15 Minute Write-ups

How to Find Simple Solutions as a Team

KISS: Keep it Simple Stupid

That’s the first thing I ever learned in an engineering class. We were told repeatedly that simplicity is the key.

Obviously, engineers work in the realm of complicated and complex problems, and we shouldn’t be shy about addressing them. However, for any complicated problem, there is always a range of solutions from simplest to wildly complicated.

Source: https://xkcd.com/974/

In an engineering team (or team working with complicated problems), it’s common for someone to point out a problem and vaguely suggest that the solution is going to be terribly difficult. This can arise for three reasons:

  1. The problem is is actually going to be terribly difficult
  2. The engineer thinks it’s going to be terribly difficult, but there is a simpler solution that they haven’t thought of yet
  3. The engineer hopes to dissuade you from solving the problem (a.k.a. laziness)

If you are managing the team, this presents a problem. How do you know which one it is?

You could:

  • Dig into the issue yourself to see if you arrive at the same conclusion, but that eats into your time
  • Have another team member do the above
  • Just take their word for it

Introducing: The 15 Minute Write-up

We came up with a stupidly simple idea. If someone pushes back on a task because it’s going to be too difficult, we ask them to write up the solution they are imagining — in 15 minutes. We’re not looking for a book, and we’re not looking for a tweet. It doesn’t need to be exact either. The idea is to take just enough time to clearly express how they would go about solving the problem and why they think it’s going to be hard.

This does a number of things.

First of all, many times people will realize it’s actually not that hard and let you know. It’s completely normal to complicate things in your mind, and if you spend 15 minutes working it out on paper, you may find a much easier way.

Second, this process creates an artifact that can be passed around among the team and more easily analyzed. Once the engineer writes up a doc, everyone else will have a much easier time understanding where they are coming from. It also opens the problem up to the rest of the team for new ideas.

Last, this gets everyone to be solutions minded, and it orients everyone around a process. If someone is going to point out a problem, it’s much better if they also provide a few ideas for solutions. Otherwise, a negative energy can develop. The 15 Minute Write-up is a way to guard against that.