How to make decisions collaboratively (without killing each other)

by Yeevon Ooi on 18 October 2011

In recently ran workshops at UXcamp Europe and UXcamp London on How to make decisions collaboratively (without killing each other) using the KJ method. The KJ method was invented by JiroKawakita and is a brainstorming method which helps groups reach consensus quickly and accurately especially when it involves prioritising something. Step-by-step instructions on how to use this method can be found in an article written by Jared Spool and also in a great book on Gamestorming, but I thought it might be useful to share some additional thoughts for those attempting to give this method a go.

First of all, here’s a summary of the steps I used during the workshop:

  1. Always start with a focus question (this is the reason for having the brainstorm in the first place – to try to address X question)
  2. Put thoughts on sticky notes (this was done individually)
  3. Put sticky notes on the wall (so that everyone can see what others came up with)
  4. Group similar items together and name the groups (done as a group but with minimal discussion)
  5. Vote for and rank the most important groups (dot-voting where people get to vote for the most important group they’ve came up with)

It was an interesting experience getting feedback from people of various backgrounds and hearing how they’d like to put the method to good use for their work. However, some people weren’t exactly sure when to use it. I thought it’s worth summarising some of the core ideas of the KJ method to help illustrate its utility a bit better:

  • Don’t try to address more than one question at a time

Having one focus question at a time means that you can start at any level. It could be as early as the blue-sky thinking stages of a design or as specific as during the product development phase of a project. Having ONE key question narrowed down for the brainstorm helps the team focus on one thing at a time, which increases the quality of the results.

Tip: It’s worth making sure everyone understands the ONE focus question that they are trying to address.

  • Keep discussion to a minimal before the results are produced to speed up the process (especially under time pressure!)

A few people were sceptical about the whole ‘No discussion’ rule because they didn’t think it would be useful for their work environment. Some were sceptical in the beginning but were amazed at the results they produced themselves by the end of the session.

It is important to note that this doesn’t mean that the results produced should be taken by the team without any discussions involved, the idea is to try to refrain from discussion until some results have been produced (based on group consensus) so that the discussions would be more focused. Also, given the short time-frame allocated for the brainstorm, most of the findings are usually what’s at the front of everyone’s minds – hence should reflect the most important issues that everyone was thinking about.

Still, there’s always the off chance where everyone comes up with a completely different view on things, which in this case would result in a new focus question to address!!

  • Do improvise on the spot

Lastly, just like any other brainstorming method, it’s always worth improvising the method according to your circumstances and goals. For example, I had less than an hour to run the workshops so I created a stripped down version of the method. Also, due to the nature of the results, I had to change the dot-voting activity so that everyone only got one vote to give away instead of the 3 votes that I originally had on my slides (as there weren’t that many groups created!)

To summarise, I found the KJ method very useful in producing a list of  priorities within a short time frame. In addition, the ‘no discussion’ rule is useful because everyone gets to contribute before being stuck in long discussions dominated by different personalities. As we use brainstorming methods for various reasons under different contexts, knowing how to improvise accordingly produces optimal results – which comes with practice and experience. So, try this out during your next meeting and see if you’re convinced!

If anyone is interested in some very interesting findings from my Europe and London workshops, you can read about them in my next blog post coming soon! Watch our twitter feed for the release!

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