(This is the one version of the blog I wrote as the Executive Director of Research for VitalSmarts).
Congratulations. You’ve just been asked to assemble the smartest team in your organization. This will be the Einstein, Ninja, Go-To, Delta Team that will have to solve the toughest problems you face: How to increase growth by 70%, how to cut costs by 25%, how to rebrand the company, and what to do if the CEO’s spouse repeatedly staggers up to monopolize the Christmas Party Karaoke machine again next year.
Who would you choose to be on your Brainiac Committee? You could line everybody up by their IQ scores and pick the ones at the head of the line, or you could pick people who have a cool British-sounding accent, or you could pick that one person on the second floor who was a runner-up nominee for the Supreme Court. But according to an article in the journal Science, if you really want the smartest team that was going to make the best decisions, you should use a different approach.
The article dives deep into collective intelligence. The authors analyzed 699 people who were working in teams of two or five to solve a wide range of problems like brainstorming, moral judgements, and negotiation.
As it turned out, two things differentiated the teams that made the smartest decisions from the rest. First, teams where one or two people did most of the talking made less intelligent decisions than groups where everyone spoke up.
Second, teams with higher percentages of females made better, more effective decisions. They were more sensitive about getting input from everyone; they were better able to reach compromises, and they were generally more effective. This is consistent with an earlier 2006 study by Wellesley professor, Sumur Erkut, who showed that having two or more women on a corporate board brings “a collaborative leadership style that benefits boardroom dynamics by increasing listening, social support, and win-win problem solving.”
The research shows women are less polarizing, more collaborative, and more likely to reach a solution that makes everyone happy. The New York Times columnist, Bruce Feiler, recounts a story of having dinner with a Google executive who said, they always make sure there is more than one woman at a meeting. Their decision was based on this study. Turns out “diversity” isn’t just a fair word, it’s also a smart word.
The high-performing teams in the Science study tended to weigh options, encourage everyone to speak up, and to compromise better. These may be skills that come more naturally to some people than others, but they are all skills we can learn. In fact, they’re skills we’ve been teaching for 30 years. And yet, we just can’t assume they come naturally to everyone. Find ways to enable your people to learn the dialogue skills the enable everyone around the table—regardless of power, position, or authority—to speak up. And look carefully at the makeup of your teams. Be sure they are diverse enough, in gender and experience, to create a dynamic where thoughtful and smart decisions are made.
If you get it right, that diverse, dialogue-armed team of yours might also be able to solve that Christmas Party Karaoke problem. More karaoke, yes. More eggnog, no.
There are 100 things on your mental To-Do list. Daily duties (like email and planning dinner) and pre-scheduled stuff (like meetings and appointments). But what remains are the big things that are easy to put off because they don’t have hard deadlines – things starting a new initiative, exploring a great idea for a side hustle, finishing a pet project, or taking the first step to follow that crazy dream you’ve had for 10 years. These are the things that could have the biggest impact on you, come the end of the year.
But these projects are also the easiest things to put off or to only push ahead 1 inch each week. If you push 100 projects ahead 1 inch each week, you’ve made 100 inches of progress at the end of the week, but your desk is still full and you’re feeling frustratingly resigned to always be behind. This is an incremental approach.
A different approach would be to push a 50-inch project ahead until it is finished and falls off the desk; then you could push a 40-inch project ahead until it falls off; and then you can spend the last of your time and energy pushing a small 10-inch project off your desk. This is the “push-it-off-the-desk” approach.
Both approaches take 100-inches of work. However, the “push-it-off-the-desk” approach changes how you think and feel. You still have 97 things left to do, but you can see you made tangible progress. For about 12 years, I tried a number of different systems to do this – to finish up what was most important for the week. Each of them eventually ended up being too complicated or too constraining for me to stick with.
Eventually I stopped looking for a magic system. Instead, at the end of every week, I simply listed the projects or project pieces I was most grateful to have totally finished. Super simple. It kept me focused on finishing things, and it gave me a specific direction for next week (the next things to finish). It’s since evolved into something I call a “ 3-3-3 Weekly Recap.”
