Brainstorming is one those strategies that garners a lot of enthusiasm… but very few results.
In theory, the idea seems sound. A group of people get together and think up different ways to solve a problem until they find a workable solution.
Too bad the idea is a bust in practice.
As study after study has found, people work alone just as well as they do in a group. In some cases, working in a group can even hold them back. Luckily, with an understanding of one’s team and the project at hand, brainstorming can (and has been known to) get some brilliant results.
But what if your team works remotely? How are you going to get them in a room to brainstorm?
The answer? Virtual brainstorming.
Virtual brainstorming … wait, what?
Keeping an in-person brainstorming session on track is hard enough – imagine doing so virtually! But with more and more companies and start-ups working with remote teams, virtual brainstorming sessions have become commonplace.
They key to conducting a successful virtual brainstorming session is to divide it into three stages.
Stage 1: Before the brainstorming session
Virtually, effective brainstorming works slightly differently. You need to get everyone’s ideas before the actual session. Instead of asking for everyone’s ideas when you get on a call together, use the time to discuss those ideas.
In order to get everyone’s ideas before the brainstorming session:
Create an informal online space – Have a place where everyone on the team can come and suggest ideas. Let them brainstorm on their own and just ask them to put their ideas online in one place.
It could be a simple, company instant messaging program like Hipchat or something as simple as a Google Doc. Make your online space anonymous if it helps.
Set a limit – Contrary to popular belief, complete freedom often hinders creativity and limitations have a way of kick starting people’s imagination. Give your team a time frame to come up with ideas. It can be as long as a week or as short as 3 days. Just make sure it’s enough time for them to think about the problem.
Another limitation could be the number of ideas team members need to submit or a word limit that forces them to make their idea as clear and concise as possible.
Set rules – Apart from providing a framework, rules also provide security. The biggest issue with ideas is that they’re easy to shoot down. Set a bunch of rules that protect your team members and their ideas.
Don’t discuss your ideas – Discussing ideas with team members often lead to decisions being made before the actual brainstorming happens. Let it be known that the only time the ideas will be discussed will be when everyone’s on the brainstorming call.
Start every idea with “What if…” – Starting an idea with “what if” allows for a certain whimsy and takes the pressure off the person proposing the idea. It becomes a suggestion more than an idea you might feel propelled to defend.
This way, no one feel attacked when an idea is rejected or shot down because hey, it was only a suggestion – not a guaranteed solution.
Stage 2: During the brainstorming session
With all the ground work done, it’s time to get everyone on a conference call. But when you finally get on one, there are still a few things you need to take care of.
Appoint a moderator – How many times have you been on a call where almost everything was discussed – except the subject at hand? If your calls have been anything like mine, I’m willing to bet the answer is, too many.
Conference calls or live video conferencing don’t stay on track unless there’s someone to see to it. Just as there is someone to take the minutes of the meeting, appoint someone who’s only job is to keep everyone on track. Someone who has the power to say, “Let’s table this for our next call. Right now, we need to get back to the subject at hand.”
A good moderator includes everyone in the brainstorming session and makes sure all the ideas are heard, discussed and decided upon.
Take a few minutes to “warm up” – Get two people on a call and the first few minutes are spent catching up. Get more than two people on a call – and the catching up turns chaotic.
When the call begins, reserve a few minutes where everyone says hello and gets those “Hey, how’s it going’s?” out of the way.
Take it from the top – Once everyone’s warmed up, it’s time to get down to business. How you handle the ideas suggested beforehand by the team is up to the moderator and the team-lead. Explain how you’ll be doing things to everyone on the call and then start with the first idea.
Put the call on a timer – The thing with conference calls – whether they’re for brainstorming or any other purpose – is that they can go on for hours.
It isn’t necessary for every idea to be discussed. Set aside an hour or two for the call at the end of which the team decides on a course of action.
In case you later find out that the idea you thought would work, isn’t going to, you can always hold another brainstorming session. And this time, you won’t have to go through the “before the call” stage because you already have more ideas to discuss.
Stage 3: After the session
On virtual brainstorming sessions, the team only needs to decide one thing: Which idea are we going to work on after this call?
Who gets to do what in the implementation of the idea is a matter for after the session.
Send out an email with the meeting minutes and checklist of all the ideas that were discussed. Delegate work to different team members and any other details that need ironing out. If you get to this stage knowing what to do, you’ve had a successful virtual brainstorming session. Congratulations!
The thing about virtual brainstorming sessions…
If you’re exhausted just reading about the process, virtual brainstorming might not be your cup of tea. It’s time consuming to set up and requires a lot of overseeing. But once you’ve worked out the kinks, it’s like a well-oiled machine that yields results time after time.
Needless to say, remote teams are fast becoming the norm and knowing how to conduct a virtual brainstorming session is an essential skill to have.
Have you conducted or been a part of a virtual brainstorming session? What problems did you face and how effective was it?
Kurt Birkenhagen works for conferencing company, Vast Conference, in Los Angeles He is focused on customer acquisition, retention, and user experience. Learn more about their conferencing services at www.conferencecalling.com.
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