Whether you’re a product manager, engineer, or designer, work to cultivate a truly collaborative culture for your team.

With all the methodologies and frameworks in product development today, you’ll find countless tools, techniques, checklists, exercises, etc that promise smarter prioritization, faster delivery, better outcomes, and more. What may not be immediately obvious is even with all the tools in the world, you’re bound for a rough road ahead if your team doesn’t have a collaborative mindset and alignment on the solutions being built.

I had the opportunity to participate in a 12-week continuous product discovery coaching with two other members of my team at Yesware. This small group was referred to as a “triad” and was comprised of a Product Designer (me), Product Manager, and Tech Lead as the core contributors for our project. We were led through a variety of product thinking exercises and integrated our different perspectives to generate solutions.

As we worked through some of the exercises, I noticed that some of them seemed familiar. It then occurred to me that they were exercises that are part of my day-to-day design process. The two that stood out to me were “brainwriting” and “story mapping” as they proved very effective in aligning our team. Any possibility of feeling self-conscious about having to draw didn’t exist as these activities only asked us to put words on sticky notes!

Our ideas were captured on virtual sticky notes with the tool Miro, a collaborative whiteboarding platform. The platform made it easy for us to create, edit, move, stack, and delete sticky notes and helped foster conversations towards a consensus.

Exercise #1: Brainwriting

One of the many reasons why I love being a designer is that an inherent part of my job is generating creative ideas and then seeing what sticks. When it came to the idea generation phase for our project, we applied a technique called “brainwriting.” Brainwriting is similar but not the same as “brainstorming” which we’ve all heard of and have probably done with a group at some point.

Brainwriting is an individual exercise where you capture your ideas in writing for multiple short sessions spaced out over several consecutive days.

When done in a group, individuals would first brainwrite independently from the group and then reconvene at a later period to share and build upon each other’s ideas. By reserving the time to do this exercise individually to start, we had the space to generate ideas without the influence of the rest of the group.

A typical brainwriting schedule looks like:

Day 1: Individual session (3–5 minutes)
Day 2: Individual session (3–5 minutes)
Day 3: Individual session (3–5 minutes)
Day 4: Group session (20–30 minutes)
Day 5: Individual session (3–5 minutes)
Day 6: Group session (20–30 minutes)

The product question around which we were generating ideas was:
How might we help our users set up meetings more efficiently?

There were several a-ha! moments individually experienced during our daily brainwriting sessions. Because I was sitting with myself and my own ideas (literally and figuratively), I was confined to the space that my brain had created. However, once one idea came up, another similar and analogous idea would present itself. Then after a couple more sessions, new ideas would form from slight modifications to earlier ideas.

By day three, I thought I’d hit my limit with idea generation. When it was time to share my ideas with my colleagues, we immediately saw overlapping themes and started to extend upon one another’s concepts. After this first convergence of ideas as a team, we went off to "brainwrite" individually to push further on the ideas.

When we met as a triad for the second brainwriting group session, we found that the ideas were more well-rounded this time around. We felt an underlying sense of satisfaction and ownership since the ideas had been comprised of the best bits of everyone’s ideas. Once the ideas were all laid out on the board, we then voted for the top three ideas we felt were most worth focusing on according to our opportunity prioritization.

Just as a note on the timing of this particular exercise relative to the rest of our team’s larger project — we had chosen to focus on a future-facing feature that would be several months away from today’s priorities.

Exercise #2: Story Mapping

Our second exercise was to create a story map for each of the three ideas carried over from the brainwriting exercise. Story mapping is similar to storyboarding, where drawings are used to communicate a narrative, but a story map uses words instead of drawings. Story mapping is a quick and easy way for an individual or team to map out how a solution or feature might work from the perspective of the user.

Because much of a digital product designer and software engineer’s day-to-day involves creating or executing designs with individual screenshots for each user interaction, we had already been accustomed to thinking in this step-by-step manner. We started the story mapping exercise individually and then met as a group to share and align our story maps, similarly to the brainwriting cadence.

As a demonstration, let’s take an idea that came from our brainwriting exercise:
The user can quickly insert a template into a calendar event description when setting up a meeting.

Each virtual sticky note would read as a step in the sequence our users would take to accomplish this task as if this were a real feature in our product today. We time-boxed the individual session at 15 minutes so that we could avoid going down the rabbit hole of listing out the micro-interactions.

At the highest level, the steps I personally imagined our user would take are:

  1. Open up their calendar app
  2. Navigate to their calendar settings page
  3. Click on the ‘Templates’ section
  4. Type in the content for a meeting description
  5. Give their meeting template a name
  6. Click ‘Save as template’ button

When we shared our story maps as a group, I found it interesting that each person had their own interpretation of how they’d imagine this feature playing out. For example, our Product Manager had envisioned a supplementary step after step #4 where the users would have access to a library of sample content instead of having to start from scratch.

With our work displayed on virtual sticky notes, it was easy to spot where we lined up and where we differed. Then when it came to prototyping, I felt confident in building out the designs for the user workflow.


It was a whirlwind of learning over the past several months and we’ve seen an evolution of the Yesware product process. My colleagues and I formed a stronger working bond over the intensive 12-week product coaching course as we racked our brains together and learned new exercises for problem-solving. The two activities highlighted in this blog have been folded into our process when relevant and continue to help navigate our projects today, without needing to lift a drawing tool!

Here are the main takeaways I’ve gathered from this experience:

Takeaway #1: Activities that involve diverging and converging of ideas lead to more well-rounded team decisions.

It’s easy to fall victim to groupthink and just nod in agreement with the loudest person in the room. By stretching your thinking individually first and then building on ideas from other perspectives after, you’d be surprised by the breadth and quality of the ideas generated and an accelerated path to team alignment.

Takeaway #2: Group activities can be tough, but they’re worth it.

With everyone’s already busy schedule and the additional mental tax that comes with doing each exercise, it may be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel while in the weeds. Keep in mind that we each come to the table with different expertise and perspective and there is so much to learn from one another.

Takeaway #3: Show your work.

Think back to when your math teacher urged everyone to write out all the steps that lead to the final answer. It’s very easy to dismiss seemingly simple exercises, thinking that you’ve already worked through every solution in your head. By putting your ideas on paper (or virtual sticky notes) you can identify where in your process you’re missing a step or where the ideas form into patterns. Externalizing your thinking can bring others into the process and lead to better communication or surface points of misalignment that would have otherwise been missed.

This article was written from the perspective of a product designer at Yesware and was not sponsored by any of the products, services, and individuals mentioned.

This post was originally published on Medium by Julie Ho on February 26, 2020.