Ideas, suggestions and general thoughts about project management for development.

Information Management

Facilitating Brainstorming Sessions

Many development projects have to face situations where the identification of a solution is not always easy. One method to discover good ideas is brainstorming, as the fastest way to produce many potential solutions to a problem. If conducted properly, everyone will feel like their voice has been heard, and feel like they are part of the solution. The simplest reason to hold a brainstorming meeting is to increase the volume of possible ideas. By discussing a problem amongst 5-10 people; in theory, the project manager should be able to obtain a wider array of different ideas much faster; than any one person could on their own.

The quality of the ideas generated will depend largely on how the session was conducted.  A poorly managed session will result in poor ideas. Here are 9 simple steps to help a project manager or a project team member conduct an effective brainstorming session:

  1. Set the tone - Explain how brainstorming works:
    • Everyone must understand that no idea is too outrageous or far-fetched to be considered.
    • Everyone must understand that all ideas will be documented, regardless of their perceived relevance. 
    • There will be a later time to clarify and narrow down the prospective solutions. 
    • Ask the group if anyone does not understand and agree with the above statements. 
  2. Review the problem definition - Ensure that all participants have the same understanding of what they are attempting to solve.
  3. Clarify - the goal or desired outcome of the session; define terms that will be used during the discussion; get participants in the mindset of working towards the same goal.
  4. Give participants some time to independently think of or write down ideas - This step can take 5 minutes to 1 hour. It all depends on the scope of the problem that you are attempting to solve. This is to be independent and silent.
  5. Get a scribe or two - It's easier to facilitate and ensure that you keep control of the meeting if you have someone else writing down people's ideas. This will allow the facilitator to focus on things like body language, group, and individual interactions, etc.
  6. Open up the brainstorm - Have people begin saying their ideas one at a time. This should be done quickly. There is no time for discussion or clarification in this part of the brainstorming session. You can have many rounds to allow new ideas to emerge. Usually, new ideas are generated by another idea.
  7. Write down all the ideas - regardless of perceived relevance. It can be written on sticky notes or a whiteboard, big enough for everyone to see.
  8. Rank favorite ideas - At the end of the session, you could involve participants further by asking them to flesh out the selected ideas, or you might choose to have a follow-up meeting to explore the selections.
  9. Define the next steps - Agree on a timeline and assign responsibilities.  Once the session ends, circulate notes, monitor and give feedback. It's crucial to develop a clear and positive outcome; so that people feel their effort and contribution was worthwhile. When people see that their efforts have resulted in action and change, they will be motivated and keen to help again.

Brainstorming sessions bring people together into a creative process and increases the social nature of the project. As 8-10 people get in a room, if the meeting was conducted properly, they will walk out with a feeling that they are contributing to what they will be working on in the future. It can be a bonding experience; and more importantly, it will get people thinking and communicating with each other about topics relevant to the next few weeks or months ahead.

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Control your project document management process

The larger a project is, the more difficult it becomes to share information between all the team members and stakeholders. This is especially true when more than one person works on large deliverables. If the project manager does not think about these document management processes ahead of time, the project team will end up with problems finding relevant information. This generally results in confusion and extra effort in re-doing work that was already completed.

The project creates many documents; for instance, the Project Charter, Issues Log, Logframe, schedule, etc. After a document is created, the team members need to know where it should be stored. Depending on the level of sophistication, the document might go into a network file folder, a file folder on a hard drive, a document management software package, or an intranet. After the document is created, the team must know who can have access to it. Most documents might be accessible to the entire team, but there may be restrictions when the project manager may only want them to be able to view the documents and not change them.

The project should come up with a common naming convention for the original document and any revisions. For example, any updates to the Project Charter, the document creator can save the original document and then designate the new document as version 2. These are all part of your document management procedures.

A good example is the project Status Reports. The project manager should determine the naming conventions of the Status Reports ahead of time. If every team member sends a Status Report to the project manager, it will not be long before the project manager has dozens or hundreds of Status Reports.

To help identify and sort documents, each report should name the document using a standard format such as –Name- -Status Report- -Date-. In this fashion the reports can be filtered by date or name and the project manager can easily identify which is the latest report 

Document management considerations are trivial for small projects. For large ones, these processes need to be planned ahead of time or else confusion, uncertainty, and extra work will occur when the project is in progress.

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