As introduced in the previous edition of Housing Technology, the ‘new way we work’ has been on the rise in The Netherlands since 2005. A large number of Dutch housing providers are in the process of implementing New Way We Work projects. Within some of these a new way of brainstorming is being used in the ‘discovering’ and ‘deciding’ phases. This article describes the experiences as well as the lessons learned through using an interactive web-based tool instead of brown paper and sticky notes.
The New Way We Work
Housing providers have implemented ways of working that are time and place independent and have collected data about the impact of these projects. These results have encouraged other Dutch housing associations to investigate this topic further.
The term ‘The New Way We Work’ has been (ab)used many times and expectations are sometimes too high compared with the actual impact of this concept. Many housing providers started very ambitiously and proposed large projects to their boards. They in turn were hesitant to approve these costly and far-reaching projects. Managers who took part in meetings, presentations and workshops organised by peers who had success with this approach were impressed but had difficulty communicating their impressions back to their colleagues.
This situation meant that managers were not always very keen to discuss the topic of the new way to work and consider ways to adopt it. For many housing providers, simply getting everyone in the same room at the same time to share information seemed to be the biggest barrier to learning how to adopt this concept within their own organisation.
All in all, this meant it was time for a ‘new way to brainstorm’…
Brainstorming – is that still the right way?
As a means of collecting information in the shortest period of time using the collective expertise available within a team, brainstorming is still a valuable, effective and efficient way to work. Using traditional brown papers and sticky notes, it seldom takes more than a day to get all ideas, advantages, benefits, priorities and actions out in the open.
However following the widespread the use of email, videoconferencing, instant messaging and social media, a lot of the traditional ‘office work’ has changed dramatically and managers and their teams involved in ‘new way we work’ projects have become used to ‘any time, any place’ working, flexible offices and home working.
As a consequence, getting all participants for a discussion in the same room at the same time is becoming almost impossible. Large companies have tried to solve this using ‘accelerator rooms’ or group decision software, but smaller businesses usually don’t have the means or the mindsets to implement such tools. However, the rise of easy-to-use and cost-effective web-based collaboration tools and group-work solutions have given small- and medium-sized companies the same options previously only available to large corporations.
Towards a new way of brainstorming
Imagine the following scenario using an online collaboration tool designed to help groups gather information, collectively rate the ideas and prioritise actions. This familiar brainstorm process is conducted through an application that allows everyone to participate from anywhere they choose.
- 8.30am – The invitation for a brainstorming session arrives in the inboxes of 15 managers and board members of a large (29,000 units) Dutch housing provider. Frank Patterson, the facilitator of this meeting, prepared this message the previous Friday and scheduled its delivery for the start of the new week. Using his web-based collaboration tool, he designed the script and the questions for the workshop and specified the aim and the objectives of the meeting. The emailed meeting invitation provides all the details his colleagues need to participate.
- 8.40am – Jenny Jones, the HR manager, opens the invitation for the brainstorm. As her calendar is free until 11am, she decides to participate in the brainstorm immediately. After opening the invitation, all she has to do is to click on the first question and she can immediately respond to it. Her ‘virtual’ sticky notes appear on her screen as she types. She’s the first person to participate and she soon has a screen full of ideas. Jenny is interrupted at 9.12am by an emergency phone call that requires immediate action. She closes her question, but plans to complete her idea session the moment she returns to her desk.
- 10am – Peter Van Hill, the IT manager, invites his two colleagues to join him to discuss the brainstorm questions Frank posted earlier that morning. He asks his team members to bring their laptops and all three of them start discussing and at the same time typing answers to the first question. At 10.40am their inspiration is ‘gone’ and all three finalise their replies by sending an ‘I’m done’ message to the facilitator. In the meantime, Jenny has returned to her desk and is typing the last of her answers before she also sends an ‘I’m done’ message.
- That same evening, Philip MacPhee, one of the members of the board, goes to his study and opens the invitation for the brainstorm. He is eager to learn the outcome of the first round of brainstorming and therefore quickly types in his ideas. He has been thinking about the first question all day so he has lots of ideas to add to the discussion. His ‘I’m done’ is mailed to Frank by 9.45pm and he is the last of the 15 invited participants to have completed the first question.
- When Frank Patterson enters his ‘virtual brainstorming room’ the following morning, he sees 15 ‘I’m done’ messages on his screen. He opens the question and is pleasantly surprised to find 187 sticky notes in answer to his first question.
What can we learn from this example?
Research shows that the traditional brainstorming method of gathering a group of people in a room to propose ideas and solutions has some drawbacks, one of which is that people are more creative and more productive when they can generate ideas on their own.
True collaborative decision-making requires anonymity. Otherwise, the group can fall victim to group biases, power plays and personality conflicts that are barriers to evaluating ideas based on merit.
What better way to start discussing ‘New Ways We Work’ than by using new ways to brainstorm? If you would like to take part in an online brainstorm yourself or to find out more about the new way of working, please get in touch via email@example.com.
Henk Korevaar is the founder of Ffectis (Netherlands).