Here’s how a 3-3-3 Weekly Recap works. Every Friday I write down the 3 biggest things I finished that week (“Done”), the 3 things I want to finish next week (“Doing”), and 3 things I’m waiting for (“Waiting for”). This ends up being a record of what I did that week, a plan for what to focus on next week, and a reminder of what I need to follow up on. It helps keep me accountable to myself, and it keeps me focused on finishing 3 big things instead of 100 little things. Here’s an example of one that’s been scribbled in a notebook at the end of last week:
Even though you’d be writing this just for yourself, it might improve your game. It focuses you for the week, it gives you a plan for next week, and it prompts you to follow-up on things you kind of forgot you were waiting for.
Sometimes I do it in a notebook and sometimes I type it and send it to myself as an email. It doesn’t matter the form it’s in or if you ever look back at it (I don’t), it still works. I’ve shared this with people in academia, business, and government. Although it works for most people who try it, it works best for academics who manage their own time and for managers who are supervising others. They say it helps to keep the focus on moving forward instead of either simply drifting through the details of the day or being thrown off course by a new gust of wind.
I’ve also used this with others who I work with, and we usually use it as a starting point for our 1-on-1 weekly meetings. They usually email it to me and it’s a useful check-in. It helps them develop a “Finish it up” mentality, instead of the “Polish this until its perfect” mentality. Also, you can give feedback on what they’re choosing to focus on, and you might be able to speed up what they might be waiting for (especially if its something on your desk).
Good luck in pushing 3 To-Dos off your desk and getting things done. I hope you find this helps.
In the last two weeks, I had two totally divergent adventures with some converging insights you might find useful. One was GenCon and the other was the Global Leadership Summit.
GenCon invades Indianapolis every year with 70,000 people who crowd into the convention center, the football stadium, and into five hotels because of one reason: They all love games. Not things like Monopoly or chess, but super-complicated European boardgames, role-playing games, strategy games, deck-building games, and so on. Over the four days of the convention, there are over 1500 different events ranging from tournaments, film festivals (about games), dances, concerts, auctions, costume parties, virtual reality dungeon crawls, and lots of long lines.
It was my first time, and it's a people watching spectacle. I had tons of questions for people, such as 1) Why do you come here for 4 days and only play one game over and over, 2) Why did you get married here? and 3) Why are you dressed up like a hawk? I realized that when I asked these "Why?" questions, people would often give me short, unthinking answers.
My big breakthrough was when I asked the same questions without using "why": 1) What is it about this game that makes it so addictive, 2) When was it you decided to get married here? or 3) What were some other costumes you were thinking about, and how did you narrow your costume down to a hawk? At this point people really opened up, and our conversations were a lot more interesting and fun.
One Take-away: Rephrase Why questions into What or When questions.
Why: I don’t know, but it seems to work
Global Leadership Summit 2019
The Global Leadership Summit is held in Chicago about the same time as GenCon every summer. But it's also simulcast to 400 locations and over 405,000 people. You also don’t have to dress up like a hawk to go there. For two days you hear great business speakers. (You can download the notes from the speakers below at the link at the bottom).
One speaker was a hostage negotiator with the FBI for many years, and he had tons of great insights:
● Mirroring - Repeat the last words that they just said. It lets them know you are listening. With upper inflection, it is an invitation to expand on what they just said.
● "You’re right" is what we say to people who we have to maintain relationship with and you just want to shut up. It's better to say "That's right." It's what husbands always say.
● Effective pauses - give people the chance to talk. 2/3 people are not comfortable with silence.
● Don't say "I understand." That's what people say when they want you to be quiet so they can talk.
But one thing he said really caught my still sensitive GenCon ear. He said, “People get threatened and defensive when they hear the word ‘Why?’ It reminds them of having to explain why they did something wrong as a child, or it reminds them of when they have had to justify a less-than-intelligent decision as an adult.”
Instead he said that using other words – like when, what, or how – causes a person to think more and to think more collaboratively:
• What happened that led you so see things that way?
• Where have you seen this before?
• How are we going to [go to Disneyland if your grades don’t improve]?
This whole cast of speakers was great. The conference sent around bullet points from all of the speakers, and you can download them below. Definitely worth downloading and either reading now or copying over to your notes app to read later. No Darth Vader costume required.
One Take-away: Rephrase Why questions into What or When questions.
Why: It makes people less defensive and more collaborative
Solve & Share
I'm Brian Wansink, and I've been lucky to work with lots of wonderful researchers to discover insights on how to help people become more effective, happier, and more meaningfully connected with each other.
See what works for you, and share it with others.