On the importance of a brain dump

In 2012, a few months before succumbing to oesophageal cancer, career adman Linds Redding wrote a scathing post that tore into the horrible work culture that the advertising industry has had over the years, that became quite popular among those in the advertising industry. It was titled ‘A Short Lesson in Perspective’, and it argued that when looked at from a larger perspective, all the hours put in, all the slave driving that happens in the ad industry, does not matter.

No, don’t worry. I am not going to now make a similar argument saying that all the hard work that you put in for your startup is wasted. For at least unlike in the ad industry, due to the fact that you have much more skin in the game, a success for the startup almost always translates to success at a personal level as well.

Linds Redding began the blog post by lamenting the death of something called the Overnight Test, that used to be practised by him decades ago. It involved him and his creative partner laying out A2-sized sheets and filling them up with ideas. Ideas for ad copies, bad puns, stick figure drawings, just about anything that occurred to them in their focused attempt to be creative. A ‘brain dump’ as Redding called it. At the end of it, from the brain dump pile would emerge a smaller sheaf of potentially valuable ‘concepts’. They would then pin these concepts to their office walls and retire for the night, usually to the nearest pub.

The first thing that they would do after they returned to office the next morning was to go over all the ideas that they pinned on the wall the previous night. Over a third of the ideas would come off the wall because, however brilliant the ideas may have seemed the previous night, they showed up as nonsense in ‘the cold light of the morning’, and the rest of the ideas got taken to their logical conclusions.

One thing that ad agencies have in common with startups is that both of them deal in the currency of ideas. Which means that there are always plenty of ideas going around. The time-pressure created by clients is very often the reason why the Overnight Test never really happens in ad agencies any more. But in startups, they often do not happen because the culture of most startups, with phrases like ‘fail fast’ flying about, is to start working on ideas almost the moment they occur. Especially so if they occur to one of the founders. The obvious pitfall of this approach is that ‘fail fast’ quickly becomes ‘fail often’, and if the leaders of the company do not arrest it, ‘fail almost all of the time’ too.

The cost of setting up a structure like Redding’s Overnight Test is quite low for most startups. And it is probably a much better and safer way to ‘fail fast’.

The author heads product at a mid-sized startup in the real estate space


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