Guided Insights

How many emails can I write while “participating” in a weekly review meeting? Which ideas can I repurpose so I don’t have think of new ones? How many calls can I avoid by blasting a group IM? How many minutes can I save by outsourcing dinner prep to the local pizza joint? Yup, for many of us, it’s all about efficiency. We’ve become obsessed with doing more things, faster. For some of us, it’s simply because we can. For others, it’s how we’ve come to be measured.

What’s getting lost in our single-minded quest for uber-efficiency is the relative luxury of idle thought, where we take the time to line our gray matter with the seeds of half-formed ideas which, with a little bit of nurturing, can spawn big innovations. To sustain competitive advantage, organizations have to innovate constantly. Easier said than done. That’s because thinking creatively takes time and focus, two commodities that are in short supply.

According to Booz & Company’s annual study on global innovation, strategic alignment and company culture are far more important than R&D spending when it comes to deriving competitive advantage through innovation. Yet, close to half of all respondents reported that their corporate cultures do not support innovation. So while companies talk about the importance of innovation, many have not set up the conditions for success in a sustainable way. (And sadly, offering a few courses here and there won’t breed systemic, continual innovation.)

So how can we take responsibility for creating more opportunities for innovative thinking? Here are a few practical tips, for both individuals and for teams:

  • Give yourself headroom: When getting yourself from point A to point B, whether driving, walking, or taking the bus, resist the temptation to multitask. Instead of listening to that podcast or hopping onto another call, turn on some relaxing music (Bach, Handel and Vivaldi are thought to be especially good for getting the creative juices flowing), or just experience silence. Sometimes it’s helpful to have a focus for your creative thinking, like “What’s the best way to motivate my field staff?” Other times, you might do better to simply let your mind unfurl and your thoughts meander. Don’t let anyone or anything invade your personal thinking space with distracting clutter and noise.
  • Block out time in your workday. Creative thinking requires a lot of focused energy, yet few of us actually set aside time for generating new ideas. Our days are just too jam-packed solving problems, making decisions and measuring results — you know, all of that “critical” stuff that keep the wheels of progress moving. Mark off brainstorming time in your calendar, and consider it as sacrosanct as any other meeting — if not more.
  • Create the conditions for creative thinking. Turn off; tune out distractions like, IMs and emails. Clear your desktop. Get rid of that stuff you’ve been wondering where to file, even if it’s moving that pile to the floor for now. Put away that growing to-do list that you never seem to get to. Creating an open space on your desk helps open up space in your mind for fresh thinking. Turn away from your computer to minimize self-induced interruptions. Better yet, find an altogether different venue. Make sure to bring plenty of writing implements (the more colors, the better) and paper, Post-its or index cards to write on. Bring along a squeeze ball or another tactile object to satisfy your craving to multitask when you’ve focused on one topic for more than a few minutes.
  • Put brainstorming on the team agenda. While it’s true that most flashes of brilliance emerge serendipitously, it’s also true that if a team does not allocate time for brainstorming or idea-sharing, few opportunities for creative collaboration will present themselves. This is especially true for virtual teams, where real-time team conversations tend to be infrequent and brief, usally adhering to a strict agenda. Try walling off a predictable time each week (e.g. Fridays from 3-4 PM) for an “open” brainstorming session for whomever on the team wants to join. Or set aside bigger chunks of time, perhaps less frequently, to generate new ideas to address specific needs (e.g. expanding your donor base or rejuvenating your new onboarding program). If they’re not put on the calendar, brainstorming sessions may always be shunted aside in favor of fighting the fire de jour.
  • Make it easy to contribute and build on ideas. Invite people to offer up ideas by using a blending of asynchronous (any time) and synchronous (same time) participation. Open an online conference area where people can submit their ideas and build on others, whenever it’s most convenient. Then, when you’re ready to convene in real-time, whether virtually or in person, you’ll have a rich array of ideas you can use as a springboard for conversation. You can also use this same electronic brainstorming tool during your same-time session, whether participants are onsite or remote. Consider whether participants will feel less inhibited if given the option to submit ideas anonymously.
  • Ask questions that generate energy. Make sure the problem (or opportunity) is unambiguous and interesting, if not terrifically exciting. For example, instead of asking how to reduce operating costs within manufacturing, solicit ideas about how to get products out the door faster, with less hassle and waste, while maintaining at least the same standards of quality. Ask questions that are broad enough to generate ideas a bit outside of the immediate opportunity, yet specific enough to help steer thinking into productive pathways. When setting up an online “think tank,” invite representative participants to try out the questions and give you feedback before rolling out to a larger crowd. What seems like a clear question to you might be interpreted a completely different way by someone else.
  • Keep the ideas flowing – or stem the gusher? If you have a specific process and end date in mind, call it out clearly, so people will know when to shut off the flow of ideas. (For example: The senior management team will create a short list of projects for further exploration, based upon the following criteria, by February 10… and will announce the final list by March 15.) Or, if you want to keep ideas percolating over a longer period of time given the perennial nature of a particular challenge (e.g. how best to reward and retain top talent), keep an online area open, with occasional reminders, alerts and frequent expressions of gratitude.
  • Bake at least a little brainstorming into every team meeting. Generating ideas can be a great way to open up a team meeting with excitement and energy, or end a meeting on a high note. Whether you’re meeting face to face, virtually, or a combination, set aside at least a sliver of team time to brainstorm new possibilities. Calibrate how much time you’ll need based on the richness and complexity of the topic. For example, you may need just five minutes to elicit ideas for a new team logo, but you may need a half-hour to brainstorm ways to train supervisors on a confusing new HR policy. Asking people for their best ideas on a regular basis has a way of making them feel important and inspired.

While it’s tempting to dismiss innovation as someone else’s job (preferably someone whose schedule has a lot more vacancies than yours!), it behooves each of us, as individuals and as leaders, to carve out opportunities to showcase our best thinking. Generating new ideas is not only fun and energizing, but it’s the best way to maintain our competitive edge. The challenge for virtual leaders is to make innovation a priority for your team members by creating the time and space for original thinking, both independently and together.


Check out related ezine: Drive out distractions and reclaim your time.Read our tipsheet, Practical guidelines for brainstorming across borders

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Virtual Teams and Virtual Meetings  |  Meeting Facilitation  |  Training  |  Virtual Meeting Tips Booklet

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