Brainstorming is a bad idea (yet again)?

I love these articles – I blogged about this in response to articles a couple of times (here  and here) and the issue is always the same. They refer to brainstorming as “throwing a bunch of people in a room and letting them come up with ideas”.

Of course this is ineffective. How could it be otherwise? Would you expect to throw a bunch of programmers in a room with no process and expect good results? How about throwing a bunch of kids on a field with no structure and expecting them to be a football team?

Without a process and without structure, any group collaboration will fail.

I maintain, however, that brainstorming can be effective, when done in a structured and facilitated manner. At some point I will have to throw together some references on this, because I have seen them, but I think to say that “brainstorming is a waste of time” just because unstructured brainstorming with no process is ineffective is completely unfounded.

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Is eMail dead?

I have always been a big fan of email (well, since email became prevalent, anyway). For me, it is a big help to be able to interact with people asynchronously – to be able to send questions or requests and let people deal with them when they have time (and them to me). This as opposed to a phone call or walking over to their office and demanding immediate attention, and interrupting whatever they are doing. I know not everyone shares my views on this. My peers at Whitehill felt pretty much the opposite about email – that it was a medium of last resort, and that face-to-face or phone communication were preferred. As with most things, I think the real answer is in balance and using the right tool for the context.

More and more, however, I am finding that email has become less useful. As a way of distributing specific documents within a team, it is still good. Same for setting up meetings. However, I have noticed a trend over recently (or longer than recently) for people to just ignore email. For the most part, unless a message is marked urgent, or is part of a project-specific interaction, I receive responses to only about 20% of email. I find it hard to believe that this could all be because of poor email etiquette (mine or others). I suspect the bigger problem is email overload – most of us receive far more email than we can possibly respond to. Perhaps email was more productive before it became so widespread. Then there were the years of spam overload, causing many to give up on email as a useful tool. Now (for me, anyway) email spam is no longer a problem. However, many people are still overloaded, even with spam eliminated.

So, is email as a useful business tool dead except for limited communications on projects?

But I want to be Disruptive!

I have spent a great deal of time over the last couple of years thinking about the process of innovation, different types of innovation, and how to innovate in a small but established organization versus a startup organization. I was reading Innovator’s Dilemmas: Do You Really Need To Be Disruptive? over on consultaglobal this weekend, and got to comparing some of Jose’s thoughts with work I have done in the last year.

As Jose says in that post, he is more interested in the process of defining a product roadmap in terms of gradual innovation, and in managing product portfolios. We have been very successful with this type of innovation, having a strong product management process for our existing product suite. In my role, I have been more interested in how we do larger scale innovation – how do we come up with the innovations now which are going to drive our growth 2+ years from now?

I have defined an innovation cycle as shown below.

image

Recognizing that disruptive innovation is, well, disruptive, as this cycle is traveled counter-clockwise starting from the upper right, we go from a high-chaos, low-process environment to progressively higher process and lower chaos.

In this model, the upper right quadrant represents what we are really good at, evolutionary innovation driven by product management.  The upper right quadrant represents the starting point – the idea generation engine. This is traditionally a hit and miss process of collecting ideas from various parts of the organization (or just a few people), and trying to pick which ones to invest time and money in. It is my belief that this activity can be wrapped in a process without destroying the creativity needed to really come up with ideas. Among the activities I consider important in this quadrant are:

  • Establish some context for innovation (see this earlier post)
  • Get ideas from everybody, not just R&D or Product Management
  • Get out and talk to customers
  • Involve your staff who are in front of customers, especially professional services people if you have them
  • Engage in structured/facilitated brainstorming with groups from various cross-sections of your company
  • Know how you are going evaluate ideas and decide which ones to investigate more deeply

The last point is important – it is no use having lots of ideas if you have no way to evaluate them. No organization can go deep on all the ideas generated, and a small organization can only really attack a couple. See this earlier post for my thoughts on using the Needs, Approach, Benefits, Competition (NABC) approach. At the end of this stage, and ideas should have a reasonable Needs definition, with a rough indication of the other three categories.

The next quadrant is what I have called Play. This is where ideas which survive the evaluation in the Ideas stage and start to play with them, flesh them out, create prototypes, and generally move the NABC definition forward. Early in this phase, the Approach needs to be clarified, while the Needs are evaluated more deeply.  Later in this stage, if a viable Approach is identified, and the Needs continue to make sense, then the Benefits and Competition need to be addressed (note that in reality, it is never anywhere near this linear, but this is for the benefit of description). By the end of this stage, we should be able to present a fairly strong value proposition for those ideas which have survived the process.

The next stage is to Build the products (ok, probably only one) for which the value proposition seems best. I will not get into the build process, except to say that the NABC analysis should be kept at the forefront throughout the process, and not be afraid to make hard decisions if things stop making sense.

