Posted by: Adam Deane | 19/10/2011

Collaboration and Brainstorming

DexterThere is the general belief that all that’s needed is some kind of social gizmo, and people will start collaborating.

Collaboration software has come a long way in the last decade: Email, Twitter, Yammer, SharePoint, Wikis, mobile phones…

All are excellent software solutions and all help with the issues of company collaboration and internal communications, but the problems remain the same: internal politics and human nature.

Some things can’t be solved by software. Take brainstorming for example. Brainstorming is part of any innovation, be it designing a new technology or starting a new BPM initiative.
Brainstorming is easier said than done. Too many people participating, and you’ve got a babbling session that will lead to nowhere, but if you’ve got one or two other participants that are on your same wave length, that you can throw ideas back and forth with – you’ve got a winner.

Brainstorming in BPM usually appears at the start of a project.
A small window of opportunity to change the way before committing to a project plan.
Once you’re committed to a project path, it’s too late to rethink or change.

Brainstorming can be around choosing the correct first process to begin implementing, it could be a decision on the way to interact with the client stakeholders, the way to publicise the BPM programme inside the organisation.

Deciding that BPM projects need stakeholders is easy. Finding the right person is hard.
Deciding that Business and IT need to work together is easy. Planning a way to avoid the internal politics is harder.
Deciding that BPM needs to solve business pains, is easy. Locating the true business pain and thinking of a smart way to tackle it is harder.

It’s nothing to do with project management. Dealing with scope creep is normal day to day project management. If you’ve got a good enough project manager it will work.
Brainstorming is required to ensure the correct strategic decisions are taken at the start of the project. The ones that will cripple the BPM initiative if wrong.

Meetings for the sake of meetings are not productive.
And yes, if you’ve got enough experience in BPM projects – you will probably make the right decisions, but having brainstorming sessions at the critical junction of a new BPM initiative is priceless.

There is no brainstorming software out there yet.
Trying to run brainstorming sessions via email, social media or any other gizmos doesn’t work.

It’s all in the eye contact, the tone of the voice that tells you that your idea is rubbish. It won’t work. Try another way…


  1. Hi Adam,

    I think it depends on what you mean by brainstorming, I think you are right to differentiate between brainstorming and collaboration. Brainstorming is a form of collaboration. You seem to suggest that brainstorming is a form of providing high level solutions to ‘big problems’ with a team of stakeholders. I have no idea what a correct definition of brainstorming is but I absolutely think it can be done via email. Maybe not on Twitter though…

    I openly admit that I’m not very good at providing great ideas in a ‘brainstorming’ meeting. In fact my best ideas come when I write. So I see brainstorming as more than just a single meeting but as a process that includes meetings as well as other forms of communications.

    I’d say eye contact is important but I think being ‘on the same wave length’ is more important, having a great team that you trust.

  2. Hi Adam, I am in full agreement. Nothing will substitute the value of person-to-person contact. The quality of people – especially the project manager – is essential for any project. The actual value delievred by collaboration software is dependent on the quality of people and company culture. By that I mean that culture of management from the top down. Empower people and you will gain the benefits of social collaboration. But you can’t simply mix an old style control mindset with social networking technology. The old ‘fool with tool’ adage applies.

    But in these times on the other hand, people empowerment must go hand in hand with technology or you are like Tiger Woods playing with a cheap set of clubs. The example I like to use is the social network called the Apple Appstore. It provides an ecosystem of innovation that uses the power of evolution. Some apps succeed and many won’t. Clearly, it will be hard to apply that in a business, but those who succeed gain huge benefits.

    So as much as I like eye-contact and person-to-person, I could not run my business on it anymore. We use technology to supplement that.

    The concept of BPM is unfortunately linked to the old-style, top-down control mindset and that is my biggest criticism. Giving the process owner the ability to achieve his goals any way he wants as long as he achieves outcomes, operational targets and process goals (i.e. handovers) is that kind of social empowerment needed – not brainstorming. Allow for different processes to fail or succeed until the best ones sustain. The idea that any form of brainstorming and project planning will identify the best possible process is outdated and has been proven wrong by nature itself. Allow processes to fail and to be changed by the people who do them. That is the true process of optimization.

    And because your innovation of processes happens locally in the empowered team of the process owner – following transparent targets while making the outcomes transparent – they can collaborate eye-to-eye easily. This way you don’t need complex project plans that produce in any case outdated processes. As I posted recently: “Let’s face it, orthodox process flowcharting won’t survive the social and mobile revolution.” I stick with my prediction!

  3. Hi Adam,

    I too agree that that the interpersonal relationships developed from face to face discussions goes a long way toward a successful program. Most important factor in building a successful program (BPM or otherwise), is understanding the culture for change in an organization. Once you nail that, you can enhance, accelerate, and scale the program through collaboration (brainstorming, planning) and technology (social media, cloud) channels.

  4. I like to use ‘mindmaps’ for brainstorming (there are several software systems you can use, I have a serious beef with the wheel/spoke variety – everyone should know from Geometry 101 that a circle only has 360 degrees so you quickly run out of real estate).

    For a BPM project, brainstorming can involve listing customer satisfaction points, building a list of processes and linking these to the CSPs, identifying which processes need improvement, followed by ranking these to get an idea of the required effort.

    This, to me, is a collaborative effort – it can be done on-line (homework required so that as much of the boilerplate that is likely to be needed does not have to be built during the session).

    I would mostly use the word collaboration to describe the way processes are mapped and tested. But, here again, brainstorming could be required when deficiencies are detected in the processes.

    I see brainstorming as a top down, summary level, and I see process mapping (where it is appropriate) as bottom up, tactical.

    The two have to meet in the middle same as any operational plan has to fall in line with strategy.

  5. Adam

    Looking at the number of comments, you made a good kick with this!

    A small note regarding your “Too many people participating, and you’ve got a babbling session that will lead to nowhere”.

    No question with regards to classic brainstorming sessions, but there are effective variations of the same idea i.e. open space technology.

    There is also another variation called “knowledge reactor” developed in Russia that serves the same purpose: to make a big crowd be as efficient in idea generation and exchange as a small group is within a brainstorming session. We successfully use it on a regular basis.

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