Brainstorming, Brain Storming, Brain and Storming

So the story started like this. CMS team has been developing some first-class and highly customized content management system at enterprise level for some time now. We have reached a point where we can boldly called our product stablized, of which allows us to explore more with experiences gained from current product. It was a simple casual small chat with Drake one morning that there has always been a blind side of engineers to view a product from users’ perspective while eighty or even more percent of CMS users are not engineers. Drake suggested to hold an event much like coding day we had few months ago to inspire creativity in constructing CMS v2. One small chat led to consequent discussions with various personnels to bring brainstorming into reality. Big thanks to Vicky and Elaine of all the planning, suggestions, and mostly, their effort to offer anything within or without their personal boundaries. Without them, there would not be an event hosted in KH nor would there be an elegant afternoon tea time.

I did not sense much excitement the first time CMS v2 brainstorming event was announced to CMS team in KH. Since CMS team will play an important role in the event, I have secretly considered myself doomed from the beginning. I myself was a virgin of event planning. I have little to none experience in ordering food and even for the few times I did, I never could get the numbers right. This is just how much I was doomed. In the area, where in my narrow mindedness, was considered a wild wild west (and here I missed all my capable friends in Taipei), I have no event planning skills with a team of shy engineers like me. If it has been a declaration of a war, after much deliberation, as Spark would say, it would only seem logical to simply surrender.

6:30 Friday night before Monday event.

Timing is a tricky thing. To CMS team, production release is a big thing. We have zero failure tolerance policy for production release. Testing usually lasts around a week if everything goes well. On top of regular production release effort, we are also a scrum team. Sprint tasks are expected to be carried out on-schedule by all means. Brainstorming event was caught in the middle of our release cycle, which means even with careful plannings, the team still would have to suffer much overtime work to accommodate any additional effort for the event. As always, a great achievement comes with much hard works and sacrifices. It was then I realized I have worked with some really talented people with much endurance and willingness. It was Friday night close to the end of the day, last working day before the event took place. I stood up hoping to grab someone for an update on preparation on brainstorming event, and I realized all CMS team members has vanished from their desk. To my amazement, all of them has managed to find themselves a quiet corner to craft for the event.

There were 12 participants for this event where we decided to equally divide them up into three competing groups. With each competing group, there is going to be a owner leading and answering questions. Team owners are responsible to design a logo and motto for their team. Every CMS team members were also asked to do a bit of background research on each participant.

Songs on demand

QR code to help people access songs-on-demand system. A brief instruction is listed below QR code. Instruction was placed on each table.

In order to better facilitate this event, we asked Dada, an intern engineer in CMS team, to assist us with music that matched theme of each session. Much to my surprise, not only did he made a decent selection of music to play, he managed to assemble a songs-on-demand system that allowed participants to order songs of their preferences.

Brainstorming event was scheduled at 12 o’clock but team started arranging meeting place three hours prior to the beginning of the event. We wanted to kick start the meeting with more casual settings, to ease participants into thinking mode after a long trip with some mild constraints. Hence there were six categories named from our past experience with content management system development. Every category was assigned an owner responsible in conducting their own sales package. This part of activity was designed with dual purposes. First of all, owners were to gain more insightful knowledge on their designated category. In the meantime, participants received digested information in understandable representation through interactions with category owners. To make this activity even more challenging for CMS team, category owners were asked to act as sales representatives of their category. They need to gather enough ideas from people to fulfill his or her sales target. Otherwise category owners had to draft ideas to make up their sales target.

Categories specially designed by each CMS team member.

It was 9:30, out of blue moon, Drake slacked to ask for KH office address. He was in the U.S. for Google conference only a day before and decided to come to us directly from Taoyuan international airport after 14 hours of flight. Upon arrival, he went through event programme one last time before everyone arrives in the hopes to refine it with more insights. He has pointed out that the last part of the programme, which consisted a 1.5 hour long of idea crafting session, might be dreadful to participants while regular human concentration span lies around 30 minutes. As an agile team, we were accustomed to changes. Although it was not in my nature to embrace sudden change to the plan, I bowed to the suggestion for it did show a blind spot in our programme. Hence one idea crafting session was splitted into two sessions with the first one lasted thirty minutes and the second one forty-five to sixty minutes. This change was later on proven a success. People were more clear on how to present and implement on their ideas after brief retrospective session of the first idea crafting session.

Weekly meeting.

We started out with weekly meeting. It was a memorable time in the history that KH team has generally equivalent number of personnels in comparison with Taipei team. We invited all the POs, key personnels of the operation teams, one designer, QA leader, and HR to join us in KH. The first time KH is no wild wild west anymore. We may be wild but we are no longer a deserted place where one has to memorize hard enough to bring up in a conversation.

KKStar team logo

I have prepared myself with some worse case scenarios. After all, all that it counts for algorithm is computation of Big-O, the worst-case scenario. As proud engineers, we calculate for the worst.

