An experiment in dislodging ideas

Posted by on December 6, 2015

In my post last week, I started digging into the challenges of getting ideas to move quickly in a startup culture. The post briefly summarizes four years of observation, and only near the end did I start to get at the current state of idea flow in the office. In reality, the topic of idea flow is something I’ve been getting more proactive about improving. Today, I’d like to talk about one solutions I’ve been crafting called, BrainHubs.

Introducing BrainHubs

BrainHubs are the yin to the Company Townhall yang.

Here is the basic idea. Each week 5 random people join me for a BrainHub and coffee. The first 3 minutes we go over ground rules,

  1. Laptops are closed until the end.
  2. BrainHubs start and end sharp, 30 minutes only.
  3. Each person shares what they are working on for 2-3 minutes.
  4. The last 10-15 minutes we have round table questions and brainstorming about topics brought up.
  5. At 27 minutes we stop and everyone fills out a feedback form before leaving the room.

I try to be there just to keep the conversation moving along. But I typically go first in the 2 minute share, to help get people comfortable with the scope of sharing. The idea is to share about right now, today or this week’s project. Not to share the overview of your position or your 6-month plan. I also try to step back while the brainstorming is happening, but I will sometimes jump in, for example when only one person is being asked questions by everyone else, I’ll divert the group with a question to a new person.

There are some nuggets I’ve been learning. BrainHubs aren’t good for new recruits, better to wait 3-4 weeks until they have some feet beneath them. Five people plus me is a really nice number to work with in just 30 minutes but 4 works fine in a pinch.

BrainHub Objectives

When I started imagining a solution like BrainHub, the problem I was trying to fix was simple. I noticed that at lunchtime or other relaxed moments at the company, people were rarely asking each other about their work or exciting projects going on. Conversations defaulted to things like weekend plans, relationships… or worse, the weather. I had a suspicion that the reason people weren’t talking about the amazing things they were working on was because they didn’t know the right questions to ask each other. They didn’t know where to start those conversations.

So the objective of BrainHub seems obvious at first, share ideas. But as I started formulating the concept, I realized I could target a deeper set of objectives:

  1. Focus on the small (what are you working on right now) so that people aren’t afraid or bashful to share with each other the small things. As a company, we spend a lot of time celebrating and communicating the big things, so it can be easy to forget just how important the small things are.
  2. Build a stronger culture of asking questions. The best way to learn about your colleagues and the amazing things they are working on, is to ask.
  3. Try to loosen any hierarchical barriers. Someone’s position or tenure at the company shouldn’t ever make them intimidating to others. Everyone comes through BrainHubs, from founders to interns.
  4. Seed people’s minds with at least a basic map of what other people are working on in the company directly through the sharing in the BrainHub. That map can serve as an important reference when they have a new idea they want to share or a project they need to make successful.


Each BrainHub ends with all five members filling out a quick feedback form. I just created it as a Google Form. Through the form, I collect various bits of information about how people feel at the company, related to how much they know or feel like they don’t know. I also solicit suggestions to improve the BrainHub itself, and various other questions that help me measure the culture at the company.

For example, I ask people how satisfied they are with their knowledge about the company. I want this number to keep going up. It wont be BrainHubs alone that makes that number hit the top, but BrainHubs are a great place to track it.

I ask people how frequently they would like to be included in a BrainHub. Overwhelmingly people see a value in being part of a BrainHub every 2 weeks. For a company our size, it means I would need to run a BrainHub more than once per day every day to get people through fast enough…

I also ask how much they learned new during the BrainHub. I actually want this number to go down, and if we can get it low enough we’ll no longer need BrainHubs to help move ideas around.

An experimental approach to problem solving

I’m not sure yet if BrainHubs will work. They appear to be having a really positive impact. People come out of them feeling like they learn a lot about the work of others, that they didn’t know otherwise. I’ve also overheard a few conversations since they started, that I don’t think would have taken place had it not been for the two people sitting in a BrainHub together.

In reality though, BrainHubs are an experiment. I’m doing my best to collect hard information about their success. Because with all experiments, there is the chance that your original hypothesis was totally incorrect. In those cases it is important to be comfortable saying, this is wrong, let’s find a different solution. Right now, the feedback is really positive, so let’s see!

If you are interested in learning more, shoot me a tweet.