The Mindtribe Guide to Brainstorms and Design Reviews

We’ve all had the experience of being in a creative meeting that seems totally aimless. Whether it’s a brainstorm or a design review, the discussion meanders, most of the ideas are suggested by the two most senior people in the room, and everyone else answers emails or nods along at various levels of caffeination. At the end, the person who called the meeting seems excited about two or three ideas, and within a few hours, the whole thing is forgotten.

On the other hand, brainstorms and design reviews have immense potential. Creative thinking in meetings like these often makes the difference between great products and merely good ones.

As a startup founder or product lead, you want to be able to gather your team and focus their thinking on your most difficult problems. Even beyond problem solving and failure-spotting, reviews and brainstorms are important for building cohesive support around ideas and getting team members exposed to different design approaches.

When brainstorms and design reviews are done well, they’re one of the most valuable uses of your team’s time. When done poorly, they can yield zero or even negative returns.

Here at Mindtribe, we engage in a lot of brainstorms and design reviews, both internally and with our clients. We’ve noticed that creative meetings, like these, take some special handling to produce good results. Gathering a team to collect different perspectives on a problem is not an easy task. Here are some best practices that will help you navigate your brainstorms and design reviews:

Invite the right people

It’s tempting to assume that inviting more people will yield more ideas and uncover potential issues, but often that isn’t true. Large groups are helpful in specific situations, but smaller groups are better suited for most tasks and have lower hourly burn rates.

When to invite one person
One-on-one or two-on-one reviews are good for technical deep dives, like schematic reviews or checking tolerance calculations. If you actually want to walk through the math and make sure your reasoning is correct, walking one person through it is the best way to make sure every part gets covered. Plus, they’re less expensive.

When to invite 3-5 people.
Three to five people is about the largest group size that can stay engaged in a single conversation. With a minimal amount of structure, you can get a good general review or brainstorm of whatever subject you’ve set. A group of three to five gives enough perspectives to be useful, but with less overhead than managing a larger group.

When to invite more than 5 people.
With careful management, large groups can leverage a diversity of perspectives. Large groups allow you to gain insight from multiple teams across an organization or many approaches to the same problem. Just as important can be the use of bigger groups for consensus building. Starting a project with a large brainstorm or review of the problem is a great way to get the team aligned around a solution architecture, rather than feeling like it’s been dictated by one person.

Set explicit goals

In creative meetings, as in life, you’re much more likely to get what you want if you ask for it. Brainstorms and design reviews without explicit goals often become disorganized. To get more useful feedback out of your team and help them stay focused, start your brainstorm or design review by explicitly reviewing the critical questions you want to answer.

For design reviews, the questions are usually relatively straightforward. Start each review with a short list of clear questions that you want to answer by the end of the meeting. Some examples include “Is this part ready for injection molding?”, “Is this schematic ready for layout?”, or “Have I adequately accounted for material creep in this button design?”

For brainstorms, questions become a bit more nuanced. The art of asking good brainstorm questions is subtle, and can actually be the subject of its own brainstorm. In general, good brainstorming questions are both flexible enough to accommodate new ideas but focused enough to provide inspirational constraints. Questions starting with “How might we….?” are much more flexible and open ended than questions starting with “How should we….?” which put pressure on the group to come up with the optimal answer. Even if we want to end the brainstorm with an optimal answer, (and we’re engineers, so believe me, we do) putting pressure on every single idea to be the optimal answer makes it a lot harder to speak up.

Give Enough Context

Contrary to popular belief, good constraints actually help spark creativity. “How do we waterproof this enclosure?” is a much more difficult question to answer than “How might we make this button resistant to occasional water drops for less than $0.10/unit for a 30,000 cycle lifetime?” At the beginning of each meeting, give your team enough background that they understand what tools they have (manufacturing method, cost, weight, power budget, etc.) in solving the problem, and the priorities of the device’s end users.

This also helps the team stay focused on actionable solutions. If you’re in a final design review before you release your parts to tooling, questions on the basic architecture aren’t actionable so late in the project. Similarly, if you’ve decided that your CM is going to injection mold all of your parts, you don’t want to spend 20 minutes of your brainstorm considering machined metal architectures.

Keeping the team focused provides you more useful ideas, and also helps maintain engagement.

Level the playing field

Like I mentioned before, we’ve all been in ostensibly “creative” meetings where the vast majority of the talking is done by one or two people. This happens when, through seniority, subject expertise, or just force of personality, those individuals have been awarded social status by the rest of the group. If you’re running a creative meeting with a large group and want to leverage your whole team effectively, you need to get them all talking, which means leveling out differences in expertise, org chart position, and extroversion so everyone can be heard. In groups of 4 or less, this usually happens organically, but with groups of 5 and larger, the most effective way to do this is with structure.

Provide Actionable Outcomes

In most human interactions, the last 10% of the time spent together determines 60% of how you feel about the interaction, and creative meetings are no exception. You might think your job is done once you’ve gathered ideas from your team, but that is exactly the reason that so many brainstorms seem so aimless. Actionable outcomes are the heart and soul of brainstorming and design review meetings.

You can choose to filter ideas and critiques at the end of your meeting – or choose to do it after – but it’s critical to tell your team what you plan to do with their input at the end of the meeting. This does two things; firstly, it gives the team a sense of purpose, so they feel like their input was valued and they take future creative meetings seriously. Secondly, it keeps you, as the team lead, accountable for processing and taking action on the feedback, which helps you get the most out of the meeting.

My two favorite tools for providing actionable outcomes are the note taker and the update email.

The note taker
If you can, have someone other than yourself take notes during your brainstorm or design review. This frees you up to engage with the feedback you’re getting from the team and facilitate better. More importantly, having someone else write down what’s important forces you to engage with ideas or critiques that might be inconvenient. That last minute thermal study might cost you an extra day to do, but if the team thinks it’s important, it might just save your product.

The update email
Promise to send your team an email in a couple days (at the end of the week, at the latest) letting them know what you’ve done with their feedback. This keeps you accountable for processing through the feedback and arriving at actions quickly, and it helps the team give more useful feedback next time, so your next brainstorm or design review will be even better.

Closing Thoughts

Brainstorms and design reviews are a special breed of meeting. By opening the door to creativity and unexpected ideas, you invite unexpected consequences and conclusions. This is a good thing – unexpected solutions and critiques from your team are what you need to solve your toughest problems. But managing the unexpected takes some special handling to make sure your meeting stays on the rails.

With some forethought and planning, you can channel your team’s creative energy into solving your toughest problems. If you invite the right people, set explicit goals, give good context, level the playing field, and provide actionable outcomes, you’ll be well on your way to creative meeting success and shipping a successful product.

Some excellent further reading on creative meetings is available from McKinsey and Soapbox.