How to make virtual brainstorming work

Oct 18 2013 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

Coming up with good ideas is hard enough to do over a coffee and bagels, so trying to brainstorm with a virtual group over the internet can be a real challenge. The consensus is that brainstorming is far more effective when everyone's together in the same place. But it can be accomplished via webmeeting and other tools - if you know what you're doing.

Two people who definitely know what they're doing are Mitchell Rigie and Keith Harmeye, the authors of SmartStorming: The Game-Changing Process for Generating Bigger, Better Ideas. Over the next two posts, we'll take a look at how to generate quality ideas and feedback when you're only connected by the mysterious voodoo of the Web.

Most people look at virtual meetings as making the best of a bad situation, but there are some advantages to meeting that way. What are the pros and cons of virtual brainstorming?

The most obvious advantage is the ease of access. Participants don't have to travel to the meeting site, even if it's just down the hall or on the next floor. And if the meeting isn't happening live, in real time (in other words, it's an ongoing, asynchronous exchange of information over a period of time), people can participate whenever they like, 24/7.

This situation also gives participants a chance to consider their comments, rather than having to "think on their feet." There's a mistaken notion that brainstorming happens live, in the moment, and it can actually take a while.

But there are other, somewhat more subtle advantages. Some people are simply more comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas when they aren't sitting face-to-face with co-workers, and especially supervisors or unfamiliar outsiders. So the anonymity of a virtual meeting can, in some ways, be a plus.

What are some of the tools, and features of web platforms, that actually encourage good brainstorming and participation?

The most popular web platforms are very flexible and allow a great deal of customization. Meeting designers and facilitators can typically brand the meeting with company logos, colors, etc.; post a variety of different types of questions; share a wide range of information (print documents, videos, audio, etc.); and choose from numerous voting and ranking styles. Some also incorporate familiar social networking features such as blogs, status feeds, user profiles, etc., making it easy for participants to interact and collaborate.

But the most significant advantages of such systems are on the administrative side, since all of the data shared on the system can be so easily collected, stored and analyzed. This is particularly useful in large scale "crowdsourcing" initiatives.

Most people think of synchronous events like webmeetings…what are some of the asynchronous ways to generate input and increase the quality of the outcomes?

The simplest and most basic form of asynchronous collaboration is email. We all take it for granted today (and misuse it horribly), but the ability to communicate at each individual's convenience has always been a major advantage of email over synchronous communication (like conference calls).

But email can also be used in a more structured way. We have one SmartStorming client that has established a predetermined email chain sequence among their team for sharing and developing ideas remotely.

Of course, web-based open innovation management tools (like Bright Idea, Spigit, Jive, etc.) provide the greatest power and flexibility for asynchronous collaboration.

What I like about their approach is that it starts with the same principles this embraces: if you know what you're trying to do, and create an environment where outcomes come before process, the process will follow.

Next time we'll focus on what leaders have to think about and do to facilitate great brainstorming.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.