These days we are super busy at Brainbay with new projects and initiatives. It means a lot of work for our development department as well. Almost every day we have all kind of technical discussions. We are always in a process of improving our technical solutions and it sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Well, not always, we found that it sometimes can be very exhausting. We have all those discussions remotely because we still work from home and sometimes it feels like we talk more than we develop. On the other hand it is something we have to do because we want smart and elegant solutions that we can be proud of and not just straightforward ones which often turn out to be problems in the long term. Since flexibility is one of our core company values we decided to try a different approach to tackle complex problems.
We’ve been through many different brainstorms. Some were super boring and I could hear someone snoring in a corner, some were interesting to follow, some had really hot discussions and almost fights, those were my favorite ones by the way but few of those were efficient enough to us. Brainstorm is indeed a storm where someone usually throws a complex problem to a group of smart people and then ideas and arguments start flying in a room like a real hurricane. So what is wrong about it?
It is a complex problem!
We never have a brainstorm for some easy stuff. We would never go through the hell of trying to find an hour or two to be able to gather a bunch of smart people together in one room who all have important work to do and many other meetings. So we always have a brainstorm when we need help with something very complex and I think it is the main reason why most (if often not all) ideas we get during a brainstorm are not feasible. It is hardly possible to get a deep understanding of a complex problem within 10-15 minutes of a brainstorm introduction. How can we then expect helpful ideas? First, one might have to check requirements, take a look at some code, google a bit, ask questions to clarify stuff, sleep over an idea and then say: “Hey, why don’t we try it this way?”
It is just a start!
I have a feeling we often assume that we would/should have a solution to a problem by the end of a meeting. However, like a real storm, a brainstorm would normally leave you with a lot of mess. It doesn’t necessary mean it is bad. It just means one still have to do a lot of work to validate all generated ideas, probably try a few concepts and improve weak points uncovered during the brainstorm.
A brainstorm is normally time framed. Short brainstorms (an hour or two) put a lot of time pressure on everyone and I think it’s the worst possible condition to find a smart and elegant solution to a problem. How many times you heard from a scrum master: “Hey, we have 15 minutes left and we don’t have any stickers on our board!!!” ? Then everyone gets concerned more about having stickers on a board so that we can then make a picture of it and post it on LinkedIn to show how hard we work. Then next morning we realize that the picture is not good enough and we can barely understand what is on it. This approach might be very nice for some problems that are urgent and need a quick (often dirty) solution but definitely not ideal for something long term that you want to be proud of. What about long brainstorms? Those are my personal nightmares. I know companies sometimes book a nice location and plan to brainstorm for a day or two. This is very nice if you mainly treat it as a team building event with some real work in it but brainstorming for a day or two is crazy exhausting. Personally, I get tired in a few hours of active discussions and then I would be super happy to find or to agree to any solution/idea even if I think it’s the most stupid thing ever. I believe it should be officially considered as a torture.
Do Brainrivers instead!
Are you also overwhelmed with all that new fancy buzzwords and terms? If yes then here’s another one, Brainriver! So it’s a river instead of a storm now. Let’s use that metaphor to explain what I mean. So imagine a beautiful mountain river which starts with a small stream somewhere very high up on a mountain. That small stream is a problem you should tackle and initial information available about it. Now imagine you are a hiker walking down along that small stream and that hiker is a person who owns that problem, responsible for it, assignee, etc.. The first milestone for the hiker is to reach a point when a stream is wide and deep enough to raft it. It is where you collect all required information and try to tackle a problem mainly on your own at this stage. If you succeed then it’s just a usual problem/task that you do every day, if not then it is a special problem and it is where it becomes different from a brainstorm approach to me. At this stage the hiker hops on a kayak and becomes a rafter. Rafter is a former hiker who didn’t manage to solve a problem as usual because it is complex, maybe super complex, a small stream became a fast mountain river, help is needed! While going down the river the rafter passes by points where other streams join the river. Those streams are new input for the problem or another step toward finding a smart and elegant solution. A new stream which joins the river can be a discussion with another person. It can also be a process of building a proof of concept or just a new idea which came to your mind when walking out your dog. The problem owner (rafter) is in charge of processing those new streams and in control who to ask for help, what to ask and when, how to proceed with new input and when to stop the process. As soon as you reach a point where you are satisfied with a solution it means the rafter reached a point where the rivers gets into a beautiful mountain lake, surrounded by mountains with picturesque scenery. Challenging rafting is over and you can enjoy the moment and admire the view. Wow!
Yes, it is quite vague description but there was no intention to come up with some new methodology, give it a fancy name and start issuing certificates to everyone who comprehended its main concepts for a small fee although it might be a nice idea. My main message is that one has to be creative to find a smart and elegant solution to a complex problem and it is not something you can normally time frame in a brainstorm meeting. It is a process of trying and failing, getting angry and excited, feeling desperate and super inspired, etc. Problem owner (rafter) is a key thing here. I believe there are way more chances a complex problem will be solved if it is attached to a concrete person. Ideally, someone who is excited about that problem and committed to it. Hold on! I’m going to exaggerate a bit now to better explain what I mean. Read up about an invention you admire on the Wikipedia. Most likely there will be only one or two names behind it. It doesn’t mean the work was done by that person(s) only. It is quite possible there were actually dozens of people working toward the invention but most of the time there was someone leading that process, taking care of it and doing all that stuff a “rafter” should do. Of course the problems we are trying to solve are far away from famous inventions but I believe that having a problem owner and giving him or her the freedom to “raft” is one of most important things to succeed.
If you do brainstorms and you are pretty much satisfied with them, everyone involved is happy and you get what you aimed for than you are awesome, please keep on! I understand there are different problems and different contexts which might not be good at all for a Brainriver approach. I just hope it was an interesting read for you. For those who recognize the symptoms above, I hope I gave you another perspective on how you can do brainstorms differently. If you have any funny/interesting/dramatic stories about brainstorms please share them. Any other feedback is welcomed as well.
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