Wednesday, December 16, 2015

How to Find Great Ideas from a Massive Sea of Brainstorming Information

What if your team gives you way too many ideas to process when you ask them, "What needs improved"?

What do you do if  brainstorming results in a massive amount of information? How do you filter, focus and hone the important pieces?

You’ve just finished a meeting with your development team to discuss the next set of features for the upcoming release.  You’ve got a list of what seems like a hundred ideas. 

There is a massive list of unordered, yet very awesome ideas and you got those by BRAINSTORMING.  Now you need a fluid process to take that list of great ideas and make it something actionable.  

I introduced the Better Meeting Magic process in a previous article: Change Your Meetings and Change Your Life with Meeting Facilitation (aka Meeting Magic).

This article is a discussion of NARROWING.  NARROWING is the process that reduced a large set of data into a easily digestible chunks of information.  NARROWING is a natural part of all decision making. Whenever you talk to your friends or significant other about where you want to eat out, you begin a process that looks similar to the Agenda/Activity Cycle.  The group begins to throw out ideas, otherwise known as BRAINSTORMING:
  • “I feel like Mexican food” or 
  • “Italian sounds good to me” or 
  • “Chinese would really hit the spot” or
  • “I would really like some BBQ” 
Then someone might NARROW the choices by saying,
  • “I don’t like BBQ” or 
  • “Last time I ate Italian I got a really bad heart”.  

After that the group returns to BRAINSTORMING to further identify the possible restaurants
  • “How about Olive Garden?”
  • “What about Taco Bell?”
  • “Have you guys tried China Garden?”
  • “My favorite Mexican food place is Fajita Grande”
  • “What about that new high end restaurant  call Senior Primo’s?"
The group would then throw out Taco Bell … because they want to have a relaxed enjoyable dinner with a reasonable expectation of quality.  The group might also throw out Senior Primo’s because they are looking for a reasonable cost and casual dining.
NARROWING is done at this point at the point where you've prioritized the list and deduplicate the possibilities. The group has down selected to “Olive Garden”, “China Garden” and “Fajita Grande”.  Notice how a systematic process has been organically applied in this natural decision making cycle.  This is typical of the way we think and interact with each other. 
In the next article I’ll talk about the DECIDING step and how to apply some tips and tricks in that phase.
In a business setting or even at home, you might apply NARROWING to features for a product or vacation plans. In particular if you go to a destination like Disney World or a Resort where there are lots of things to do, you may need a decision process to help you decide which things are important enough to do or see.  On my recent family Thanksgiving trip to Colonial Williamsburg, I led my relatives through the entire Agenda/Activity Cycle a few times to consider the voluminous ideas and then reduce the list to a manageable size.  We had three days passes and the list of activities would easily fill 6 days so we had to prioritize. 

Here are some tips for NARROWING...

Tip #1: Duplicate Narrowing

If you recently finished BRAINSTORMING you are likely to have a large number of sticky notes or ideas. You will inevitably have many ideas that are either similar or identical.  When people start trying to prioritize the ideas, they will immediately want to find and group duplicates.

With sticky notes the simplest mechanism for de-duplication is to send the entire group of people to the wall or whiteboard and have them discuss and agree on how the items should be grouped. Have the participants physically arrange the sticky notes in groups.  Either overlap the sticky notes or move the sticky notes into clumps on the wall or whiteboard.

Tip #2: Timeline Narrowing

When it comes to a project timeline or feature timeline or anything time related, I like the timeline NARROWING.  Timeline NARROWING has the following rules:
  • The entire set of sticky notes must be arranged in a single line
  • There cannot be any overlapping sticky notes
  • There cannot be any wide spots in the sticky notes (two sticky notes above or below each other)
  • SINGLE ROW from start to finish
  • Entire group can work to move stickies forward and back in the timeline
  • Sometimes a large portion of the stickies must be moved left or right to accommodate for an insertions … no problem.
You might have noticed that I got a little redundant in writing this list. Most people do not like the single row rule. They say, “these things happen at the same time”.  While it’s true that things might happen at the same time, you must stick to the rules in order for our brain to do the hard work of prioritizing. Don’t make any exceptions no matter what someone says. Just say, “These are the rules to the exercise”.  Typically, people will find a few redundant things in the list and remove them as the timeline evolves.  NARROWING is all about prioritizing and eliminating, so have people do the hard work of thinking through the priorities and reflecting those priorities with the timeline of sticky notes.

Tip#3: Two Dimensional Narrowing

One of the most common two dimensional NARROWING activities EFFORT vs. IMPACT graph.  Using EFFORT on the vertical axis and IMPACT on the horizontal axis, create a graph on a wall or whiteboard. Then post your sticky notes into a two dimensional space with increasing EFFORT on vertical axis and increasing IMPACT on the horizontal axis.  Here’s how the exercise works.

  1. Have the group get into a single file line.
  2. First person in line can move a single sticky to a location he or she chooses.
  3. That person now goes to the end of the line.
  4. Or if the person does not want to reorder anything, then he or she can sit down.
  5. This exercise finishes when no one want to move anything.
  6. Repeat starting at #2.

  • Keep this exercise going faster by making it a no-talking exercise.
When you are finished you will have your list of items distributed in a two dimensional space where you can extract information on ‘LOW EFFORT/HIGH IMPACT”.  This provides a runway for your next task: DECIDING.

Thanks for reading.

Please try one of these strategies in your next BRAINSTORMING meeting and please leave a comment on how it went.  If you’ve done this before and have an observations, I’d love to hear about the result...write your experience in the comment section or send me an e-mail.