Competitive Collaboration

Competitive Collaboration

Brainstorms Are Too Slow. Here’s a Better Approach.

The execution of product development is incredibly difficult. Most companies, including design firms, fail miserably.

To have a moment of honesty here, M3 Design’s Strategy, Concept, Development process is shockingly similar to any product development process: every development firm, program, or division uses these same basic steps, or something very close, to create products. I used to work at Insight Product Development, and they use Research, Create, Scale (I’m paraphrasing). The famed Stanford Biodesign Program uses Identify, Invent, Implement (I love the alliteration).

Truth be told, all these processes are theoretically identical. Which begs the question: What makes some design firms (like the ones I specifically mentioned above) so much more successful than others? At M3 Design, we believe that it is specifically dependent on execution.

I think the main issue with product development firms/consultancies today is their regurgitation of a few execution strategies. A decade ago, this flaw in management consultancies was brought to light in a damning book called House of Lies. Showtime even based a television show, starring Don Cheadle, on the book. From the Publishers Weekly review:

…with an appendix of terms like “brain dump,” “pulse check” and “swag” (an acronym for “smart wild-assed guess”), [this memoir] skewers a segment of the economy that nearly every white-collar worker has learned to fear and loathe: consultancies.

It is easy to see this phenomenon poke its head into product development consultancies. Since I was a bright-eyed college freshman, the brainstorm (followed by the above mentioned “brain dump”) has been taught as the defacto strategy to propel product development. The studies behind why brainstorms lead to social loafing, convergent thinking, and (unfortunately) the soapbox of the senior staff have recently begun to remove the shiny veneer of this old process.

There are certain techniques to minimize these negative aspects, but that’s for another blog post. The fact is, as we move into a younger and faster product development environment (just look at the emergence of hackathons and 3D printing), the brainstorm begins to be much too slow.

Ultimately, the collection and evaluation of brainstormed ideas takes a couple days, with the outcome often subjective. Complex problems require a strategy that depends on fast iteration, which is what’s needed to determine the core technology or mechanism to build a product.

A couple years ago, M3 developed a new strategy to evolve our process utilizing the new tools and skill sets of modern product development. Since then, we’ve found that certain projects greatly benefit from such an alternative strategy, which we refer to fondly as competitive collaboration.

Adapted from the strategy used in MIT’s 2.009 Product Design Process Capstone, competitive collaboration allows our staff to quickly take ideas further than any brainstorm. Part hackathon and part R&D, this process throws our staff into design teams that collaboratively create multiple mockups/prototypes that are evaluated in a competition format.

This process forces the project teams to utilize functional decomposition in order to down select concepts using quantitative methods. The outcome is an evaluation of multiple physical mockups demonstrating ideas—much more effective than some brainstorm sketches. Design teams are forced to concentrate on the quality of ideas, as opposed to the quantity (as in a traditional brainstorm).

Here’s the setup:

Determine an objective.

Your output is only as good as your input. Most competent design consultancies will suggest some sort of research phase to determine product requirements.

In this competitive collaboration setup, this step also allows you to create the challenge’s scoring method.

Build a challenge.

The purpose here is to create a playing field to evaluate each idea based on the scoring rubric.
Medical device? Build an analogous structure. Consumer device? Build a simulation. An equal playing field allows for fair evaluation of each idea.

Build a scoring equation.

At M3 Design, we feel like this is the 21st century version of the brainstorm’s Pugh Chart. It serves 2 purposes.

We can stress the importance of certain design requirements by weighing them heavily in our equation. This also gives the inventors a way to prioritize their design efforts. Functional decomposition plays a key role in this stage of the design process. What are the most important/critical design challenges? Make those worth the most “points”.

Secondly, it’s a competition! In order to crown a winner, there must be an objective way to determine the effectiveness of the mockup. If everyone knows the scoring methods upfront, there is a clear numeric ranking at the end of the exercise.
Examples of what might go into an equation: How many points should be awarded for how fast they can accomplish the task? Can they do the competition with limited visibility (fog or blindfold) for “bonus points”?

Make multiple teams.

Best results are accomplished by having cross-functional teams or combining people who don’t work together often.

We often choose to make as many teams as possible, so we like to make at least 3 teams of 2 people each. We also like to include a small prize (such as a subscription to a design magazine) or trophy to add a little incentive and recognition for the winners.

Let them loose.

After explaining the challenge and giving them a budget, let them solve the solution in any way they choose. We usually like to give them about 16 – 24 work hours to make their mockup.

This requires trusting your staff, which can be incredibly hard for certain types of managers. Shockingly, here at M3 Design, we have never had a manager or senior engineer/designer win.


This step is somewhat self-explanatory. But we’ve found it is much more effective to evaluate an idea based on a mockup, as opposed to a brainstorm sketch.


But wait, there’s more! My favorite part is, there is always an unexpected twist.

In the most recent version of this strategy, we held a second round where all the teams could either iterate or “steal” another team’s concept. Other variants include having a second run with another team operating your mockup/prototype or forcing the prototype to work in an alternative environment.

So why does this work?

First, it narrows ideas down to simple, executable concepts.

Second, there is immediate feedback on the efficacy of your idea.

Last, people like to win.

The outcome is a few ideas that have been down selected via proof-of-concept mockups that are much more advanced than a few sketches from a typical brainstorm.


About M3 Design
Founded in 1996, M3 Design is a product development company located in Austin, Texas. M3 is a team of world-class designers and engineers that challenge convention to help their clients maximize business opportunities by creating exceptional products and experiences with them.

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