Put Your Trust in Braintrust: How One Idea May Solve All Problems of Your Team

There are millions of articles and another few millions of people stating how effective, fruitful and fun working in team is. That’s not surprising – teamwork can really be inspiring, but the truth is it can also be very challenging. Even if the team is a companionate group of creative and hard-working people, accomplishing a common goal may prove much more difficult than it may initially seem.

Main Challenges of Working in Team

Beyond the most obvious problems caused by personality differences and the team members’ uneven level of engagement in the task, there’s a bunch of other issues that may arise. Let’s focus on three of them.

1. Divided Responsibility

While sharing tasks, ideas and solutions with the team usually has a very positive influence on the final outcome, sharing responsibility is a different story. If there’s more than one person in charge of completing a task, no one actually feels truly responsible. Try as we may, we can’t overcome the feeling that if we care a bit less about a certain aspect of the task, some other team member will cover it for us. What’s more, if we make a mistake, we won’t be the only person who has to deal with its consequences. As a result, the final outcome may be less satisfying than it would be if the responsibility was placed in the hands of one individual.

2. Creative Chaos

No matter how great they are, overflow of ideas often causes chaos.A great advantage of brainstorming in a group is that it produces much more ideas than an individual work would. That’s very beneficial unless… too many ideas appear. No matter how great they may be, sometimes this overflow of solutions causes chaos. Inspired, we start discussing all the ideas at once, creating even more of them and often moving further and further from the main topic of discussion. Though it may sometimes result in a truly amazing outcome, often this inability to focus on one idea at a given time may result in overlooking some important issue.

3. No Critical Judgment from Outside

Theoretically, if there’s more people engaged in the task the likelihood that some mistake will be spotted increases. In practice, however, this often doesn’t work like that. Research proves we tend to assume that the reactions of other people in a group are correct. As a result, we copy their behaviour, more or less consciously. Thus, if some members of the team get really excited about an idea, there’s a high chance their enthusiasm will be infectious. In general, there’s nothing wrong with it but sometimes overexcited team may fail to see the shortcomings of their work. What’s more, if all team members share the same knowledge and think in a similar way, they might not realize that what is obvious to them, may need to be explained to others.

How Teamwork Challenges Challenged Our Team

Our team faced all these problems at some point. No further than few weeks ago, we were working on the article on our blog. We started with brainstorm: dozens ideas were flowing in a peace so fast that it wasn’t even possible to write them down. We started discussing one, then jumped to another and another and one more. After two hours we had rough ideas for next 10 if not 20 articles, but in that creative chaos we failed to discuss which of them will be first and what should it actually contain (which was the goal of the brainstorm).

Knowing you’re not the only one responsible, you don’t work as hard.Since writing per se was my task, it was me who felt confused sitting in front of an empty text file. That didn’t last long though – I simply wrote what I felt was best and decided to arrange a team meeting to discuss my work. During that discussion I heard lots of comprehensive advice on what can be improved. Some of them I agreed with, others I felt sceptical about but after many arguments I finally gave up: ‘I want be the only one responsible, if the article isn’t perfect’ I thought and changed what I was supposed to. I noticed, however, I didn’t do that with such attention to detail as usual. I even decided to skip my usual practice of multiple proofreading: it suddenly didn’t feel so necessary, after all three other people didn’t notice any mistakes.

Finally, the article was ready to be upload on the blog and so it was. We all were actually pretty excited about that and shared it immediately with few of our friends. Proud as peacocks, we were waiting for their enthusiastic reactions. To say that they didn’t come would be too much – we’ve heard a lot of positive comments but we also learned that some fragments were perceived as unclear. To be honest, we were quite surprised at first: ‘How can they not get it?!’. It took us some time to realize we didn’t include certain aspects which seemed obvious to us, incorrectly assuming that they will be equally obvious to our readers. Had we looked at the article from distance, not letting the excitement cloud our judgment, we would have avoided that.

How Applying Braintrust Solved Our Problems

After these events, it was clear to all of us that we need to find some method to improve certain aspects of our teamwork. The solution came faster than we could expect. In Ed Catmull’s book Creativity, Inc., we came upon Pixar’s idea of Braintrust – team meeting where a group of expert advisors provide the film director with frank feedback on his work. It may not sound very innovative, but believe me it is. What distinguishes Braintrust from other forms of group discussions is the approach. Its goal is not to encourage the director to change his work, but to enable him to see it through others’ eyes. Therefore, he doesn’t need to follow any of the suggestions and the decision how to shape the final work is entirely his. The director is trusted to be the one who knows best how and whether make use of the advice. What is more, it is not the director as a person who is assessed, but his work. It makes taking feedback, even critical one, much easier and less stressful. ‘Frank talk, spirited debate, laughter and love’ – that’s Ed Catmull’s summary of Braintrust meetings.

Graphic showing what the braintrust meeting looks like.

Looking at your work from the distance, enables to spot the mistakes and uncertainties.Inspired by the principles of Braintrust, we decided to adapt it a bit to our needs and try it out when working on the next blog article. We’ve done it in two parts. The first meeting was devoted to discussion of the idea. I introduced the topic, explained what my plan was and listened to feedback: full focus on one article, no chaos, no digressions – it went great. After the article was written, we met once again, this time to discuss the final version. To ensure that there will be some source of outside criticism, we invited two more people that didn’t participate in the first meeting. This way I was able to look at the article from someone else’s perspective and realized that at least few times I wasn’t precise enough when shaping my thoughts into words. I also got some suggestions what can be changed or added. Since there was no pressure to do that, I knew I will be the only one responsible for the final version. That feeling was great and so was the article.

From that moment on, we started applying Braintrust ideology to most, if not all, of our team meetings and I must admit our group work has never been better. No chaos, no problems with divided responsibility and no big surprises when the first reactions come. Putting our trust in Braintrust really paid off for us and I’m sure it will for you as well. No matter if you want to discuss a new business opportunity, some ongoing project or an idea for marketing strategy, Braintrust will work for all of them.

Author: Anna Kulawik