Friday, January 19, 2007

Running a Brainstorming Session

At the beginning of this year, the CTO asked me to run a brainstorming session to start the new year off right with the team.  I'd been a part of the audience in the past, but never a moderator, so I went back to my original resources and found a set of rules for running a succesful session.

  1. Have a moderator.  The moderator's job is going to be mostly to write things down, and ask questions  The moderator does not do most of the talking.  That means that if you have one team member who is traditionally the talky one you can try the tactic of making that person the moderator so that other people can get a word in edgewise.
  2. Flip charts are better than whiteboards.  Ideally the kind where you can rip off a whole sheet and then stick it to the wall.  You want to record everything that's valuable, and not have to erase anything.  When you fill up a sheet, rip it off and stick it to the wall. 
  3. Rules:
    1. Stress the positive, optimistic approach.  There are no wrong answers. 
    2. Everyone is encouraged to have an opinion.  It's not about job titles.  (This is easier if the big bosses are not in the room.)
  4. Have a structure, but not an agenda.  Is the group leaning more toward talking about specific new features for the product, or maybe a whole new away to position the product for a different audience?  It's the moderators job to find the theme of the discussion and keep it from veering too much into chaos.  It's ok to have an agreed upon topic, and if the conversation strays too far, the moderator must bring it back.
  5. Document and share your notes ASAP so people don't feel like everything was done in a vacuum.  They want to see physical evidence that they accomplished something.  (Walking out of the room with massive rolls of flipchart paper is a good start to this).

Our session ended up taking place in three 90 minute sessions.  During the first I did an exercise where the first 15 minutes were spent on the "What don't I like about the current product" question.  We made a big panel of Post Its.  I then announced that those ideas were documented and we didn't have to bring them up anymore. We moved them off to the side and started talking about new ideas, not complaining about existing problems.

Although I had no real agenda, the first session became all about the user experience and new features that would benefit the user.  For the second session I started with a topic, "Ways that we can be more efficient at our jobs, so that we have time to work on all those cool features we talked about last week."  Finally for the third session we talked about business model and how to keep our paying customers (who are not our users, but that's a different story) happy.

Everyone seems to have come away pleased.  The company founder has asked to see the summary of my notes once I get them typed up.  I'm already working on a prototype of one of the ideas that was mentioned.

 

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