How not to fail your online brainstorming

The growth of remote teams is causing a shift; brainstorming has to move from the boardroom to a virtual room. For other business operations, the move from paper to cloud was expected to increase efficiency and productivity. That wasn’t the case for traditional brainstorming…

What experienced facilitators quickly realized is that traditional brainstorming sessions can’t simply “go live” to produce the same level of results.

Read our recent post on brainstorming rules, techniques and tips for successful brainstorming within remote teams.

Consider the difference between a virtual tour of The Louvre versus an in-person visit. You can see the Mona Lisa, hear the docent’s description, but the effect is just not the same. What is that missing element? Are there small but powerful pain points that distract from the experience?

Online “idea generation” faces the same conundrum. You’ve got the right people, an experienced facilitator, a conference call number and have all traditional methods of proven brainstorming at your fingertips. But time after time, the results are dismal. Let’s take a look at potential pain points that typically present themselves and discuss how can brainstorming facilitators resolve them and recreate a “virtual” environment for successful idea generation.

1. Lack of preparation & communication

Ambiguous goal & expectations

We’ve said it before and we will say it again. Brainstorming sessions require organization and excellent communication. A common failure is a lack of a clearly stated goal. For a productive meeting, the entire team needs to hear, embrace and understand a focused, specific, and often measurable goal.

Here’s an example:

“The goal is to increase user retention rates.”

“The goal is to come up with 3 viable strategies to increase the 3-week user retention rate.”

Keeping your team focused from the get-go will yield more promising results.

Laura MacLeod, HR Expert and Consultant at From The Inside Out Project shares her experience: “Remote brainstorming needs to be extremely organized, well planned and have a clear purpose. What is the end result we want to achieve? Because people are not sitting together in the same space, there is the added challenge of not being able to pick up on body language and immediate reactions (even with video, it’s not the same feel as being physically present together). Leadership must also be clear and the leader must be crystal clear with norms and expectations: how long the meeting will last, specific goal to achieve, how the conversation will function (communication patterns and participation), how/when decisions will be made, breaks, food, cellphones (are people taking calls/texting during the session?). All of this needs to be considered in order to effectively work remotely.”

Lack of advance preparation

The meeting facilitator does themselves no favors by sending out a meeting notification that reads, “Bring your creative thinking hats!” The more detailed information provided, the better. Without preparation done in advance, and this includes setting up the communications tools and copying the agendas, the more time will be wasted during the meeting.

What’s the solution? One valid strategy is strategy relies on Rapid Ideation. In this method, participants are asked pre-read files or research relevant materials in advance to kick off the ideation process ahead of time. This can help increase engagement even before the brainstorming session.

How Not To Fail Online Brainstorming

2. Low engagement

Facilitating a successful brainstorming event can be challenging, but even more so for remote teams. Brainstorming works best when all the members are interested and involved.

“Dialing in” to the session inherently leads to low engagement. We all know how easy it is to get distracted when you aren’t physically present in a meeting.

Lack of engagement can arise two ways:

  1. When remote team members cannot participate easily and fully
  2. When all members cannot work together cohesively as a team
  3. The group cannot work simultaneously on the challenge

AJ Saleem, Director of Suprex Tutors Houston says the following, “The main reason online brainstorming sessions fail is because everyone isn’t able to look at the same thing as once. Everyone has their own computers and do their own thing; brainstorming is at its best when everyone works together.”

To ensure a more engaged group of participants, the facilitator needs to find opportunities to keep every member equally involved through the entirety of the session. Using a virtual room with online sticky notes and multiple channels for participation can offset this issue and minimize the “downtime” for other participants.

Once a facilitator has overcome engagement issues and the team is bursting with ideas, another potential problem is created: what to do with all those ideas! Organizational challenges can prevent teams from moving forward successfully.

Online Brainstorming Fails

3. Organizational challenges

Getting started

Everyone is engaged and posting profuse amounts of notes and ideas on sticky notes. Now what? The team needs to stay organized so they don’t overlook great ideas. Look for tools that can help pinpoint patterns and main ideas from the massive amount of initial idea generation.

Managing the flow

How will all those ideas become a solution? The evaluation and elimination phase should also be defined.

The end game

The team has a result and it’s pretty spectacular. Now the team needs to package it in a visually appealing and organized presentation.

Online Brainstorming Time

4. The clock is ticking….

You’ve got a problem. And what you don’t have is sufficient time to solve it. Or perhaps lack of time is only part of the problem. When time is of the essence, a couple problems can sideline the team.

Individual calendar challenges

The beautiful thing about remote teams is that facilitators can pull the best people into the session, regardless of their location. The problem? Our individual calendars. Everyone is busy and finding a time slot where everyone can meet can be problematic, particularly with time zone differences that may be extremely inconvenient.

Once a facilitator manages to gather the team, their time together may be short. When faced with time constraints, a natural reaction is to skip or rush through the idea generation phase of the meeting. Due to this stress, a troubling process leads the team off track, right from the onset:

  • Teams believe they don’t have time to brainstorm at granular level. Details should be manipulated and considered from all angles, but this is often rushed or skipped altogether.
  • As a result, the team doesn’t cover every aspect of the problem.
  • Great ideas or solutions are overlooked.
  • Product managers erroneously make decisions based on flawed ideas.

Without proper brainstorming, product managers tend to rely on their own opinions and ideas when making decisions, which increases the risk of missing something important. When the right outcome has the potential to be the “Next Big Thing”, managing time constraints properly is a big predictor of success.

5. Ineffective brainstorming tools

Here’s a pain point that all Agile coaches can relate to: since the team is disparate, a whiteboard and marker won’t adequately do the job. What’s the alternative?

The brainstorming leader needs to choose a tool designed for remote teams and online idea generation.

But there is a caveat. Agile managers know results are dependent on organization and efficiency. So the tool of choice needs to deliver. Implement a tool that can organize, collect and store all the details and ideas and then successfully deliver a solution. An online whiteboard allows participants to upload images and use stickers to house online ideas and notes. Even if part of the team is local and relying on a physical whiteboard, images of their work can be uploaded and transformed into digital stickers at online whiteboard.

Finally, an online whiteboard solution has one more value add. The fun and engaging templates and tools lead to higher engagement from the team — something every Agile coach can benefit from.

Start my brainstorming now

Okay, enough of the pain points. In the next chapter, we will introduce some golden rules for online brainstorming that move us one step closer to brainstorming synergy.

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