How to Think

During the post-9/11 dot com bubble-bursting, I worked at a dying company that had an “offsite” guided brainstorming session on how to save the business. I think it was on a disused floor of our rapidly emptying Tech Square office building. I had heard of various bits of brainstorming methodology before, e.g., no criticism of ideas; quantity over quality of ideas, and so forth. But I had never gone through such a complete formal process like the one the facilitator took us through.

Well, just as I had heard about early adopters and s-curves long before I had read Crossing the Chasm, there are now lots of software and general business methodologies built around Brainstorming concepts. The idea is to have a somewhat reproducible process to identify and explore everything that matters in the task at hand. Agile programming, including eXtreme Programming and Scrum, have the same general purpose. The key is diversity of viewpoints about specific questions.

Now we’re seeing a sort of slow motion explosion in the use of virtual worlds for this.

I don’t think Brainstorming and Agile techniques are the greatest thing. They are a thing, and they work well when they work well. If you’re doing it and it works, keep doing it. If what you are doing is not working, you should try something else, which might well include diversity-based techniques if that applies.

Now, as I understand it, part of the idea for this stuff is to not get too hung up on process and tools. So software specifically designed to make a specific process flow to the next stage is maybe missing the point. I think what’s most useful here is a general flexible environment that facilitates the process. Virtual worlds are suited for this:

  • With appropriate voice, video, and interactive performance, virtual worlds make it trivially easy to include participants from other departments, offices, or even other countries. It is pointless to use a diversity-based process without including the right stakeholders, including customers, suppliers, and partners from other organizations when appropriate.
  • Avatars let you be someone other than yourself, making some people more comfortable suggesting ideas, stepping outside their usual role, or assuming the viewpoint of someone else.
  • Symmetric interaction allows any participant to speak or introduce, change, and manipulate documents and other resources. While the normal social conventions from the physical world allow efficient guidance by a facilitator, it is first crucial that software limitations do not interfere or slow down brainstorming interaction (e.g., those of conferencing software that make you jump through hoops to take control of the mic and mouse).
  • Rearranging ideas is a key part of the process, so the software must allow participants to directly manipulate documents, models, pictures, movies, and Web pages, forming and reforming them into different groupings. While this is trivial to do in the real world with some of these, the physical world has a limited number of not-easilly moved flip charts and computer screens. One common in-world Agile technique is to create a large image with areas for various concepts or activities, or with colored columns or rows (“swim lanes”) for stages in a process, or simply a large calendar or timeline. The picture is thrown up large on a wall of the conference room, which may well be two or more “stories” high. Virtual sticky notes or other media are then slid around over the surface, with participants trying them out here and there. You can do this in the physical world, too, but it is so much easier and less limiting to do so in the virtual. Of course, it is important that all participants be able to do this symmetrically and simultaneously.
  • Simply being able to name and label any area is very powerful. In an Agile process, there are times when it is appropriate to label an idea or group of ideas, and other times when it appropriate to change these. A virtual space must make it just as easy or more as in the physical world to create, remove, change, and manipulate such signs, and to direct people to these areas. A virtual space can automatically make signs for introduced media.
  • It is easy to create attractive conference rooms and other suitable spaces, which are more conducive to interactive discussion than are physical office cubicles or scarce physical conference rooms. It is best to be able to do so trivially from a proven template without having to design a space from scratch. (“Damn it, Jim — I’m a doctor not an interior decorator.”)
  • Persistent spaces can be created specifically for a given task and then revisited as needed. There is no need to erase the whiteboard and clean up a physical space for the next users, nor any need to populate conferencing software with the required materials again each time it is used.
  • Rather than waterfalling to the next pre-defined step, it is often important to be able to go back to examine and perhaps modify ideas and conclusions. Saving everything for unplanned revisiting is key. A virtual world can even let you save a conference room at various key moments, so that you can go back to the arrangement it had at that time.
  • In theory, anyone can set up a digital camera in a physical conference room, but how many of us actually do so? And were do we keep the recordings? A virtual world is rendered onto a digital screen, so a virtual world interface can offer any user the ability to have one-button audio/visual recording made from their own point of view as they move about, or from any fixed location. Any number of recordings can be made, and played back immediately in-world for instant replay. They can be left right there for later review in world, or exported for external review.
  • Virtual spaces are or can be made secure. Physical spaces, telephones and conferencing software might be subject to various forms of eavesdropping during or after the events, and some physical or virtual spaces are subject to disruption by others. Participants need to feel free to discuss matters that might be sensitive to misinterpretation if taken out of context even by employees of the same company. By contrast, various virtual worlds have combinations of invitation-only admission, run behind a company’s firewall, encrypt all data and communications in transport, and integrate with corporate access controls. Participants can even attend from home if their normal cubicle isn’t private enough.
  • Some Agile and Brainstorming activities are time boxed within a couple of hours or less. This suits in-world activity both because it is often easier to meet in virtual worlds than physically for frequent shorter intervals, and because some people find long periods in-world to be fatiguing. It is trivial to make however many clocks or countdown timers you need, and to place them wherever it is convenient to do so.

We and our customers have been using all of the above for a while now, and we’ve been asking them about what works and what needs to be improved. We got particularly good customer feedback from a financial firm’s Agile Development team, and a consulting firm that teaches government agencies how to Brainstorm. The architect of our downloadable client application, Brad Fowlow, was able to integrate these ideas into some pretty slick user interface refinements in our new release.

For example, many Brainstorming techniques are built around having a group generate a large number of ideas in a short time, and then voting on which ones to keep. So Brad created noteboard surfaces that can be clicked on quickly and simultaneously by multiple users to create individual sticky notes with arbitrary text describing an idea. These can be dragged around on the noteboard or to any other surface. The stickies — and any other pictures, movies, live Web pages, whiteboard sketches or open office documents — can be dragged onto a grouping surface and moved around as a group, including copying or moving them all at once to your pocket (aka “inventory”) and pulled out as a group onto any other surface when and where you need them (including a different space). With a quick gesture, anyone can have a poll made automatically from a grouping: the text of each sticky is a choice, and you supply the question and the decision of whether people are voting for one choice or multiple choices. The results are displayed in-world as yet another moveable object.

The previous version had a sort of large sticky that can also be stuck anywhere, but whose user-supplied text forms a sign. All of these and each document are listed as landmarks in the user interface. But now the facilitator — or any user if it’s appropriate — can call the entire group to any such named landmark. Their avatars are spread out in front of the object of interest, just as if they had walked over to that spot in the physical world. (No big deal in the real world, except that it takes longer and can be difficult in a crowded conference room or if people have physical challenges.) But unlike the physical world where people can’t occupy the same space and their eyes are generally attached to their heads, each user’s virtual camera viewpoint is positioned ideally facing the item of interest.

I don’t think for a moment that we have everything anyone could want for Agile or Brainstorming activities, but we do now also have a pretty mature user-programming model that lets people develop their own tools and user interface in Python. So you can roll your own.

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.

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