How to Brainstorm with Remote Teams
Business now sees the clear benefits of remote work now that the COVID-19 crisis pushed people out of the office. We have proven that many people can work at home and, in fact, are more productive. Combine this with lower office rent, ability to tap into an international labor pool, and more job satisfaction and we understand why 'work from home' is here to stay. In addition, many business activities are better with remote teams, provided you apply some new techniques.
Brainstorming is one of those areas. Traditionally, brainstorming sessions involved a lot of wasted time, sticky notes, silly ideas, and having to listen to "Francis" dominate every conversation. "Group think" set in and nothing new came out of it. Just a few months ago, the idea of going to a "Brainstorming Session" made people hide under their desks.
But, simply moving online, sometimes called "brain-netting", doesn't help if you don't change the process. Take advantage of being remote to address the challenges of typical in-person brainstorming. Here is a flexible six-step process for brainstorming with your remote team.
Step 1. Set the Rules (Group Work)
Your first meeting should be done as a group and should accomplish four things. First, describe your objectives. What problem is the team solving, why is their participation important, and what outcomes do you need to achieve? Second, describe constraints or factors that the team needs to work within. For example, you likely want to avoid ideas that require unrealistic budgets or that involve criminal activities or compromise ethics. Third, setup a schedule for milestone that works for everyone. Good ideas surface over time, so provide a schedule with dates and enough time to allow everyone to think, but not so much time that it's not a priority.
You should also introduce the tools you will be using. Use existing messaging and conferencing tools to setup special work groups. You will also want to use a tool dedicated to teamwork, like Plexie or similar tools. Give your team a brief tour of your tools and describe how to get help if they need it. Your brainstorming tool needs to be flexible to accommodate the work styles of everyone on the team. Some people (engineers and accountants) are linear thinkers and like tables and bullet points. Others (marketing and product) are creative and want to use pictures, videos and colors. When brainstorming, you need a tool that doesn't inhibit or control how people think. The tools should have private functions, so each person can go crazy, then share the more appropriate ideas when they are ready.
Step 2. Solo Brainstorming (Private)
Now that you've informed the team of the process and given them tools, let them brainstorm alone (Solo Brainstorming). Give them a few days to think. Initially, you want to encourage quantity over quality, so long as everyone knows to operate within the constraints you described in Step 1. An excellent process is to tell everyone to come up with five ideas that range from crazy to conservative. But they shouldn't organize them yet! It makes subsequent reviews a lot more fun, and keeps everyone focused. So long as everyone operates within the constraints you described at the start, you will get plenty of new ideas. Some will be way out there, but some just might work.
The day before something is a breakthrough, it was a crazy idea. - Peter Diamandis, Author
Keeping everyone's individual brainstorm ideas anonymous allows everyone to express their ideas without inhibition or fear of embarrassment. Plus, it keeps leader's ideas from dominatinating the next session and causing group-think. The only time this doesn't work, we've learned, is when teams that already work closely together. Go ahead and share who had the ideas. Otherwise, they will spend more time focused on guessing who came up with each idea.
This should be fun and creative. Include pictures and videos. Backup your thoughts by linking to authoritative articles. This first Solo Brainstorming is designed to squeeze out all the ideas and is the foundation for future steps.
Step 3. Review (Group Work)
Come together as a group and review all the ideas. This session is not for excluding ideas, unless they fall outside the initial parameters you set. This is for sharing ideas. Don't organize the ideas in any way. You should have a mix-up of crazy ideas and conservative ideas from all the different team members. This makes the discussion lively and fun.
Don't decide what's good or bad in this session. The focus is on sharing and discussing. Because of this, it's a good idea to keep the discussion of each item to just a couple minutes. Otherwise, you may use all your time discussing just a couple. What comes out of this session is more ideas!
Step 4. Mashup (Individual or Small Team Work)
By now, everyone has heard the crazy and conservative. If you like, this is a good time to break the team into smaller groups of 2 or 3. Everyone is likely brimming over with more ideas. That's what this is about. It's time to re-think! Each individual or small team should take the best of the other ideas and mash them into something new.
This will take the best of the first brainstorming work and create some outstanding ideas. Like before, this should be fun and creative and supported with videos, pictures and background details. Every person or small team should pick out what they think are their best 2 or 3 ideas.
Step 5. Decide (Group Work)
Bring the larger brainstorming team back together. This is the longest and perhaps most difficult meeting. Now is the time to discuss the best ideas and narrow them down to just two or three. It's important to emphasize that people can be critical of an idea, but not the person. This is easiest to do by simply ranking ideas using the following considerations:
- Eliminate ideas that don't fit the rules you set at the beginning
- You will be surprised to see some common patterns and themes. Go ahead and group those together and eliminate those that are very similar.
- Consider whether the idea addresses the challenge fully, or is a partial solution? Partial solutions should be downgraded or eliminated.
- Ideas that require fewer resources are better, if all else is equal. Rank each idea in terms of money, time and staff required.
At this point, you should clearly see which idea is the best. It's time to transition to action!
Step 6. Action Plan!
This is a whole other topic area. Many software products, like Plexie or similar products, allow you to smoothly transition from brainstorming into action plans. You may need to build a business case, a project plan, assign responsibilities, make deadlines and so on.
Following the above process, brainstorming will prove to be better when done remotely than in person.