#TechTuesday: 7 Techniques to Improve Brainstorming Within Your Engineering Team

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Great tips for technical teams to get the most out of their brainstorming process.

By Frances Advincula (Software Engineer, Accenture Software)

We all know that a great engineering team is comfortable with a lot of argument, a lot of debate, a lot of brainstorming. The diversity of thoughts and opinions always helps make a better product. A complicated problem half of the team has been try to solve for the last day might be easily solved by a fresh pair of eyes equipped with a different set of experiences.

I’ve been thinking about ways engineers can brainstorm better when I came across a wonderful book, The Human Side of Managing Technological Innovation: A Collection of Readings. There is a great story in there about how the Alpha team at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) overcame their obstacles as they created the Alpha chip (full story here). I thought I would share the lessons I learned from that read, as well as a few other strategies suggested by McKinsey and Company, a video from Second City, as well as Marissa Mayer’s lessons learned from years at Google that might just make us better engineers through improved brainstorming.

Build a culture comfortable with failure (with a “Yes, and…” attitude)

In a nutshell, if you aren’t failing, that means you aren’t doing something worthwhile; you are not pushing boundaries, and to make people willing to risk more, you have to make them know to their very core that making mistakes is okay – as long as we learn something constructive from them. Take a clue with PBS who even included failure in their performance metrics as positive criteria (If you are interested, the article “How I Got My Team to Fail More” by Jason Seiken can be found here). It is also a cornerstone of what made the Alpha team at DEC successful. For example, the Alpha team held regular “circuit chats” where engineers can come in and bounce around half-baked ideas, and even “Circuit Design Confessionals” where engineers can admit design failures for the sake of others learning for their mistakes!

Learn to work with constraints

According to Marissa Mayer, formerly a Vice President at Google and now CEO at Yahoo, “Creativity loves constraint.” Similarly, the Alpha team at DEC didn’t just set out to build just any great technological feat – they wanted a chip that would beat Intel, and would x times faster, etc. than the current industry standards. Most importantly, it had to be compatible with VAX technologies, which is what ultimately convinced management to fund their project.

Know your organization’s rules

To build upon the previous point, to be high performers, we must not brainstorm just for the sake of it. We must practice brainstorming for a purpose. Therefore, work within your company’s absolutes. Don’t waste an entire day talking about solution X when you know for a fact that management will not approve of solution X. For example, if we know that we absolutely cannot ship without doing regression testing, we cannot spend time talking about alternatives to regression testing.

Throw away the org chart

To generate the best ideas, you want people who know the subject matter, those who have worked the trenches. You should not pick people because of their status or political power. That is one of the key strengths of the Alpha team. They practiced egalitarianism – everyone had a say, everyone respected each other’s opinions, and no one was afraid to speak their mind.

Subcategorize groups

Again, to build upon the previous point, although we can be utopian and just mandate that everyone speak their mind regardless of their position or career level, we have to be realistic. In short, we have to help cultivate an environment that fosters that culture. McKinsey does this by dividing barnstormers into groups of 3-5. Why, you might ask? Research has shown that this is the optimal number where people feel comfortable speaking out – too much and the more assertive people tend to drown out the rest of the group. Furthermore, McKinsey suggests that we group subject matter experts and those that tend to turn down ideas into their own groups. The reason is that some tend to just accept SME opinions because they blindly assume the SME knows what he is talking about – which is not necessarily the case.

Encourage a sense of ownership

Set up your project teams in such a way that people can work on the things that they resonate with the most. No one is going to invest their 200% on something they do not believe in. In the case of the Alpha team, they were actually two small groups which merged together after their projects were cancelled. Therefore, everyone worked hard on the new project because they wanted to prove their ideas right, to prove management wrong. Whatever motivates your team, find it and make sure everyone is invested in the idea. Otherwise, why would they care? Why would they give it their all?

Have fun

Lastly, always keep a collaborative, fun, environment. This type of environment fosters trust among members, helping them be more comfortable about speaking up. It helps cultivate a culture of open communication where engineers know they can walk up to another person’s desk, where they know they can ask each other for advice really quickly in the hallway. This results in a more thorough osmosis of information from person to person, allowing for ideas to be bounced around and built upon more effectively.

This post originally appeared on Femgineer

Photo by Sierra Jewell.

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francis About the blogger: Frances graduated with a degree in Computer Science and is now pursuing a masters at Johns Hopkins. She currently works as a Software Developer for a Fortune 500, but will soon be joining the  @nousDECOR team as their lead engineer. She is looking forward to new adventures in the startup world at the exciting intersection of interior design and software. Tweet her at @FranAdvincula.