The final stage is the Evolution stage, where the product moves into the incremental, evolutionary development cycle of a completed product. Note that for a new product, there may be some iteration between Build and Evolve.

Finally, the cycle is closed by having ideas from ongoing product evolution feed back into the Ideas stage.

So, is it ever this neat and clean and linear? Well, no. But that does not mean it is not valuable to have a model which you at least pretend you are following!

Brainstorming is a bad idea? (again)

It is amazing how a single post by the right person can stir up so much commentary. The latest I have read is One head is better than two or more. As Patricia pointed out in a comment to my previous post on this, The Medici Effect author also goes on to say:

“So, should we all stop brainstorming? I don’t think so. Done right, brainstorming is a highly effective way to actively generate intersectional ideas.”

Brainstorming, like any other human-centric activity, needs a process. Throwing a bunch of people into a room and saying “create brilliant ideas” is not an effective process. To me, this is analagous to putting a bunch of programmers in a room with no process and saying “create a wonderful product” (though admittedly, I have seen a fair number of companies try to do software development this way!). Similarly, badly run, pointless meetings with no clear purpose, and no process, do indeed make us collectively dumber.

Anyone who has ever been on an over-acheiving team (work, sports, or otherwise) knows from experience that the right team, working together with an effective process, can achieve things that none of the individuals could come close to working seperately.

Undertaking any group activity, whether brainstorming, software development, or running a business with no process or a bad process will indeed frequently lead to the result that working alone is more productive and more satisfying than working in a group. Does that mean you stop the activity? No, it means you fix the process.

Brainstorming is a bad idea?

Looking at the quote on Marc Andreessen’s blog post Why brainstorming is a bad idea, I am forced to concede to the evidence presented, even though I am a big fan of group brainstorming. I wonder, though, if similar studies/experiments have been performed using what I refer to as “structured brainstorming”, meaning (to me) group brainstorming using tools/techniques/games designed to drive idea generation? I wonder if the results would differ?

Innovation and Collaboration

Interesting post on consultaglobal called Innovation And Boundariless Design. I was really sucked in by the opening quote

“Innovation often arises out of crossing disciplines and combining technologies”.*

This is a battle I seem to have on a continuous basis – trying to convince people that innovation must be an interdisciplinary effort, and must involve people from almost every part of an organization, and outside the orgainzation. This is especially true if you are working towards wide open innovation of business processes, internal technologies, as well as new products. Good ideas and design input can (and must) come from everywhere.

Another aspect of this interdiscinplinary approach, and the cross pollination of ideas and technologies it encourages, leads to compounding of ideas in much the same way as one compounds interest – two innovative ideas combined together in a novel way lead to improved value much greater than either innovation on its own.

This (as well as the question of whether design for manufacturability comes before human factors, or vice versa) always reminds me of the old (?) idea of integrated product teams (I cannot recall where I first ran into this – whether it was in the telecom world or military projects). The fact remains that it is almost impossible to separate engineering, human factors, or any other aspects of design into entirely sequential steps – they must be integrated, collaborative, iterative activities.

As the referenced post points out, however, none of this matters unless the whole process brings value to some customer – it is not innovation if it does not bring value.

(*) Pushing the Boundaries of Design by Jessie Scanlon  

Second Life: What’s the Big Deal?

Ok, so I have been thinking about this post for a long time. There is a constant stream of hype around Second Life and the opportunities which abound in that world. It is very hard to look anywhere on the web without someone raving about Second Life. Am I the only person in the world who just does not get it? I understand the concept – I mean I have spent time over the years in various online collaborative environments, ranging from IRC, text-based MUDs, web-based chat rooms, IM (hey, I had a 5-digit ICQ number), helped build a voice over IP conferencing system, and wasted ridiculous amounts of time in online games like Ultima Online and World of Warcraft. I have often thought about the integration of collaborative goals with the immersive environments like WoW. I think there are definitely possibilities, and the success of Second Life seems to be proof of that.

My problem with Second Life is with the implementation, not the idea. I have been on Second Life quite a bit in different spurts over the last year, having spent I think enough time there to get a good feeling for how it works. To be really blunt, I found the graphics in it to be really clunky and laggy, and not visually compelling at all (as one of my kids said, “so last millennium”). The interaction with the virtual world is very frustrating (largely due to the lag, I would guess). I wonder how much of the draw of users to this world is driven from the hype OUTSIDE of Second Life, and not by anything inside, because I saw nothing inside to bring me back.

Maybe if someone were to create a better implementation, with the graphics most people have come to expect, without the lag, I might come to believe in the model. Until then, all I see is hype driving yet another wave with little behind it.

I have a lesser problem with the idea of trying to replicate the real world in a virtual environment in order to improve collaboration. I think it is a far better idea to create immersive environment which does not imitate reality, and which takes advantage of this to enable collaboration.

Am I the only person who thinks that the emperor has no clothes?