“Genius doesn’t work on an assembly line basis. You can’t simply say, ‘Today I will be brilliant.'”
Kirk in Star Trek TOS: “The Ultimate Computer”
I recently got an email by the people developing Neonce, asking me to take a look at their software. Neonce aims to support problem solving in groups, particularly brainstorming. I am usually weary about these eMails, and I think very badly of brainstorming, but I am glad that I took a look.
In short, Neonce is a bit like the Delphi method, which I consider vastly superior to brainstorming. It improves upon brainstorming in a similar but more streamlined way and without the need for moderators. It thus avoids the usual problems of brainstorming (like production blocking, freeloading, fear of criticism, influence of status and style, etc.).
Essentially, you start by creating a new session (workshop). The quick setup includes the topic (problem statement/question) and the participants you want to invite (via email). If participants do not have a Neonce account, they can create one quickly. It pays to look at the advanced settings, esp. regarding the time frames.
You then have different phases (create – evaluate – select) guiding you through the idea generation process. Each phase has a certain amount of time, but if all participants have finished a phase the next phase begins immediately. The admin can also advance phases or go back (e.g., in case someone missed an idea) or change the time allocation via the settings (via the gear-like icon top right). You also have a chat function, zoom, you can see info about the time left, etc.
Regarding the phases:
- In the create phase participants can simply add ideas individually, like pinning pieces of paper to a wall. The ideas can be annotated and color-coded. Participants can also use an inspire tool to get ideas, which works via word association. Before the create phase is ended, they need to put the best three ideas in the promote frame. This is a completely individual phase.
- In the elevate phase, they see their own selected (promoted) ideas and those selected (promoted) by others. They can edit and improve those ideas. Again, before they finish they put the three best ideas in the promote frame. Again the phase is individual, but done with the promoted ideas of all participants.
- In the select phase they see all selected (promoted) ideas and select the best three ideas (they put them into the vote frame). The best one gets 3 points, the second 2, the third 1 point. Again individual work with the promoted ideas of all participants.
This concludes the process and you see the ideas, the points each idea got (added from all participants), the number of participants who had voted for the particular idea, and for how many participants the idea was the favorite idea.
So, given this short description, do I think it is a useful tool?
In short: yup.
To be clear, I haven’t tested it with an actual problem in a group setting. But there is already much I like about the website and the proposed solution makes sense. The way it was build is based on empirical research (despite the age of some of the cited studies). It’s really worth a look reading about the background and ideas that went into this program. The developers actually did their research and tried to address the most common problems of brainstorming in an intelligent manner. It is also quick and easy to use and basically runs itself via time keeping and prompts.
In fact, it reminds me of a discussion I had at another institute. The people there had plans for a similar tool, but — mostly due to really bad leadership — failed miserably. I remember predicting that someone else would develop such a tool, and I am glad to see that I am right.
This being said, I also think there are some areas in which Neonce could improve.
Less Inspire Feature more Research Phase
The inspire feature works via association. Personally, I never liked this kind of creativity technique. I think most problems need more research, not free association. Or to put it differently: You can’t brainstorm if there’s nothing inside the brain to plunder! After all, a creative solution is not only new but also useful.
So I wonder whether a research phase might be more helpful. For example, imagine each participant getting an eMail with the link to the workshop page that includes:
- information when the problem solving process starts/ends
- the problem description
- links to additional information (think company intranet or the like)
- people to talk to for more information
- steps taken so far (if helpful, this might bias the problem solving)
Then give the participants enough time to do some research on their own. Read some material, check the web, talk to friends. You could even include these research phases between the three different phases. Reason being that inspiration takes time — and sometimes insight works best with breaks in between attempts to solve a problem. Breaks in which people can forget the steps that did not work (and stop minding the wasted effort) and come up with new ideas. Hello ideas in the shower, in bed, during a walk, in the bathtub, etc.
Overall, it’s a different approach to time. Not an x-hour session that can be scheduled in the company calendar, but more something that spreads over a few days. And yeah, I am much closer to the Delphi method than Neonce here. But if it is done anonymously and via asynchronous communication it should work as well, if not better.
Three steps vs. Cycles
Neonce is very streamlined. It likely keeps a group on track. However, I wonder whether development cycles aren’t more useful here. Sure, you can take the best ideas and create a new workshop, or move back to previous phases. But I really like the (again) Delphi style of experts going over the ideas and improving them as long as the moderators think it is necessary or beneficial. So instead of a create phase, then an elevate phase, and then a select phase, a cycle approach might be more suited. Let people work with ideas again and again. Keep the old discarded ideas (filter!), because they will be helpful later. Because, yeah, sometimes, problem solving takes time. These cycles might also make it easier to clarify ideas. Sometimes, an idea is misunderstood and it might help if people could tag ideas with questions while keeping anonymity.
At least in the elevate phase, a shared workspace (akin to groupzap.com) might really be helpful. Otherwise, the ideas might fragment too much. Just imagine two people both editing the same idea. It could lead to the same idea being promoted twice, which might split the vote for this idea between these two ideas that are the same. If two people have different ideas how to continue with an idea, splitting the idea might make sense. So, overall, I think a shared space might really be helpful in this phase. Or moderators who go over the ideas after the phase and integrate the ideas. But I might be wrong, I’m guessing the people at Neonce get plenty of user data and feedback that can answer this question.
Three ideas might not be enough
I am also critical of the three idea limit. Yes, you have to set priorities, but I am a firm believer that bad ideas can be the basis for great ideas. Sometimes a slightly different take is needed, perhaps one the person who came up with the “stupid idea” did not see. And if I know that I can only promote three ideas, why should I come up with more? I might come to the conclusion later that only three ideas are really worth the other people’s time, but giving a limit in advance … don’t like it. A filter feature might be helpful here. Let the user select the ideas s/he thinks are best, but allow others to see *all the ideas* if they wish to do so.
They desperately need a video
Video introductions are hit or miss, but Neonce would profit by a short (< 5 min) well produced video showing how the site works. At the moment the front page doesn’t even show screenshots. And while I really like the explanations, I think a short video is the way to gain users. Or at least a screenshot that transports the message. Just have a look at the website of Scrivener. Inspire first, facts second. Of course, if it got that we-want-ransom-for-our-hostage quality, it would do more harm than good. But yeah, this product really deserves a closer look.
Update (2016-09-26): A great indication that the developers are actually interested in feedback: They have created a short video introducing Neonce. Easy to understand and only 5 minutes (and 9 seconds) long:
Plus using the tool to generate ideas on how to introduce the tool is actually a good idea. They seem to eat their own dogfood — or, for a nicer metaphor: drink their own champagne.
But these are my spontaneous ideas after trying out the site for a few minutes and I am influenced by the ideas I had years ago. What matters is the scenarios the developers have in mind and what the current users say.
So, while still in beta testing, Neonce is definitely something to try out if you want to go for problem solving in groups. The developers also seem to be interested in feedback and it will be interesting to see how the site develops. Best case scenario, it could become a doodle-equivalent for problem-solving in groups — at least, I hope so.