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Brainstorming across borders: How to stimulate creative thinking from afar

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Q: A marketing manager tell us: We’re under tremendous pressure to churn out hundreds of deliverables each month. But at the same time we’re asked to come up with some really “out-of-the-box” thinking. Productive brainstorming sessions take time, something we have precious little of. And even if we had the time, our team is far-flung, making it almost impossible to get us all together in a room, which is how brainstorming seems to work best. Any advice?

Those of us who feel that the best ideas come from live, in-person “jam” sessions are reminded by today’s online cognoscenti that really great ideas can be hatched by people connected only by computers and perhaps a telephone line. The purpose of this Communiqué is to explore how remote teams can engage in productive “same time” brainstorming meetings. (There are countless ways to brainstorm via asynch means as well. Please click here for a summary of technology and tools that may be used effectively for group brainstorming activities, both synch and asynch.)

  • Know what problem you’re trying to solve. Much time can be spent on generating a host of ideas that have little bearing on the real problem at hand. For example, one customer service center group initially identified the problem as: Customers wait on hold too long. The real problem, it turned out, was that customers were bored and annoyed while waiting. One solution: Give waiting customers the option to answer a simple survey while waiting, and reward them with $5 if they do. Results: The company obtained much-needed customer data at relatively little expense, and most customers reported they no longer minded holding. The more precisely defined the problem is, the more focused, productive and quicker the brainstorming session is likely to be.
  • Group similar problems for broader application of great ideas. With time at a premium, and brainstorming sessions apt to be regarded by some as a luxury, try to anticipate some of the problems for which you’ll need some creative ideas. Hold a single brainstorming session to generate a flood of related ideas, which can be sorted out later on. For example, a group may tackle these two related issues in one session: Minimizing customer “on-hold” time and need to solicit feedback from current clients. Such “bundling” has twin benefits: Additional brainstorming sessions might be avoided, and richer results can be realized if some ideas can help solve more than one problem.
  • Consider separate sessions for problem definition, brainstorming and idea selection. For most of us, it’s difficult to move easily and quickly from the left brain (e.g. the kind of convergent thinking required for problem definition) to the right brain (e.g. the kind of divergent thinking required for brainstorming), and back to the left (for idea selection). Given that meetings among distributed teams are most effective when kept relatively brief, slicing the brainstorming process into a few separate sessions might work best.
  • Allocate the appropriate amount of time for each phase. The general rule of thumb: About 50% or so of the available time should go to problem definition, about 35% to idea generation and about 10-15% to idea selection. By using certain online capabilities, you can speed up some of this work significantly, especially in the area of brainstorming and evaluating options. Agreeing on problem definition, however, is probably best done through a real-time conversation, which is likely to include some spirited debate.
  • Select the right participants. Not all people will be appropriate for all phases of the brainstorming process. For example, perhaps a few people who are closest to the topic at hand, as well as the executive sponsor of the initiative, might be involved in defining the problem and articulating associated implications. For a brainstorming session, make sure to include people who display curiosity, imagination and at least some disinterest in preserving the status quo. Five to seven people is the ideal number. For selecting the best ideas, you probably want a variety of interests, styles, and perspectives represented, as well as someone with the authority to make decisions and present ideas higher up the line. These may or may not be the same set of people involved in the brainstorming process.
  • Prepare participants for a productive session. First, make sure your meeting request includes objectives, agenda, sequence of meetings, and the proposed problem(s) to be solved, along with implications (e.g. costs, morale issue, customer defects). Next, consider having participants brainstorm individually ahead of time, to make the best use of meeting time. For example, try sending some fill-in-the- blank questions and ask for people to write down top- of-mind responses. (E.g., The three adjectives I would use to describe how people feel when they’re trying to use a new software application are ___, ____, and ____.) During the actual session, you can do a quick caucus of responses and build from there.
  • Choose the best technology to get the job done. At the very least, you’ll need a phone line for a “same-time, same-place” meeting, as well as some means by which you can capture and record ideas as they come forth. In addition, there are hundreds of tools, methods and technologies you might consider to foster rapid-fire creative thinking. Some web conferencing services are created specifically for brainstorming, while others have features that make the pooling and evaluating ideas exceptionally easy and fast. Some allow for anonymity, which may be particularly important in certain situations. Familiarize yourself with the available options. Take a test run to mimic how long your actual session is likely to run, and plan your agenda accordingly.
  • Be prepared to inject some unexpected stimuli. Many brainstorming experts insist that the best ideas are those that come near the middle or end of a session, when new stimuli are offered after participants claim they have run out of ideas. For example, try keeping a list of nouns or adjectives handy, images you can show, or questions you can ask. One technique that works well for many groups: What are some of the worst ideas you have to solve this problem? Not only does this inspire a new spurt of energy, but many of the “worst” ideas can be transformed into some of the best, with just a little tweaking.
  • Make sure you have an agreed-upon way to select the best ideas. Nothing can deflate an energized group faster than a vague assurance that their ideas have merit and that “something will be done.” Be clear at the outset what criteria will be used for evaluating ideas, and who will do the evaluating. Also let people know what decisions will be made as a result, and when, and how they will discover the outcome.

Chances are, team members who work apart are percolating some great ideas that they’re eager to share, given the right environment. Today we have at our disposal many new ways to spawn and share ideas that weren’t possible even five years ago. The challenge: How to bring together the best of both worlds-the “old” world of piling the best brains into a single meeting room, and the new world of working without the constraints of space and time.