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Braintrust

Purpose

Make regular learning progress, advised by a peer group.

Use When

You have an ongoing project that requires regular learning and course correction.

Overview

Braintrust is a way to help ourselves progress quickly with regular learning goals and sanity checks. A group of 3 to 5 peers meets every week or two to update each other, and share their next learning goal. Peers help them decide on their next learning objective and method.

Use this prep form

Download the PDF here

Appropriate levels of advice

  • Focus on helping them see their risks, choose their learning goals and be aware of their environment (like useful tools, resources or warnings.)
  • Don't share your opinion on their idea -- focus on their learning direction instead. For example, don’t say: “Your idea of blue pens won’t work. I tried that and red pens are better.” Instead, focus on what they want to learn: “I’d question what colour of pen is most appropriate since I’ve had trouble with this. How can you choose which pen colour works best?”

Pro tip

Especially in the first few meetings, it’s helpful to ‘police’ each other to create good habits. Some Braintrust groups use self-made ‘yellow cards’ (just pieces of paper). If someone else starts to give advice on the idea, rather than on the learning direction, or if they’re presenting and they start selling or pitching, just hold up the card so they can catch themselves and change what they’re saying.

Preparation

  1. Print out large (A2 or A1) Flocks posters. Print roughly 10-20% of the number of people who will be in the room.
  2. Print out small (A4) Flocks posters. Print roughly 20% of the number of people who will be in the room.
  3. Keep the posters with felt-tip pens at the front of the room on a few large tables so multiple people can write their poster. (The small posters are for practice.)

Process

Time Action Tips
3 – 5 minutes Allow everyone to prepare their presentations and fill out the form. It’s better to allow time for this, than to have people distracted while they’re giving others advice.
8 minutes, repeated for each person presenting 3 minutes max. The Challenger produces their deliverable. (Could be an email, a dashboard, etc.) Don’t allow anyone to interrupt the presenter. Make sure they’re describing their learning goals and not their idea. If someone finishes before their 3 minutes, that time is given to them as additional feedback time. Everyone has 8 minutes total.
5 minutes Clarification questions and feedback. Don't share your opinion on their idea -- focus on their learning direction instead.

Time-keeping

Strict time-keeping (with a visible timer) is a must. Braintrust meetings must start and end on time (on the minute), so that everyone’s time is respected. Commitment starts to be difficult if the meetings take longer or cost more time. Then people start to cancel and the value for everyone else is reduced.

  • Use a timer that stays on and is visible to everyone. People will then be able to adjust their presentations and feedback accordingly.
  • Always keep the timer running. As soon as the timer sounds, start it for the next sessions instantly.
  • Allow 5 minutes for preparation at the beginning, but no longer. Create a culture in your braintrust that you start on time, every time, otherwise it will get later and later and people will drop out.
  • When it’s over, it’s over. Invite people to leave once the last feedback session is done, so they don’t feel obligated to stay.
Choosing your peer group

Choose people who are at a roughly similar stage than you, so that you are all challenged with each others’ goals, and all gain from each others’ input.

Generally, a diverse set of skills and perspectives is helpful in a Braintrust, so your peer group can help you see your challenge broadly and from a variety of angles.

One person per company/project. Don’t have multiple people representing the same project.

Each person should pick the same, single project that they bring to each consecutive briantrust meeting. It’s okay if it evolves over time, but don’t jump from project to new project each time as it takes too much time for everyone to re-orient themselves to the new idea. One of the big benefits of Braintrust is that everyone knows your progress so you can jump right in to relevant feedback without preamble.

Building a long-term support group

Braintrust works best when the group can meet sustainably for 2 – 6 months. This primarily revolves around each individuals commitment to their project, and their ability to manage their time so they make regular progress. If someone consistently fails to make time to execute on their learning goals, everyone starts to lose motivation.

Braintrust becomes a kind of ‘personal trainer’ because each person sets goals and makes commitments. Sometimes, you lost track of time, but you made a promise to your Braintrust to get that specific learning done, so you prioritise it.

The frequency of the meetings must be realistic. It’s typical for people to start with learning goals that are too big to do before the next meeting, and they will learn from that and adjust scope for their next learning goal. But, if the meetings are too frequent and people don’t have time to execute, then people start to drop out. On the other extreme, if the Braintrusts are too infrequent, then the input doesn’t come at a useful time, so people also drop out. For very active learners, weekly is best. For less active learners, every 2 weeks is better. Less frequently than 2 weeks is usually a sign that learning isn’t enough of a priority for Braintrust to work.

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