Often, when we meet with design teams, we’ll reserve a few minutes at the tail end of the meeting to do an unusual type of wrap-up. We ask each participant in the meeting to, on a sheet of paper, answer the following three questions with a total time limit of 60-seconds:
- What was the big idea? (What was the most important thing you heard at the meeting?)
- What was your big surprise? (What was the thing you saw or heard that surprised you the most?)
- What’s your big question? (What’s the biggest unanswered question you have at this time?)
After everyone has had a chance to write down their answers, we’ll share them. If the meeting was friendly, we’ll have everyone just go around and read what they wrote. If the meeting was stressful or contentious and we want to take advantage of anonymity, we’ll collect up the papers and the meeting moderator will read them aloud.
This is a trick we picked up while doing a project at the Harvard Business School years ago. One of the professors used a slightly-modified version of these questions at the end of every class, collecting up the answers and seeing what class the students thought they just sat through.
We find that it’s not unusual to discover that different people in the room had just attended completely different meetings. People are surprised by things that other people take as a matter of course. People take away a different emphasis about what was discussed. People’s fears and concerns are reflected in their outstanding questions.
With a group of 5 people, you probably need 10 minutes for the exercise — 15 or 20 minutes if you have 10 or more folks in the room. We encourage discussion of the things people wrote, particularly asking why certain things were a surprise. (Often why we’re surprised by something is as important or more important than what we were actually surprised by — something snuck past our radar and we want to know why.)
We could just have everyone just go around the room and speak their answers, but we’ve found that writing down produces different answers. When you write something down, you don’t have the benefit of being influenced by answers of others. Interestingly, while we don’t check up on folks, we’ve found people are honest and read what they actually wrote instead of changing their answer after they’ve heard others. (Occasionally, someone will say, “Well, I wrote [whatever] but now hearing what other people said, I would also say [something else].”) We find having people write down answers before sharing them in a group is a great way to get uninfluenced individual perspectives on an issue.
It’s a great way for us to find out if everyone is on the same page. It helps us understand what the concerns are, so we can be sensitive to the group’s need and where their priorities lie. A simple tool that yields great value. Gotta love that…