How to Make Remote Brainstorming Work?

Organizing a brainstorming session doesn’t have to be a complete disconcerting event in your agenda. Many of us are no longer working together in the same rooms, but we still need to generate ideas collaboratively.

Brainstorming is a group technique, in a creative way, by which efforts are made to find a conclusion for a specific problem by gathering a list of ideas spontaneously contributed by its members. In controlled conditions and a free-thinking environment, teams approach an issue and produce a vast array of ideas and draw links between them to find potential solutions.

Brainstorming supports collaborative planning, teamwork and teaching classes. It can be implemented at workplaces, schools, universities and even used for planning personal projects. It’s a creative problem-solving solution that enables you to structure writing, make storyboards and create marketing or UX personas. Furthermore, it’s useful for developing insights and finding connections.

According to this study from 2018, led by David Henningsen at Northern Illinois university, brainstorming sessions help to facilitate lateral thinking in winning cultures. Creative discussions held by those teams identified four features of such meetings that help with solving problems and gathering useful ideas:

The researchers specifically teased out participants’ perceptions of group cohesiveness, and the relationship between those perceptions and four common features of brainstorming:

  • Focusing on quantity – prioritizing the gathering of as many ideas as possible.
  • Piggybacking – building on the ideas of others.
  • Freewheeling – the willingness to share even impractical ideas.
  • Non-evaluation – avoidance of providing positive or negative feedback to others’ ideas.

“Groups that focus on both the quantity of ideas and building on the ideas of others significantly increase their cohesiveness,” David Henningsen said.

The researchers said those findings have important implications for organizations.

“Brainstorming can be used to help a team buy into and implement a plan of action,” Henningsen said. “Or it can be used to simply build cohesiveness, which in turn can lessen employee turnover and increase employee commitment.”

It is very significant that you ask critical questions before you are inviting others for the brainstorming session. Make sure that you spend enough time thinking it through, and here are some of the questions you might want to consider: Do we really need a brainstorming session? Who is critical for the outcome? What is the best time of the day? Will we require repeated brainstorming sessions? What agenda do we have?

In an article at Harvard Business Review, Art Markman share that one advantage of working remotely is that it’s now easier to bring in a broader group of participants. You have to do this carefully, though. Don’t start with a list of people you want involved in your brainstorming session. Instead, identify the roles and expertise you want, and then find people who fit that description.

But in the same article, there's an important reminder about brainstorming itself:

When people are working remotely, it can be difficult to get everyone scheduled for meetings at the same time, particularly if people are spread across time zones. For brainstorming, though, this can be a blessing. Because you actually don’t need the group to be together to come up with the best ideas.

The groupthink theory shows that, during idea generation, individuals think differently about a problem if they work alone. But when you bring the group together to generate ideas, they tend to think alike, converging on a common solution.

So start your brainstorming process by having each person generate potential solutions on their own, or perhaps have them work in small groups to think about possibilities. What you want to avoid is having the entire group start throwing out ideas at one another—which isn’t ideal in a remote environment anyway. Make sure everyone has had a chance to engage and work on the problem first. 

One way to do that is to have small groups capture their ideas in a document. A second is to have group members send their initial thoughts to you and to compile them before anyone starts to discuss them.

It’s hard to handle a brainstorming session remotely without the right tool to work with. A virtual session should be facilitated by new technologies that allow participants to seamlessly share their ideas.

Workflow is determined mostly by the features offered by the chosen software, so picking the right tool is key. It should allow the sharing of materials on whiteboards, creating notes in real-time, and arranging everything in the right order. 

I always use Miro as a tool for these sessions.

Running a remote brainstorming in 7 Steps 

    • Why - Be clear on the problem
    • Who - Prepare who will be there participating
    • What - Send the agenda in a way that everyone can be prepared
    • Where - Use good online collaboration tools
    • How - Select the best meeting game or play
    • Motivation - Ensure that your meeting in engaging
    • The gift - Don't leave before everyone has a chance to speak

Recently, I took the Wicked Problem Solver online course, which helped me to learn a lot about tools and techniques for approaching different types of concerns in an interactive course with a huge toolkit that provides detailed processes and examples (using Miro) on how to effectively solve problems.

The interesting thing about brainstorming is that the lessons we learn from brainstorming in the virtual setting will very likely serve us well when we’re face-to-face again. In other words, if you're able to run good brainstorming sessions remotely with your team, your team will bring important lessons to all type of meetings after that.

References and/or inspirations

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