Want Great Ideas? Try Extreme Collaboration

NASA-style war rooms enable heads-down work for projects that need to move fast.

When Raymond Minato and his team design products such as medical devices and sports wearables for clients at his engineering firm Inertia, they often practice “extreme collaboration.

Tucked away in a “war room” at Inertia’s Toronto office, a small group of team members will hunker down together for hours at a time and devote all of their energy to working on the project at hand.

Together, they’ll create a stakeholder map listing everyone involved in the project, a customer-journey map that shows how consumers will use the product step-by-step, and sketches of potential product designs. Using a large computer monitor in the room for project management, they’ll track every step of the journey from idea to completed product.

“If you’re bringing together people from all different departments, and they don’t usually talk, having them in a dedicated room for a project makes a ton of sense,” says Minato, president and owner of the 25-person Inertia. “The information is there, ready and waiting, and easy to digest.”

In an age of distraction, many companies are finding that the best way to get important work done is to have a small cross-functional team hunker down in a room, away from emails, phone calls and urgent requests from colleagues. Setting up a NASA-style war room—where the project team can focus together on the project at hand—can speed up results when the clock is ticking. Studies of programmers show that working this way can enhance productivity and reduce errors.

Historically, companies have used this kind of intense collaboration in war rooms for work such as crafting a response in crisis communications or responding to an action by a competitor, says Steve King, principal of the firm Emergent Research in Lafayette, Calif., which studies independent workers.

Diversity of views is key

Today, as the pace of competition in product development and programming speeds up, firms are using extreme collaboration to find better solutions more quickly and to accelerate decision making in these areas, too, says King. “The idea is to apply the techniques and tools used in the crisis world to more traditional management problems,” says King.

To get the most out of extreme collaboration, it’s important to bring in a diversity of viewpoints, so you truly find the best solutions, says King. That may mean connecting team members remotely, using audio-conferencing or video-conferencing. “You isolate the team and use tech to bring in people who are not local,” he says.

Regardless of where everyone happens to be situated, using a facilitator can ensure that you’re truly capturing the ideas in the room and not just following the lead of whoever is in charge, King says.

King uses this approach in his own firm, where he’ll bring in anywhere from six to 100 subject-matter experts together for a four- or five-hour discussion related to a current area of research. Usually, his team will focus the discussion on a “straw man” view on a topic and then ask the attendees to talk them through it and get their point of view.

“We get their feedback on where we are right or wrong, things we may not have thought about,” says King.

Making it easy to communicate visually can strengthen extreme collaboration. In one recent war room that Minato’s company set up, his team found it very effective to use extra-large 3M sticky notes to post sketches on the wall. They found this was more efficient than using a whiteboard. “We like to move things around without having to redraw them,” he says.

Document ideas

In order to avoid losing track of good ideas, it’s crucial to rigorously document your discussions, Minato advises.

“People can’t mentally keep track of all of the different angles they have to consider,” says Minato. “Putting them in a spreadsheet is somewhat helpful. I find that we’ll come across some very insightful things by having all of the information there in a large format.”

Careful documentation has another benefit: It makes explaining your final conclusions to clients easier, he says. They may not know how much thought and debate went into coming up with a solution that meets the project’s time constraints and budget unless you share the journey you went through to get there.  

“If you just show up and present someone with an idea, it can backfire on you,” says Minato. “People aren’t sure where it came from.” That can lead to a lot of questions along the lines of, “Have you considered this?” and a shooting down of ideas that were carefully considered.

When clients understand all of the different options the team explored, presenting is a completely different story, Minato finds. “It changes the conversation,” he says. “Clients are more empathetic to what you considered and are more trusting of what you’ve done. The conversation becomes one of collaboration.”

That’s a great place to be when you’re trying to achieve amazing results as quickly as possible.