The Leadership challenges of virtual brainstorming

Oct 22 2013 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

Wouldn't it be nice if we could take some smart, motivated, talented people, lock them in a room and watch as they generate some great ideas. Sadly, that's just wishful thinking. In the real world, brainstorming doesn't work like that. Still less when your brainstorming group aren't in the same physical place.

Getting a remote team to innovate and generate ideas takes a lot of work. And doing it online by webinar or webmeeting takes just as much (if not more) but uses a slightly different set of muscles.

In the second part of our interview with Mitchell Rigie and Keith Harmeyer , the authors of SmartStorming: The Game-Changing Process for Generating Bigger, Better Ideas, we take a look at what some of those leadership skillsets are.

We have often discussed here the difference between leading a virtual meeting and 'running' one. What is the role of the meeting leader and what skills do they have to develop that they might not have now?

In a virtual meeting, the role of the meeting leader is actually very much the same as in a live, face-to-face meeting - to actively inspire the group, manage the interaction and maintain energy and momentum. The biggest mistake virtual meeting leaders make is that they often believe it is a passive role. They just start up the meeting, then sit back and watch it run.

The key skill an effective leader needs is "situational awareness". This is a term used in aviation, but it applies here just as well. A skilled leader will be acutely aware of what's going on during the meeting, at all times. This is equally true in asynchronous meetings as it is in live, real-time meetings. Is the energy and enthusiasm around a topic waning? Are certain individuals with strong personalities dominating the conversation? Are participants engaged and actively contributing?

At the first sign of anything that may undermine the success of the meeting, an effective leader will take action, redirect the focus, initiate an engaging technique, inject a thought-provoking prompt question to stimulate new thinking, etc.

By the way, the notion that asynchronous communication could qualify as a meeting is quite a change from the way we usually think of them. In your book, you have a lot of tips, too many to go into here, but let's take a look at some of the more intriguing ways managers can re-think how they do webinars and webmeetings to generate great group outcomes.

You say to "stock the reservoir" to kickstart ideas.Öwhat do you mean by this?

All innovative solutions begin as ideas. And ideas are the result of making new, spontaneous connections between two or more things (items, concepts, images, etc.) So it just makes sense that the more mental stimuli your mind has to play with, the more ideas you will be able to generate.

With this in mind, a key component of successful idea generation is what we call "stocking the reservoir." This simply means that effective teams will continually feed their minds new, inspirational information. At the most basic level, this can include articles related to their area of business, analysis of competitors, review of provocative advertising and marketing campaigns, etc. But to really get the creative juices flowing, teams can share their favorite music, art, videos, movies, TED talks, etc. Obviously online search engines make it easy to find and share stimulating information.

People think more freely when they're having a good time. How do you make it fun, rather than onerous?

There are a number of things a leader can do to inject a sense of fun into his or her meetings. First, in the case of idea generation, use a variety of ideation techniques. These are simple activities that help the mind think in new, different directions.

Most meetings (including brainstorms) are simply conversations fueled by free association. But these techniques, many of which feel like games, are a far more effective way of exploring an issue. There are literally dozens, if not hundreds of such techniques. We actually include detailed instructions for 20 in our SmartStorming book But a simple online search for "brainstorming techniques" will provide you with many.

Some of the more popular and well-known techniques include Mind Mapping and Edward de Bono's Six Thinking Hats. There are even techniques that invite participants to intentionally generate BAD ideas that can later be "flipped" into good ones.

Another way to make a meeting fun is to build in some friendly competition. We all love to compete - it's human nature. So framing challenges or discussions as "contests" (and acknowledging the winners) can significantly ramp up the enjoyment factor. For example, the highest number of ideas generated in a given time frame; the most audacious idea; the most creative, original, or innovative idea. And to raise the stakes even higher, award simple prizes such as lottery tickets, gift cards, etc., or just plain old bragging rights. (In our SmartStorming sessions, winners are allowed to go first in the lunch line.)

If all of this sounds like it's a lot of work for the leaders, well you're right. The good news is that by investing your time here, you'll get better input from your team, better outcomes as a group, and you'll look good as a result.

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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.