June 21, 2022

Planned Group Brainstorming

Jonathan Bender

Jonathan Bender

How to generate, define and turn ideas into action

Planned Group Brainstorming

The right idea is out there. Sometimes it’s right in front of you. More often it’s not.

Plucking the right idea out of the swirl of ideas is hard. Especially if you’re trying to look for solutions with your entire team. So, how do you go from chaos to clarity?

You need a process for brainstorming as a team. A way to encourage idea generation without the constraints of quality filters or hierarchy.

At Bytebase, we use a four piece strategy for group brainstorming that melds individual creativity with the collective experience of our team. Here’s how to dramatically alter the course of a project in 15 minutes with a planned brainstorming session.

1. Build a culture that celebrates idea generation, not the “best idea.”

Find the calm before the brainstorm. Make it clear your team wants ideas. We know that in order to have great ideas, we need to get as many ideas out in the open, as possible.

Brainstorming came into vogue nearly 75 years ago when advertising executive Alex Osborn, who coined the phrase, suggested “it’s easier to tone down a wild idea than think up a new one.”

The prolific author wrote vividly about encouraging imagination, noting that “creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while disencouragement often nips it in the bud.”

To encourage ideas, we (and you) have to separate our egos and identities from our ideas. That’s why we repeatedly stress that comments and feedback are about the content, not the person writing the content. Celebrate the act of coming up with an idea, not just the idea that makes it into the final product spec.

If we are all sharing ideas consistently, it becomes second nature that not every idea is going to be in the final code. It’s a virtuous cycle that builds a culture of idea generation.

2. Go ahead. Get your ideas in writing.

The best brainstorming sessions start with the right questions. Otherwise answers are difficult to find. For us, one member of our team prepares a project document to establish the scope for the task at hand. It lets everyone have a clear topic for brainstorming.

Then, the first several minutes of every session are set aside for silent writing. We use Slab for writing and editing shared documents. It’s simple and fast to highlight text and add comments.

Setting aside time for writing is important for three reasons: spontaneity, inclusivity, and fearlessness.

  • Spontaneity: Designating the beginning of the meeting for comments ensures your team doesn’t have to spend time or effort on preparation. Instead, they can respond in the moment.
  • Inclusivity: The chance to initially individually question and comment on a document is more inclusive – giving everyone offering feedback an equal platform and opportunity to weigh in – and allows for independent thinking.
  • Fearlessness: A short window where there’s an expectation that lots of ideas will be offered means there is no fear of bad ideas. Suggestions can flow freely without the worry of judgment.

3. Refine your ideas through discussion.

Refine the ideas that spark conversation. If the entire development team is in agreement about a comment, then it’s added to the product spec without further discussion. But if there are open questions, then we jump into a live (spoken) conversation.

Transitioning to a facilitated discussion allows your team to hone the ideas in front of you. What Osborn didn’t know in 1948 is that studies have shown it’s more effective to ideate in private before processing those points of inspiration collectively.

“Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas,” says Keith Sawyer, Ph.D., an associate professor of education and psychology at Washington University.

Researchers discovered that people, unencumbered by convention or groupthink, can come up with wildly inventive answers while working alone. Those unexpected answers then kickstart the group discussion because they offer the possibility of more than one starting point. Criticism – unexpectedly – and the accompanying debate in a group setting also helped stimulate additional ideas because each individual considers the ideas of others more fully and re-examines their own hypothesis.

This combination of writing and discussion consistently generates new ideas at Bytebase. We believe using these two different styles of thinking and communication result in different pieces getting caught that one alone won’t capture.

The discussion process will also align your team. You’ll get to experience what it’s like to build something hard together. The world of an engineer can be solitary, at times, but this is an opportunity to do rewarding, creative work as a collective. Embrace that sense of accomplishment. You’ll appreciate the work you’ve put in upfront as you get closer to shipping a product or releasing a new feature.

4. Turn ideas into action.

Now, spin momentum into action. Turn to the project’s owner to translate ideas into concrete action steps.

Once we’re aligned as a team on a potential new direction or questions that need answering, we write up the action items within the meeting and rely on the team member who created the initial spec document to outline any details within those action items that resulted from our brainstorming session. Our engineers have discovered writing these notes not only highlights what matters; but also increases the probability of internalizing what’s important.

As a start-up, it’s important that we extract clear action items from each brainstorm meeting we have. Our takeaways are not always fixes to problems. Sometimes, the takeaway is that there are more unresolved questions that require further brainstorming. But they are always clear action items.

Effective group brainstorming requires being intentional about how you work together.

Build a culture that values ideas. Use writing to generate lots of ideas free of judgment. Center those ideas in the middle of a discussion to refine them. Then, amplify the ideas you like and build concrete action steps.

Start uncovering those wild ideas.

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