Collaborative Engineering 101: How to Make Your Brainstorm Sessions More Productive

CoLab Team

July 7, 2021


min read

What’s your gut reaction when you hear the words “brainstorm session” during your work day?

If you find yourself rolling your eyes, groaning, or filling with dread — it might be a fair reaction. We’ve all taken part in bad brainstorm sessions that feel like a waste of our valuable time. Yet a good brainstorm can feel awesome. Like the feeling you get when an organic discussion with your colleagues unexpectedly turns into a flow of new ideas. Those times when you swivel around in your desk chair with a random question and, all of a sudden, you and your teammates are on a roll.

But when people are working remotely, those spontaneous moments are fewer and farther between. And they’re limited to an internal team within the same office. So including other important voices in those conversations (like suppliers, manufacturing partners, or customers) has always meant bringing people together, intentionally, for a planned brainstorm session. When people are working from home, there might be less brainstorming going on or it might be feeling less productive when you do try to make up for missing out on those brainstorms that happened naturally at the office.

Yet whether you’re running a brainstorm session in-person or virtually, there are ways to max the effectiveness and get everyone’s brains working together to solve the same design problem. The next time you’re kicking off a project or trying to get unstuck, try planning a brainstorm and putting these simple tips into action. You might be surprised at the difference a little bit of prep can make!

Brainstorm Early — But Prep Separately First

Getting early input from everyone makes the engineering process work better. But having people show up to a brainstorm session, and expecting to jump straight to quality ideas… well, your session might be slightly doomed from the get-go. That’s why it’s useful to find a way to set a clear expectation for prep.

How you set that expectation, or what you ask participants to do ahead of time, will depend on your team, your goals, your style, etc. But whatever you do, you don’t want to simply send out a calendar invite for a “brainstorm session” where everyone shows up cold. Not only will your brainstorming be less effective, you might miss out on valuable input from team members who don’t perform at their best when they have to think on-the-spot.

“Introverts typically need time alone to get their creative juices flowing, and given the chance, they often come up with amazing solutions on their own,” Natalie Peace points out in a Forbes article. “Provide strong leadership and a framework to follow. Keeping it free-flowing and without rules might sound good, but that is what allows the loudest voices in the room to hold court and squeeze out those who are shy, that may have brilliant ideas which never get heard.”

There are plenty of ways to communicate to everyone who’ll be joining a brainstorming session how you’d like them to prep. Asking people to read a particular article or watch a certain video might be effective, as long as you know it’ll actually happen. But one of the most effective methods is asking each person to come to the meeting with something specific. It could mean asking everyone to bring a certain number of ideas, or questions, or pieces of inspiration — whatever it is, a tangible task will give people a way to prepare ahead of time so you can all make the most of the time you have together.

Have Ground Rules and a Purpose

Setting clear expectations for prep also helps with setting clear expectations for the session itself. As Peace says, having no rules can “sound good” and seem like it encourages free thinking. But it’s actually the other way around: constraints breed creativity. It’s just a matter of setting the right ones.

Alex Osborn is often credited as the “inventor” of brainstorming because of his 1948 book Your Creative  Power. While Osborn didn’t necessarily “invent” the idea of generating ideas in a group, he did put the concept into words and identified some explicit core principles. His methods were born from his experience as the owner of an advertising agency and his desire to get the best ideas from his team, but the principles work just as well when trying to collaboratively find the best engineering design ideas.

Osborn’s four rules for brainstorm sessions are included in this brainstorming resource from Atlassian:

  • Rule #1: Generate as many ideas as possible during the session.
  • Rule #2: Criticizing ideas is not allowed.
  • Rule #3: Wild and ambitious ideas are welcome.
  • Rule #4: People are encouraged to build on other ideas.

You’ll likely want to set your own ground rules, based on what you’re trying to achieve with your brainstorm. But Osborn’s core principles are a good inspiration point for any team. Plus there are plenty of lists out there on Google claiming to be the “essential” rules for an effective brainstorm. Ultimately, though, what really matters is that you have ground rules — and that everyone understands the purpose of the session. If you don’t start with complete clarity about the problem you’re all trying to solve together, your session will be off the rails before it even begins.

Make a Plan to Keep the Collaboration Going

Engineering work is hard. You’re busy. So if you’re going to take valuable time out of your day for a “brainstorm session,” you need to feel confident it’s actually going to feel like a good use of your time. Brainstorming doesn’t always deliver on this front because it doesn’t always lead to any concrete action.

“While brainstorms encourage teams to be generative, they are only as useful as their aftermath. Too often, teams spend quality time coming up with bold ideas only to return to their desks after the session and forget it ever happened,” says Rohini Venkatraman in this Inc. column about his 5-Step Brainstorm Hangover Prevention Plan. “While brainstorms are always fun, the most effective ones are the ones that clarify ambiguity and move the team forward. This is only possible when someone takes the lead in creating calm after the storm.”

This might be one way that virtual brainstorm sessions could actually have an advantage over traditional in-person meetings or spontaneous “water-cooler” conversations. Instead of a verbal discussion that isn’t captured (or a wall of post-its that get thrown out, or a whiteboard that gets erased…), a digital meeting can easily be recorded. Or, better yet, it can put your team in the right headspace to prompt the use of a digital collaboration tool where all those genius ideas get organized into actual action items.

Brains are Tricky! Beware of Cognitive Traps

For any engineer, your brain is a valuable asset. But brains are tricky things, aren’t they? Even without running out and developing a deep understanding of neuroscience, it’s useful to stay aware that there are many different cognitive traps the brain can fall into.

Trying to list all these traps could easily be a full post on its own. But one interesting study that was just recently published in April 2021 is worth highlighting here. It comes from engineer Leidy Klotz and social psychologist Gabrielle Adams at the University of Virginia, and it’s one of the first times this particular topic has been specifically researched.

So what was the topic? Well, we’ve all heard that “less is more,” but Klotz and Adams wanted to dig deeper into the root of that familiar phrase. Diana Kwon explains in an article for Scientific American, “The two researchers hypothesized that there might be a psychological explanation: when faced with a problem, people tend to select solutions that involve adding new elements rather than taking existing components away.”

That means, while an actual brainstorm session should focus on putting lots of ideas on the metaphorical table, it’s also important to make sure those ideas are diverse. As Kwon notes, this new research suggests that “it requires more effort to think up subtractive solutions than additive ones.” One of the reasons brainstorming does indeed have value is that it creates dedicated space for thinking — which helps make sure we aren’t trying to do all our deep thinking while multitasking other work.

Better Brainstorms, Better Designs

Realistically, if a brainstorm session sounds like a time suck instead of a fun activity… there’s definitely room to improve your process. There’s no reason why getting a bunch of engineers together to spitball design ideas should feel like a drag. In fact, when you’re brainstorming properly, it should basically feel like you’re hanging out together and talking about things that excite you.

Because that’s why you became an engineer in the first place, right? You want to make cool stuff. You want to build, to collaborate, to innovate. You want to be part of the team that creates that absolutely killer design. One that does exactly what it’s supposed to do, and solves a real problem out in the world.

And if your brainstorm sessions aren’t doing that for you and your team, it’s time to turn that engineering brain onto your process and figure out how to make your brainstorms better. Not only will you end up with better designs — you’ll have more fun getting there, too.

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