There are a lot of different opinions about brainstorming. As with just about everything, you can find people who think it is the best thing since sliced bread and people who think it is the devil incarnate.
I believe it is an important tool to have in your toolbox, but not that it is the right solution for every scenario. What I want to do today is to give you an idea about a variety of brainstorming that I find to be a great option. It uses a combination of traditional brainstorming tactics with some aspects of agile development methodology and a good dose of individual problem solving.
I’m going to start by describing the process end-to-end and then we’ll go back and examine the steps in more detail with an example.
So, that is an overview of the process. Now, let’s go back through it using an example.
Start with a Problem You Need to Solve
Let’s say your company has been growing fast and things that used to work fine when you were small aren’t working anymore. It is starting to show up in reduced customer satisfaction. Your customer satisfaction ratings have started to decline and you recognize the need to take action, but you aren’t sure what needs to be done. So, the problem you want to solve is improving your customer satisfaction rating.
Start by finding 5-7 people who want to help solve the problem.
They are not signing up to implement the solution identified. They are signing up to participate in the process of identifying a solution to the problem. Their time commitment is something less than 8 hours. Their commitment is to the brainstorming process only.
You want to find people with different points of view. You’ll want to think about customer satisfaction for your company and identify people from different departments that could have an impact on the client. Client satisfaction issues could stem from your product or service, from the delivery process, from the ongoing support process, from the payment process, etc.
A good reference for helping you with this is our episode on System vs. Process. I suggest you go back and listen to it to help you identify the potential people to include in your team.
Educate the Team
Once you’ve identified your team, you are going to define the presentations you want to have the team exposed to. These presentations should help the team understand the problem from different perspectives.
In our example, we would want someone from customer support who could talk about the types of complaints they’ve seen lately. You’d want someone from the product group who could talk about how they take customer feedback into account when they decide on features. Ideally, you’d hear from a customer about what they’ve experienced as you’ve grown as a company. Depending on how bad this customer satisfaction issue has become, maybe you need someone from accounting to present the impact to sales or past-due accounts receivable.
Again, this is not an in-depth analysis of the problem. You want your project team to hear accounts of the problem from multiple angles that they may not have otherwise considered.
Identify Interesting Questions
As the presentations are being made, the team is writing down questions that come to mind. For example, as the person from customer support is presenting, he mentions that he’s noticed more calls are about the increased delivery time. You might write down “how can we reduce delivery time?” I might write down “how can we better set client expectations about delivery time?”
By the end of the presentations, each person might have a dozen questions. If you are doing this exercise in person, the best option is to write them on post it notes. If you are doing it virtually, you’ll need to look at the tools you have available. You could use a shared document and have everyone add their questions to it. Or you could use a virtual whiteboard app like Miro that has electronic post it note functionality.
Vote on the Question The Group will Tackle
Each person in the group gets 3 votes. Give everyone 5-10 minutes to vote on their top 3 questions. Then identify the questions with the most votes.
You may need to do some consolidation. For example, your question and my question about delivery time may have each gotten a couple of votes. Since they are both about delivery time, you may combine them into a single item. Individually, they may not have been top vote getters, but combined, they may.
The point is, a set of questions will rise to the top as the ones the group believes are important for solving the problem. From there, you will have a group discussion to identify which questions the group thinks is the right one to tackle.
One thing that is important to note – it is likely that every question asked is legitimate and could contribute to the solution. Certainly, there will be several questions that are very important and need to be solved. But, for this session, you are just landing on one. The others won’t be lost forever. They just won’t be the focus of this session. You are identifying the question that the group is going to tackle.
Once you have agreement, the groups gets their homework. Go off on your own and draw out your own personal solution to the problem. In our case, each person is going to draw out their ideas about how to improve delivery time.
The guidelines are pretty simple – don’t limit your ideas. Think of this as fantasy land. If you had no constraints on budget or headcount, org structure, or company politics, what would your solution be?
The other guideline is to stay at a high enough level that your solution isn’t tactical – its theoretical. Again, you aren’t solving the problem as a team. You are brainstorming ways to solve the problem.
The timeframe for this exercise should be pretty limited – no more than 48 hours between the 1st session – identifying the question, and the 2nd session where everyone presents their homework.
Identify Potential Solutions
When the group reconvenes, each person presents their drawing and idea. Make sure they mention the assumptions they made and any big questions they still have. This should be time boxed to about 10 minutes per person to keep everyone from getting too far into details because there will be a tendency to try and solve the problem.
After everybody has presented, you will go through another round of voting. Again, each person gets 3 votes. They can vote on a solution in total or part of the solution they find compelling.
Again, you’ll look at the top vote getters and go through a process of consolidating similar ideas.
Once you’ve identified the top vote getters, you will narrow in on which solution the group thinks is the best place to start. Again, all of the solutions may have merit, but given resource constraints at all companies, you’ve got to prioritize down to the one you feel will give you the best return for the effort.
Identify Next Steps
Once you have that, you need to figure out the next step. This team is disbanding. So, you’ll need to figure out how to take the idea forward.
What you’ve done in a very short period of time is gotten a lot of good questions that could help you solve your problem, and narrowed in on a great solutions to take forward.
This brainstorming process is really good because of the diversity of opinions that come out of the “together but apart” nature of it. You are together as a team, but writing down your questions individually. You decide on the question to solve together, but put together a solution on your own. That means your solution isn’t influenced by someone else on the team as would happen in a traditional brainstorming scenario.
I encourage you to give this a try the next time you are faced with a problem to solve that maybe seems too big or overwhelming to tackle.
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