not allowed to bring coffee in. I could just get one of those Miele coffee makers and make my own hot cup to enjoy at home or take wherever. But anyway, I’m sure the point isn’t the drink, although some recent studies of caffeine and increased brain activity have me justifying caffeine quite nicely. I’ll bet it has more to do with the discipline of the defined thinking sessions that help me. I think about the advice given to people with sleep issues and how to train yourself that when you crawl into bed, you’re there to sleep. I guess Starbucks has become a trained place for me, I walk in and if I’m going to stay, I know I’m there to think through something.

It seems location can matter – sometimes a small influence and sometimes a larger influence but for the price of a coffee and the small effort of moving– it seems worth it. So now what? Once I’m seated or moving what do I do? I’ve been trying to identify specific to be able to articulate this – here’s a few…

Argue. I argue with myself. I’ll work both sides of a conversation in my head. Sometimes I’m thinking about a particular real person or real project obstacle and I’ll argue through an idea or tactical approach I want to use and where I expect opposition. I suppose I am planning my defense of persuasive speech in advance. Other times, the obstacle is less tangible and I just want to get to the root of my idea and by looking for the opposite or an opposition, I can see more specifically and clearly where I’m attached to an idea and why. It’s helpful to understand motives, including my own which I’ve learned are not always obvious.

One important reason arguing alone works for me is that there is no heat or politics. I know when I’m debating with myself that I have no hidden agenda – which isn’t the case when I work with other people where it’s not always obvious what agenda someone may have. With myself, that obstacle is removed and the best of arguing comes to light – for me. The removal of the heated debate may not work for some where rallying for the cause brings out great debates skills but for me, it’s a more gentle probing session and I can see the ideas without the heat of emotions that can sway things.

Prove it. I imagine I have to prove my idea(s) to someone and I step through how I would articulate my idea. I look to see where my reasoning might seem or is thin and I try to find additional reasons.

History. I think through past experiences if I can draw a correlation or comparison and I look for situations that have worked well or situations of past failures to attempt to prevent repeating a pattern. The correlations can be people-related, product-related, time-crunch related. Less than obvious correlations can often be made. For instance how did I deal (well or not) with the last time I was so painfully time-crunched? What worked? And what did I vow to myself not to repeat? And now I go on to ask myself – how? How? What can I actually do about X situation now.

Worst case. I try to envision the worst incident that could take place with a product or a release. This is the complete opposite of thinking about the blubbly happy words used in marketing hype. I try to envision catastrophes and what I realize is that in thinking this way, I’m building a risk analysis in my head. Thinking through the worst of things helps me gain a sense of priority, a sense of where to focus efforts.

Rotate. Another time game I play in my think sessions is limiting time to think about a particular category. The timebox approach has a way of forcing me to think through the most important things first and I personally have to work on letting the smaller things go. It’s a game really, for instance if I pick a time to end working on something, say writing a blog post, will I stop when the time comes and did I do a good enough job in the time I allotted?

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