7 tips for an effective virtual brainstorm session

by Gareth Platt,

16 October 2020

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In an age when we’re all working remotely, it’s easy to get stuck in a creative block. We can’t just go and tap some on the shoulder anymore when we’re short of inspiration.

Brainstorming gives us a way around these blockages. Using digital technology, we can organize remote brainstorming sessions with teammates all over the world and pool our ability in team meetings that deliver fast, efficient problem-solving.

The Spacehuntr team is based all over the world (we have team members from Belgium, Colombia and the UK) so we run brainstorm sessions all the time. 

In this post, we’re going to share some of the tips we’ve discovered on our company’s journey, and get some extra ideas from Gary Lynch, founder of New York-based consultancy MGL Communications. Hopefully, this advice will enable you to create your own effective virtual brainstorming events.

 

Tip 1: Have a clear view of the problem

All too often, we go into problem-solving without really understanding the problem we’re trying to solve. The various participants aren’t briefed until the meeting starts, which means they haven’t had time to process the issue and think up their response. Some very lucky people are able to conjure brilliant solutions on the hoof, but they’re very much the minority.

So it’s essential we go into each brainstorm session with a defined problem. Rather than calling a spontaneous breakout, we should schedule a team meeting (with the relevant people) and send each participant a brief beforehand, so they can get their head around the puzzle they’ve got to unlock.

Gary Lynch says “there needs to be a clearly stated purpose. It is essential to state the purpose of the meeting, the desired outcome, and the process used to achieve that outcome. It creates a framework for discussion, provides context as to what should be discussed and establishes benchmarks to measure progress.”

The more information you can provide about the problem, and the relevant parties who need a solution (clients/customers/stakeholders), the better your brainstorming will go.

 

Tip 2: Choose the right technology

If you want something really basic for your brainstorm session, you can simply use Google Hangout, Microsoft Teams or Zoom. But there are plenty of other tools you can use.

In fact, you can find a whole stack of applications out there, such as Realtime Board, Bubbl.us and The Brain. All of them are highly visual and allow you to display the progress of your brainstorm session as it’s progressing.

The important thing is that the technology is adapted to your audience. If you have a less tech-savvy team, it may be better to use software they’re already familiar with. If people are fiddling with their screen and asking for help during the call, it can be a real drag on the idea flow.

 

Tip 3: Invite a diverse group of people

When we spend a chunk of time with a certain group of people, it’s easy to wall ourselves up in our own little echo chamber. This can really inhibit a good brainstorm session, so before we set about the problem-solving, we need to ensure we’re inviting a broad cross-section of people to the party. 

Don’t just invite your own team; invite people from across the company. And when you’re selecting your invitees, don’t necessarily go for the most senior people in your team. A brainstorming ideas meeting thrives when you have people who can think laterally without fear of ridicule, so try to identify a core group of these people from within the company – no matter their rank.

Gary Lynch says: “It is common at companies to include senior executives or subject matter experts in brainstorming meetings. Still, they can be impediments as they may have preconceived notions of what can or can’t be accomplished. 

“You want people who are not indebted to the status quo, who won’t say ‘we’ve already tried that’ and who have an unencumbered view of what’s possible. 

“An ideal mix is a group of people who bring different viewpoints and skill sets – the big picture, the details, the process, etc.”

 

Tip 4: Pick a moderator

Actually, you don’t have to call them a moderator. You can call them a coach, an arbiter, a referee, a guardian angel, the final judge of all truth and wisdom… whatever you want really.

The important thing is that you pick someone to oversee the brainstorm session. They’re not there to judge the proposals; their role is to ensure that everyone gets a say. If someone is speaking too much, or too little, they need to step in and even things out. If the conversation strays off topic, they need to drag it back on track.

The moderator should also be encouraged to keep a note of all the ideas that are being thrown out while the brainstorming is taking place. Without a proper record, it’s all too easy for the suggestions to get lost. Everything should be documented, to ensure total transparency and enable all the interested parties to see progress.

 

Tip 5: Allow people to dial in from wherever

Ideas tend to be like taxis. When you need them most, they never show up. 

If people are hunched in front of their computer, desperately trying to squeeze out a eureka moment, the chances are it won’t arrive. They’re far more likely to find inspiration in their garden, making a cup of tea in their kitchen or out walking in the park.

So encourage your attendees to dial into your brainstorm session from wherever they like. Teams, Zoom and the other technologies mentioned above allow people to dial in from their phones, and you should encourage that. A good idea is a good idea, no matter where it comes from.

 

Tip 6: Use mind tricks

We’re not talking about any Obi-Wan Kenobi skills here. We’re talking about subtle exercises that can get your attendees thinking a different way about a problem while brainstorming.

There are all kinds of things you can try with your group. One possible option is to take your problem and ask your attendees what the worst possible approach might be. If we know what failure looks like, it can sometimes help us to see the path to success.

If that one doesn’t float your boat or your need more inspiration, what about word-association? Or a mood board? Or a braindump where the brainstorming team (or small groups within it) have to put down as many ideas as possible in a certain space of time, with no scrutiny or second thought?

One of our favourite ideas is known in the (brainstorming) trade as figuring storming and involves thinking of how a famous person might handle this same problem. How would Stephen Fry solve this problem? How about Rihanna? How about Justin Bieber? (actually, we recommend you avoid this one).

The serious point is that by stepping into someone else’s mindset for a few minutes, you may be inspired to think of something you wouldn’t have considered normally.  And it may encourage your brainstorming team to shed their inhibitions. 

 

Tip 7: Finish the brainstorm session right

You can have as many good ideas as you want, but they’re meaningless unless they lead to actions. As Gary Lynch asks: “How will we measure progress during the meeting and after we decide to move forward with an idea/solution? Most brainstorming sessions fail due to a lack of accountability and follow-through during and after the meeting.”

That’s why it’s important to leave the brainstorm session with a set of takeaways which are clear to all the attendees. Make sure everyone is aligned on the next steps, and add some milestones for the development of the ideas which have emerged from the problem-solving process.

Gary Lynch continues by suggesting it’s vital we “document everything discussed, including next steps, who has responsibility for which task and deadlines. And add some benchmarks.

“If the meeting has the right mix of people and is well run, there should be a long list of ideas and solutions that do not make it beyond the final cut but can still add value to the organization. There needs to be a process on how to vet the ideas/solutions that remain. Ideally, keep the employee who suggested them engaged after the meeting by asking for more detail, more research, etc. to determine its viability.”

For all the challenges that Covid is currently creating, there is still plenty of opportunities out there for companies that can develop original ideas. After all, the world is already pretty disrupted – so why not disrupt it some more?

We hope our advice has given you all you need to organize an effective problem-solving meeting and provided a brief chink of inspiration in these strange times.

 

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