We’re seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic and many of us are still working remotely. Though we’ve been impressed with how productive we really have been working from home (all while juggling kids, dogs and/or spouses invading our workspaces) there are still some things we would prefer to do in person. Team brainstorming is definitely one of them. But it CAN be done virtually, and well if you’re thoughtful about your approach.
It’s hard to think creatively in times of stress, yet—you don’t want to be creating in a vacuum. It’s important to keep your teams feeling connected to the work and exercising their creative collaboration muscles.
In the best brainstorms, we take one concept from one team member and build on it (or, stealing from the improv world, “yes, and…”). The initial idea becomes better and more focused—to the point that you can’t really remember who came up with it in the first place and everyone feels ownership in the process.
Brainstorming, when done right following the tips below, creates a culture of creative collaboration that will extend well beyond one session. This lays the foundation for psychological safety where wild ideas are allowed to roam free—on their journey to become the next great thing. Creative collaboration ensures that team members are encouraged (and become eager) to share ideas, build one another up and understand that their contributions are valued.
This CAN be achieved virtually, but there are some important adjustments to make ahead of and during the process to ensure success.
Here are our tips on hosting a virtual brainstorm that doesn’t fall flat. DOWNLOAD the Infographic of these tips here.
1. Set Meeting Norms
Before you launch into your meeting, be sure to discuss guidelines to help everyone feel safe to share, fail forward and start thinking critically and innovatively. Indeed, you are challenging your team to create change, make something better or build the next new thing, so they must understand that this is not business-as-usual, but an opportunity to invent together. Communicate the rules of engagement and align expectations. We want everyone to come prepared to achieve the desired outcome.
- Emphasize that we are entering a “brave space” and we want everyone to be willing to share an idea even if it is half-baked—because you never know what it will become with the power of team collaboration
- Assure participants that there are no bad ideas
- Communicate expectations and desired outcome
2. Play a Game!The brain is a muscle. Like every muscle, it needs a chance to warm up before performing at its best. We always recommend starting with a fun warm-up game to get the creative juices flowing. Yes, we know play often has a bad rep in the business world, but as certified facilitators, we sing its praises daily because it is scientifically proven to increase creativity and we’ve seen it work magic before a brainstorm. If we can laugh, expose our vulnerabilities in a safe space and be human together, we’ll be more apt to create and innovate together.
- Use the 30 circles challenge to jumpstart creativity
- Ask attendees to create a word storm to get out of a rut
- Find an object, determine a time constraint and come up with as many alternate uses for the object as possible
3. Language is Key: “Yes and…”
Improv comedians are encouraged to use the phrase “yes, and…” to keep a sketch going. This leads to some funny and unexpected turns—all of which are great avenues for an effective brainstorming session. When you say “no” in a brainstorm, it stops the flow of ideas. This ties back to that culture of collaboration that we are all trying to achieve. Participants should accept what another participant has stated ("yes") and then expand on that line of thinking ("and"). Be sure you also use positive and encouraging language to explore what’s possible and encourage it from others.
- “Yes, and…” not “no, but”
- “How might we…” instead of “how can we...
- “Building on that…”
- “I wonder if…”
Remember, you’re not looking for the best idea in the room, you are trusting that the process of hearing from a diversity of thoughts and experiences will mine the wisdom of the team members, create a culture of collaboration and manifest cutting-edge ideas.
4. Write it Down First
When tackling a new challenge or question, have all participants write their ideas down first. This allows for extra processing and for everyone to remember their thoughts—even when the loudest voices in the room are talking—plus, everyone processes differently. Some individuals will appreciate the chance to internally process and some need to work out ideas verbally. In many brainstorming sessions, people begin to think along the same lines or “groupthink” takes over. Writing ideas down first ensures that participants will have new things to bring to the table when that groupthink-mentality rears up in the conversation.
- Start with a great question and give the group two minutes to write and process before beginning the brainstorm
- Rotating charts and whiteboarding help groups build upon new ideas
- Online tools like Miro and Mural enable visual collaboration
Depending on the dynamics of the group, a good facilitator is ready to redirect if a participant is dominating the conversation or provide alternate activities if someone isn't engaging at all. If the overall energy of the “room” is low (which can happen very quickly in a virtual session), be prepared with a facilitated stretch break or a game to exercise those creative muscles before jumping back into the task at hand. If the group is too big to hear from everyone, utilize breakout rooms to encourage easier engagement and total participation.
- Utilize breakout rooms (especially with more than 15 people)
- Institute 10-minute breaks every hour of virtual brainstorming
- Facilitate stretch, breathing or movement breaks
We can’t restate it enough—a virtual meeting requires ten times the energy, enthusiasm and encouragement. We’re not going to be able to rely on body language or hand gestures, as we would in a normal setting. The candor and enthusiasm of the facilitator will be the determining factor of the meeting’s success. Remember, you set the stage. Be sure you wholeheartedly participate (which means actively listening and helping others to engage) and don’t forget to allow yourself to be authentic and vulnerable. If you show your humanity and bring the energy, meeting participants will follow.
- Bring 10x the energy and enthusiasm
- Be authentic and vulnerable alongside your team
Remember, you’re not looking for the best idea in the room. Instead, you’re trusting that the process of hearing from a diversity of thoughts and experiences will mine the wisdom of the team members, create a culture of collaboration and manifest cutting-edge ideas.