The first bad thing that could happen would be people spent too much time eating lunch. Officially, CMS v2 brainstorming event started right after lunch. Time was tightly planned with each session precisely scheduled. With possible delay in return from lunch, meeting might be strained off time and there goes worse-case scenario number one.

Apple team logo

In the first session, we would ask people to start drafting their ideas as individuals on post-it and stick it to the category where it belongs. I could almost foresee for those who has no prior experience with content management system, drafting individual ideas would be a conversation killer. With too many people wondering blankly on the side and our shy CMS team as sales representatives, the whole session would easily pass by in silence. There! I can see how this would end. The meeting died and the rumors passed around like this, KH is not a fun place. The team is boring. Worse-case scenario number Two!

I lost count of worse-case scenario after number two. It was all too depressing. So I crossed my fingers, waited for people to scatterly return from their lunch. At around 1:30, people have all returned from lunch satisfied and happy. Worse case scenario one pass!

Kiwi team logo

The first session, we named it “I have a dream session”. That is to say, if you do have a dream. From my point of view, if you do not know the existence of an Extera-Terrestrial, i.e. ET, would you even dream of it coming to you?

Albeit all the speculations and dramas that took place in my head, the first session went interestingly well. People were curious. They showed interests in the things unheard of. People were attentive. Lots of individual conversations went on with each category owner. By the end of the first session, every category had reached its sales target.

In the following session, three pre-chosen group owners played back-to-back scissors, paper, and rock to pick out members for each competing group. This would be one of high peaks of the day. Each group owner demonstrated their mottos before the game started. Each group was paired with a recorder who would not participate in any activity but serve as a neutral observer. Recorders would share what they have learned from observing interactions among group members the next day.

In the following session, three pre-chosen group owners played back-to-back scissors, paper, and rock to pick out members for each competing group. This would be one of high peaks of the day. Each group owner demonstrated their mottos before the game started. Each group was paired with a recorder who would not participate in any activity but serve as a neutral observer. Recorders would share what they have learned from observing interactions among group members the next day.

Proudly presented by Kiwi team.

First round of idea presentations, each team was able to present an idea with roughly 60 ~ 70 % of completion level. The idea itself was innovative and interesting. They are fresh but a bit immature. People were groaning at limited amount of time and resources that had prevented them from producing a perfect result. It was, however, deliberately designed. We had given the approach of this part of the event with deep considerations and decided to resemble real-world scenarios where you never get enough time and resource to do a job. However, for the times we made something unsatisfactory, we reflect and learn from our failures. It was from reflective experiences that we learn to do better each time.

Proudly presented by Apple team.

Brainstorming is an exploration and extraction of ideas deeply buried in our minds. It was through intense conversation and listening that the ideas are to be shaped into presentable forms. Almost every team picked on one or more ideas related to AI (artificial intelligence) or ML (machine learning), however nature of abstraction the ideas were. Ninety percent of the AI or ML ideas were unfortunately dropped after group discussion. AI or ML is something we got a hunch that tells us it is the future but we are probably not matured to the point to implement a product base on it.

Afternoon tea time was another highlight of the day. Fried chicken, fries, hot pressed toast and lots of cake.

Because we decided to split one discussion session into two, afternoon snack arrived exactly around the time after our first retrospective.

The second idea crafting session started after snack time. This is something of a bliss. In the original plan there was no break time at all due to our tight schedule. Albert, our brainstorming consultant thoughtfully introduced to us by Peter, mentioned it might stress people out without even a single break. I did not put too much thought into basic human needs. People really need a break as it turned out. By the end of first session, people were agitated and ready to do more but they are tired. We took around 30 mins break which end up a great result on the second session.

Proudly presented by kkStar team.

All three competing groups seemed ready to jump on the second chance to prove the excellence of their ideas by the end of 30-min break. In this round, group discussions were optimized. As it seemed, members of each group has obtained the mind of a best friend to each other. People simply turned telepathic.

At the end of second session, we have one group with two different implementations on two relatively distinct ideas. Two groups expanded further on their original thoughts. Since each group has to answer questions for their own implementations, it was clear that this time, speakers were more well-prepared and sophisticated for their own topics.

We concluded the first day of the event with a retrospective of the day and arranged the morning time on the second day to announce the winner, decoration of the winning team, and a reflection initiated by three recorders from three groups.

Something we would always remember.

A perfect conclusion was tough. There are few options to initiate and conclude an event. We could lecture for lessons we learn, raise an open question, sing a song, ask people to sing a song, or provide another round of happy meal for satisfaction. Since Drake has fully regained his consciousness after a night of rest. He was able to engage into the lessons we learned with open questions at the end.

Crowning

More or less this event was a success of which I marked a success level around 75%. The lost of 25% depends on the level of impact this event has brought upon people. The result would be a continuous counting then.

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