How we used a company brainstorm to go after the right problems and fuel the product backlog

Quarterly, TaskRabbit holds a company brainstorm to help identify ideas that may be added to the product roadmap and implemented in the coming months. We’re lucky enough to have a small office which makes approaching people on other teams easier than at big companies. Even so, it’s easy to get silo’d into your daily work.

One of the things I really appreciate about the culture and my coworkers is that everyone is open to trying new things. As a designer, I really value that openness and iteration of internal processes. In past brainstorms, we found ourselves doing a lot of group-think, participants leaving early, and people not feeling like their ideas were heard. I wanted to share how our latest brainstorm encouraged active participation, covered more topics, allowed more voices to be heard, and went deeper into discussing problems, themes, and how to solve them rather than just solutions.

Materials

Large cork boards — to move around easily

Colored post-its — at least 3 different colors to help color code

Sharpie markers — to write big, legible and concise statements

Blocked off calendars — to encourage participation

Snacks — for energy and to bribe engineers to arrive early

Dogs — for emotional support and because they’re cute (optional)

Preparation

Our product managers acted as facilitators for the company brainstorm. They took quarterly themes that were identified from the executive team and sent them out a day before along with an agenda which allowed everyone to think about the themes and form some ideas and opinions before the brainstorm started.

We blocked off team calendars to let people know this was important and to encourage participation. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have different teams present. We all work on different sets of projects and have expert views on different things. Some are closer to product, others are closer to data, users, support, operations, marketing etc. It’s useful to get different perspectives together and to challenge ideas.

Find a space that can accommodate your group. Print out your quarterly themes and attach one to the top of each cork board.

Nom Nom Nom

Start First Thing in the Morning

We started off at an early, but reasonable time (9:30am) before people could get sucked into their daily work and while minds were fresh. Snacks were provided as a way to get people excited. We had some delicious croissants (I’m still trying to advocate for breakfast sandwiches). Facilitators refreshed the team on the agenda, themes and mentioned a few guiding tactics: surface ideas in each theme or just an idea you’re passionate about, think about which persona this is affecting, the problem they might be facing, etc.

Part 1: Idea Collection

We used 1 color of post-its for the idea collection phase and allowed 30 minutes. People added their own ideas under themes and read other ideas. Facilitators did a great job at looping in our remote team via google hangout and getting their ideas up. If it felt like an idea belonged in more than 1 category, it was added to both. We also had a miscellaneous theme to catch potential ideas that didn’t fit into a theme.

Part 2: Theme and Refine

After ideas were collected and we had a short break, we counted off and formed small groups. Each group was assigned to a quarterly theme to do a deep dive and theme the individual ideas. If someone was passionate about a particular quarterly theme, they joined that specific group but it’s important to make sure you’re getting a mix of people from different teams in each group as it will allow for greater conversation from different viewpoints.

Each group affinity mapped(themed) the individual ideas and wrote the larger theme on 1 post-it note of a different color. What was useful was to talk about the root of the theme and what the actual problem was, forming that into a “How might we..”. Re-forming themes into HMW’s allowed for more meaningful and wider discussions into how we might solve it.

For example, there was a cluster around “leave behinds” after a service was completed. Initial conversation started out discussing what we could leave behind after a Task, but by discussing the problem a little bit more we realized that the reason for the leave behinds was to delight and keep our service/brand top of mind. We re-framed the theme to “How can we make a lasting impression?”, which lead to wider thinking around solutions.

As we were writing our themes, we refined and wrote new ideas on another colored post-it note and grouped it with the cluster. We then discussed which themes would have the most impact on the overall theme, business and user.

It’s beneficial to have someone who can facilitate product thinking in each subgroup, who can help reframe group thoughts and dig into the root of the themes. The smaller groups helped foster deeper conversations giving everyone a chance to contribute. You should take around 60 minutes for this part.

Part 3: Share and Discuss

We came back together as a whole and each group had 10 minutes to present their board: the problem/themes, and refined ideas that they felt would have the most impact on both the user and business. Members from other groups asked questions and contributed to the larger discussion. Facilitators kept track of time and there was a note taker to keep track of the discussion.

We concluded with the facilitators sharing next steps and how these ideas would be used. For us, they would be looked at for the product roadmap and prioritized based on impact vs effort.

Themed cork boards. We ran short on time and didn’t get to miscellaneous.

Remote Teams

We had our New York office join via google hangout. One of the PM facilitators did a great job at keeping them in the loop. They then chose which theme they were most interested in, worked solo in tandem, and then joined up with the in-person group at the end of the small group time. It worked for us but I imagine with more remote folks, it would be harder to organize.

Reflecting

Overall, I walked away from the brainstorm excited. I felt inspired with new ideas and enlightened from hearing different perspectives. I felt like the product team got to hear a lot more ideas and saw what others believed we should focus on. I noticed more people participating and felt we were able to take a deep dive and cover more material than in past brainstorms.

I also appreciated seeing executive-level participation. Our exec team has busy schedules and can’t always be present but those who could were actively contributing. I believe it made others feel like their voices were being heard more.

Something I might do differently are send out quarterly themes a few days before so that people have time to think about ideas, and set a timer for everyone to view to keep track of time and pace.

We were able to make this a successful brainstorm because people chose to be actively present. We have about 50~ people at HQ and I’m thankful we have an open culture where everyone is on the product team.

Oso the dog encouraging the brainstorm.