July 14, 2012

Brainstorming your initial to-do list


You’ve just started out with your first to-do list, looking at an empty whiteboard, and all of a sudden you have no idea what to do first, or even what to do.
You need ideas.

Brainstorming is an AWESOME tool for generating ideas.

In this case the way I see it, generating ideas is the first step towards starting and managing our backlog. Luckily, we can use the brainstorming technique at any point of the backlog elaboration. Ideas that come from these brainstorming sessions can be turned into ‘user stories’ or goals for our backlog.
Now, I’ve gone with the simplest possible way to brainstorm, just to show you what I mean. If you want to do some more research (always a good thing!), I’ve put some recommended links at the end of this post.

So why would we use brainstorming to start a backlog?

        When we have so many ideas, we can’t pick the ‘really important one’.
        When we want to refine and redefine our backlog with ideas that are really worth working on.
        When we run out of ideas.
        When we want to get others involved with creating our backlog.
        When we introduce the backlog and to-do list for the first time, and we want to break the ice.

An example of using a brainstorming session to improve parent participation
A group of teachers I know was trying to find creative ways to get parents to be active participants in their next Parent-Teacher day. They were going with a central theme of ‘Creativity with Children’, and they wanted to follow through from theory to practice.
Now, there are a lot of ways to tackle this subject and get things done, but of course the teachers needed to select the right ideas, so that other teachers would follow through as well. The last thing they wanted to do was dictate ideas to the other members of the faculty. Not only will this immediately create antagonism, but teachers that worked with the children daily would have a much better idea of what would work and what wouldn’t.
So they went with a short brainstorming session. This enables each participant to toss out ideas for all to hear, seeing the ideas on the board during the session can create new ones that weren’t thought of before, and of course, deciding on the ideas together raises the level of commitment to the meeting’s decisions.
Among the many good ideas, there were “baking a cake together”, “football session with kids”, and even “building a city model“.
After shifting through the ideas and discussing them, the teachers picked out four ideas. Each one became a backlog item, which they then divided into tasks, which of course made it easier to follow through the idea all the way to the end.
So how do we brainstorm our backlog? (One suggestion out of many)

The brainstorming session outline:

First, the basics:

1.       The facilitator should make sure the rules are kept and run the session openly and smoothly.
2.       Group members can vary between 4 to 30. Smaller groups are easier to control but there will be fewer ideas to present.

Second, the presentation:

Gathering the group, the facilitator must:
1.       Present a short description of the brainstorm session and the expectation of creativity.
2.       Present the rule that the brainstorming session allows everyone to participants and remind the participants of the fact that all ideas must be heard.
3.       Present the main problem/need/ example and the desired outcome.
4.       Set a time limit.
5.       Announce the “go” to start the session.
6.       Make sure the session outcome is recorded to a place we can later visualize, comment and rethink. I, of course, prefer a wall with sticky notes.

The brainstorm session:

1.       Each group member writes down their ideas or solutions.
OR
There’s an open discussion, with ideas being tossed around and written down on the board.

2.       Encourage discussion
a.       Open with asking for “ideas” that springs in mind  ; continue by asking people to use each other’s ideas to think of new ones; ask them to ignore the execution phase for now; ask them to  suggest all ideas not only the interesting ones; and then continue with asking  for “radical ideas”.
b.       Give positive feedback and encourage the group to continue – don’t judge the ideas or the people!

4.       Now you should have a lot of ideas on the wall.


Analyzing the ideas:

1.       Once all the ideas are on the board, group them into five to eight groups of identical area.



2.       Ask the team to vote for the ideas. Each member has a number of points equals to the number of ideas, minus two. He need to give points to the ideas that he thinks are the best answer to the question first put to them by the facilitator.


3.       Pick the ideas with the most points, and ask the team: who, where, why, how, when, to get them to elaborate a bit over the ideas selected
(At this stage, we can use working groups, dividing the group into smaller working groups. Each group takes one idea, and brainstorms it further, before presenting it again to the main group)
Remember, this session alone, may completely change the initial ideas and bring few more.
4.       At the end of the brainstorm session, we should have few ideas/goals as our main backlog items. Those ideas can later on be assigned to working groups and divided into smaller tasks processed into the flow of work till achieved.


Take a look at this flow of brainstorming; it can also be done with two people, or a personal brainstorming. And now that you have some tasks and a backlog, use Scrum and Kanban to start getting them done.

Want to read more about brainstorming?

      Osborn, A.F. (1963) Applied imagination: Principles and procedures of creative problem solving (Third Revised Edition). New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
      "Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups: Toward the Solution of a Riddle". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 53: 497–509. 1987.
      Stroebe, W.; Diehl, M. & Abakoumkin, G. (1992). "The illusion of group effectivity". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 18 (5): 643–650.
      Brainstorming magazine

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