Monday, January 26, 2009

Brainstorming remotely

Today I started a short conversation with Pawel Brodzinski, about how teams respond to working exclusively remote. By the way, his blog, called Software Project Management, is a great resource of posts about working with teams and managing the process of software development, so make sure you subscribe to it.

Pawel was talking about the lessons learned from a startup product called Overto, which was closed some time ago. One of the things he mentioned was the value of working in the same place and the way his team started to feel the negative effects of being separated.

Image by timabbott

Since I believe in the remote proficiency of virtual teams, I had a different opinion. I think that after the preliminary discussions around the fresh idea of the product, collaborating in writing instead of ad-hoc meetings may bring great effectiveness into the product.

Written communication versus spoken brainstorming

I mentioned the following arguments for communicating over writing mediums, like email, as opposed to verbal meetings:
  • On email it's more natural to keep the discussion focused on an aspect. Talking makes this a bit chaotic.
  • It's easier to follow a point of view, when you have it written on the screen, maybe with additional links to external resources.
  • When you need to write, you focus more on the points you'd like to add to the discussion. Talking is faster, so it might lead to loosing the focus.
  • Everything that's discussed gets logged, so you avoid the post-meeting confusion over some pieces of conversation or forgotten parts.
  • You're undisturbed in your own mind-mapping flow process and you don't disturb the others.
Brainstorming over emails might be a bit sluggish from the point of view of generating ideas based on ideas being generated by the others, but in my opinion it's better in refining an idea before exposing it.

Let ideas flow, then examine the results

It's pretty common that once an idea is out, it's exposed to being examined. This leads to context switching and instead of focusing on building a list of things to discuss about, you'll find yourself analyzing ideas.

For instance, when you discuss holiday destinations with your spouse, it's probably the case that you find a place, discuss about it, then find another, comment on it and so on.

The drawbacks of this approach are presented more explicitly in the book The Myth of Multitasking. The book includes a demonstration that switching back and forth between two different tasks, makes them take more time than doing them sequentially.

Image by h.koppdelaney

The above example is a bit extreme, since it involves the spouse. Don't do it at home unsupervised. But in my opinion, the same thing applies to teams and brainstorming. It's nothing wrong with getting together for a drink/lunch and discuss about a new product or feature, but I find writing more efficient.

Use mind-mapping, build a list of things that you think are suited, and then pass it on. If the others are doing the same, undisturbed, your team ends up with a more productive flow of ideas and better yet, you have everything written down.

Experiment and stick to what works for you

I'm not trying to say that this model is supposed to work for everyone. We are a team of two people, me and Sorin. It's been like this not only for the time we've been working on Teamness, but since 2005 when we started our company. We used to work from home on different projects for some clients and we always collaborated remotely. This is basically the reason for building Teamness in the first place.

In the beginning we were talking on Skype about clients, implementation details, decisions and so on. We used to have long conversations and sometimes we didn't remember everything that was discussed. We still have conversations, but when we talk about new features or design decisions, we use Teamness. We write the proposal in a message and then comment on it. This keeps it focused. We also use email from time to time, but what I want to stress upon here is that we're trying to keep the verbal communication related to our projects to a minimum, since it didn't prove efficient for us.

Please also note that I'm not trying to express that social interaction is bad, like having lunch with your colleagues or coffee breaks discussions. But when your product has 1000 features, writing things down becomes the key ingredient for a solid collaboration.


Tim Abbott said...

I'm generally a bit of a fan of face to face team meetings, especially if it involves meeting in a 'third space' (coffee shop, creative venue...)!
However, I can definitely appreciate the benefits of developing ideas remotely.
In particular, there will be some creatives with a quieter or more introverted personality who will find verbalising their ideas harder among more vociferous contributors. There is every chance their contribution will be valuable and probably well thought through. Giving them an equal platform on which to present their contributions is likely to bring up better developments or solutions and they may well be able to present clearer analysis of ideas at the later evaluation stage.

Paul Marculescu said...

Good point about the introverts, Tim.

However, there is also the reverse, people reluctant to writing.
There is no fits-all procedure. :)

Thanks for the comment.

Pawel Brodzinski said...

I won't change my mind on that one. I think that having a good facilitator during brainstorming (which is a "must-have" by the way) brings significantly more value than switching to email.

Yes, when we're talking with our spouses we're most likely far less disciplined but I guess we don't develop new product ideas then, or do we?

There's one more difference I'd omitted in our discussion but it struck me as I wrote your post. As far as there are two of you it's fairly easy to use emails to discuss different things. If there are ten people in the group you'll face typical problems:
- there's no clear message who should answer
- people are reluctant to add their two cents as far as they see others already answered in the thread
- discussion become hot and there are a number of branches going in different directions a soon it hard to say who is answering what and why (look at any popular forum, you'll get what I mean)

A couple of years ago I worked with my friend on some small application and we did it pretty much like you: almost all work was done remotely, we used emails, IMs and tools (simple bug-tracker, a couple of Excel sheets) extensively and it worked well. That's why I understand why it suits you fine too.

However for me there is a difference in working in a 2-person team and twice as big. Or maybe they were people who were different.

Paul Marculescu said...

Thanks for the comment, Pawel. It's an interesting discussion. :)

I agree a moderator is needed in a 2h brainstorm with 10 people, given that everyone adds something to the meeting, otherwise there isn't much information left after.

And of course, if everyone is located in the same spot, it makes more sense to get together in a room and talk than keep it on email or a message board. My opinion is that once the team is spread, this doesn't necessarily mean the end of the project. More over, in some contexts you can also make it work to your advantage.