We’re all pretty much used to working on our own by now, but a key question that continues to be important for the approaching hybrid-working world is how teams can innovate and generate ideas effectively while working remotely. Throwing yet another video conference at your team is not likely to yield great results, especially as research released by scientists at Stanford revealed what we’ve all long-suspected – that ‘Zoom fatigue’ is real, draining our energy with excessive, intense eye contact and the need to continually identify social cues instead of picking them up intuitively as we would in person.
The good news though is that research has found that technology can actually make virtual group brainstorming more effective — if leveraged correctly. Indeed, a study showed that it can enhance creative performance by almost 50 per cent over in-person sessions, due in part to its ability to eliminate ‘production blocking’, reducing the possibility of dominant participants taking over the session, encourage those who prefer to share ideas anonymously, and increase the diversity of ideas. So, let distance be your friend with these five ways to improve your virtual brainstorming and fire up ideas…without getting burned out.
Sharing is caring
Don’t wait until the virtual brainstorming session itself to reveal the goal you have in mind or the resources your team will need to brainstorm. Give their subconscious something to chew over ahead of time — Dr Max Maltz, author of influential 1960s book Psycho Cybernetics, compared the subconscious mind to a supercomputer; in that when set a clear task by the conscious mind it will follow that task ‘behind the scenes’ until completion. By sharing resources and prompts a few days before the meeting you’ll allow your team members to be able get to work subconsciously, allowing them to hit the ground running when the session begins and increasing the chance of a great outcome. These prompts could include outlining the exercises you want them to undertake and any resources they will need — whether a pertinent report, new product spec, data set or even a compelling image.
Let everyone contribute
Virtual brainstorming’s greater reliance on visual and written input is another way in which is can trump in-person meetings for creative ideation. Verbal interactions are still important, but do not have to be the dominant mode of communication — an outline of basic etiquette on who speaks when, and even the use of a moderator, can help to balance out louder voices and create greater inclusion during the brainstorm. But importantly, people who don’t want to convey their ideas verbally can write them down or sketch them out, instead of feeling pressured to speak, potentially bringing greater diversity of ideas to the table. Add in features such as polls and anonymous voting to that and you have a powerful way to deep-mine the collective intelligence of those employees who may not be comfortable with sharing ideas in public and encourage them to participate.
Be creative in collaboration
Mind mapping is an associative technique that lends itself extremely well to virtual brainstorming. Set up a question or issue at the centre of an online whiteboard or other shared document to allow everyone to add their thoughts to it for discussion and distillation — as well as providing an overview on how the brainstorm is developing. Research shows that visuals are processed 60,000 times faster in the brain than text, making this a great way to get fast flowing results from your team. Stepladder brainstorming is another great way to use the digital space to amplify all voices and approach ideas from unexpected positions: start with a virtual meeting with just two of your team members and ask then to discuss the topic for a certain amount of time. Then, add another person to the meeting to add their perspective and let the trio discuss, repeating until your whole team has joined the virtual room. Repeat as often as needed with a different initial pair for a new thought dynamic.
Lead the write way
Research shows that the first ideas that people share in a brainstorming session tend to have a disproportionate influence over the conversation, establishing norms and cementing ideas of what are ‘appropriate examples’ or solutions for the problem — and inhibiting idea generation. Virtual brainstorming lends itself brilliantly to short circuiting this with a technique called ‘brainwriting’, where participants write down their ideas, ideally anonymously, before or at the beginning of the meeting, and then come together to talk about them. These thoughts can be on post it notes or even electronically on apps such as Candor, which can send your question to participants, gather responses, then turn each idea into cards to help organise discussion. Research by the Kellogg School of Management found that brainwriting groups generate 20 per cent more ideas and 42 per cent more innovative ideas than traditional in-person brainstorming methods. Even more effective is an asynchronous brainwriting approach, in which individuals alternate between working alone and then sharing their ideas with a group; with 70 per cent more ideas generated by each person per minute for this model.
Keep it coming
Don’t just ‘have a brainstorming event’ in isolation — the best results come from a constant stream of ideas and that doesn’t need to stop at the end of the designated session. Creating a shared file such as a Google Doc, Dropbox or Trello board where everyone can store their thoughts, ideas and inspiration can also act as both an ongoing prompt and crucible for creativity. In it, you can take your group brainstorm one step further by using prompts to move the ideas from your session onto new iterations. An easy way is to post a weekly thought-provoking question on the big idea, or smaller elements of it, such as ‘what would happen if this were….’ or ‘find examples of a…’. You can even create a dedicated space in your team chat app or Slack channel too for ongoing brainstorming, encouraging the creativity to keep flowing and allowing people to build on ever-evolving ideas and link them into even bigger ones.
…what if you’re not a team leader, or even part of a team?
If you’re working alone at home day-in-day-out it can be hard to get inspired, especially if you would previously have drawn on the stimulation of others and of different environments. However, even though ‘independent brainstorming’ may seem like a contradiction in terms, research shows that in many instances ‘thinking it out with yourself’ can actually be more effective than group collaboration. A landmark 1958 Yale study found people working by themselves developed twice as many solutions to creative puzzles as those working in groups, bypassing the often-stifling effect that brainstorming can have on the number of proposals that actually receive serious consideration. Try these five techniques to get your solo brain generating new ideas and start to see things differently, even when all you’re seeing is the same four walls…
Set limits — Often having too many choices can be paralysing, so put some forced limitations on yourself to inspire the generation of new ideas. Narrow your field of resources, whether through the number of options on offer, the time allowed or the kinds of outcomes and you are likely to find your brain become more creative as an adaptive result.
Try figure storming — Put yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand how they might think or approach your issue, problem or point of innovation. This could be a colleague, a supplier or an end-user. Then write down a series of questions about their needs, wants and objections and try to imagine their responses to these to get a fuller picture and new perspectives.
Make new connections — Association will help you to challenge typical thinking and step beyond initially obvious ideas, tapping into the subconscious’s ability to create meaningful, and often unexpected, patterns. Start with a word or two, or even a visual, and write down the first things that come to mind, letting associations pop out to take ideas off on new tangents you might not have even considered.
Look away from your own expertise — Cross-functional collaboration is a tried and tested way in which many organisations approach complex problems. But even if you are working on your own, you can ‘visit’ another area to gain inspiration and fresh perspective. Look at websites and publications that address a different audience to your usual one and read away from your area of expertise to help spark lateral thinking.
Take a walk — Don’t brainstorm alone for more than 45-60 minutes to stay effective. Set a timer, and after a virtual brainstorm take a walk to refresh and oxygenate the brain and get a change of scenery, giving it a chance to rest, digest all the information you have just generated, and then potentially give you the answers you’re looking for…