Buckshot Brainstorming

When my team is stuck, I like to break the log jam with a bit of brainstorming.  I've had good luck with this well known technique.  Maybe you will, too.  I call the technique "Buckshot Brainstorming."   Here's how it works:

Get the team together

Pick a time and place where the team can concentrate uninterrupted on the task at hand.  Invite people to check their laptops at the door.  And, set the tone by welcoming everyone and explaining the goal of the session - to come up with as many ideas as possible.

Give everyone a pad of sticky notes and a pen

Individuals will use the sticky notes to capture ideas - one idea per sticky.  If you can, give people brand new pads.  This tells them that you expect lots of ideas.  Tearing pads in half or quarters can work.  But, make sure that there are an adequate number of stickies in the room.  Running out of stickies sends a subtle message to the team that you aren't willing to listen to all of their ideas.

Brainstorm as individuals

Take a few minutes to jot down as many ideas as possible.  Time box this effort to somewhere between five and ten minutes to keep people focused.  Discourage talking, as conversation distracts others and could potentially filter out ideas.  Encourage a little friendly competition to see who comes up with the most ideas (or the most unique ideas).

Group the stickies by author

Once time is up, reconvene the group and ask everyone to place their stickies on the wall.  Invariably, people will place their stickies in small groups.  It looks like someone shot up the wall with a giant sticky shotgun.  Thus the name "Buckshot Brainstorming."

Brainstorm as a team

Now comes the fun part!  Take turns presenting your stickies to the team.  As you take one of your stickies off the wall and read it, explain what you meant to the team.  Encourage people to ask questions to make sure they understand the idea.  Often, reading one of your ideas will trigger another idea for someone else.  When this happens, capture the new idea and add it to the   And, allow people to add stickies to the wall throughout the meeting.

Group the stickies by category

As team members read their ideas, some will be duplicates and some will be closely related.  Place similar or related ideas into groups on a different wall.  Name the categories as you go.  These names represent the high level concepts people were trying to communicate.  The more stickies there are in a category, the more people were thinking about it.  This may indicate the importance of one area, or the need for additional thought in other areas.

Give it your own twist

I recently participated in just such a brainstorming session with a team of about 12 people.  We were trying to come up with things we would like to see in Visual Studio Team System that required collaboration with other teams.

The conditions were not ideal.  Some people came late.  Others had to leave early.  But, in about 2 hours, we brainstormed, discussed and categorized about 100 ideas. 

The categories we came up with at first were things like "process," "development," "test," etc.  But, once we were done, we decided to matrix the ideas into three more categories - things we could do without another team, things another team could do without us, and things that required cross-group collaboration.

In the end, we produced about 15 high quality ideas that required cross-group collaboration, which was the point of the exercise.  Further, these ideas were also categorized by the area of Visual Studio with which we would need to collaborate.  So, the matrix of categories worked great for us.

Once we finished placing ideas into our matrix, we voted on the items in the collaboration category.  Up until that point, all ideas were considered equal.  After that, though, we had exactly what we wanted - a stack ranked list of opportunities for collaboration.

Why I like this approach

The best thing about this approach is that it is so inclusive.  Everyone gets to share their ideas.  And, no one is allowed to critique an idea.  Malformed or wacky ideas may actually trigger a really good one for someone else.  So, everything gets equal time. 

In fact, right up until the end of the process, some pretty strange ideas were on our list.  Eventually, they either didn't involve collaboration (removing them from the list entirely), or they didn't receive any votes (placing them at the bottom of our stack-ranked list right where they belonged).  Even so, the authors of these particularly original ideas felt great about the fact that they had been included in the process.  And, as such, they'll be more willing to work on the ideas that ended up higher on the list.  That's what I call a win-win.

Drop me a line

If you are already using this technique, or you give it a try for the first time, drop me a line to let me know how it works for you...

I wish you luck.  And, may all your ideas make the cut!