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Moving from Ideas to Action in a Virtual World

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You’re excited about the stunningly creative ideas your team has spawned ever since you’ve begun to include a brainstorming segment into every (virtual) team meeting. In fact, your team has generated about six months’ worth of great ideas just waiting to be implemented. And they’ll keep on waiting, and waiting and waiting — until you devise a plan that can transform these ideas into actionable steps.

Taking a host of great new ideas through the necessary steps of evaluation, selection, planning, and finally to implementation, can be a complex and protracted process for any team. But for distributed teams, whose members juggle multiple competing priorities and have few opportunities for real-time interaction, it’s a lot more challenging.

In this edition, I offer some practical tips to increase the likelihood that you and your team will actually implement some of  your bright ideas. But make no mistake: This is hard work that requires commitment, focus, and yes, extra work, plus a willingness to take at least a few other things off your team’s plate.

  • First, create a plan for getting new ideas over the finish line before you invite people to brainstorm new ideas. I’ve mapped out a process in the steps below that I’ve used successfully with virtual teams looking to find new ways to solve problems, make big changes or unearth new opportunities. If you haven’t figured out what you’ll do with ideas once they’re generated, then it’s better to hold off until you have a plan. Once you ask people to spend time and energy on generating new ideas, if their efforts ultimately lead nowhere, you may not get a second chance. Download a sample strategic planning activities timeline
  • Determine how ideas will be prioritized initially once the first round of brainstorming is done. After gaining agreement from your team as to the process you’ll be using, state in writing exactly what criteria will be used (and why), who has a say, how and where prioritization will take place, and by when. For example, everyone on the team may have an equal voice, or perhaps senior leadership or functional leaders have the final say. Will people rank the ideas in an online forum of some sort, or in real-time, during team meetings? In virtual teams, there’s plenty of room for ambiguity, so make sure that everyone is crystal clear about the process. (Download a sample assessment criteria template)
  • Make a space for necessary discussions and debates. Ideas that don’t spark discussions or generate energy, positive or negative, are unlikely to take root. For teams that have few opportunities for real-time voice conversations, try setting up a virtual venue where people can prioritize ideas using agreed-upon criteria, build on existing ideas, ask questions, make suggestions, or offer alternatives. Be clear about what you’re asking people to do, and explain how their input will be used. Post important contextual information in the meeting area to ensure that everyone starts from the same page.
  • Create a “short list” of ideas determined to be the highest priority. This list should include the original problem or opportunity that elicited these ideas, as well as constraints and boundaries important to keep in mind as these ideas are fleshed out. For example, must we work within the current budget or headcount, or can we make a case for additional funding? Can this idea be implemented globally, or just within a particular geography? Can our team implement the idea autonomously, or are we dependent on other stakeholders to buy into it? It can be a tricky balance to callout realistic constraints while encouraging innovative thinking, but if you don’t, you may be left with lovely-sounding pie-in-the-sky ideas that have zero chance of being implemented.
  • Allocate sufficient time on team calls for discussing the resulting priorities, summarizing the gist of the online conversations, and inviting thoughts or questions. Make sure people have a chance to review this list ahead of time, so they come prepared for a productive, well-informed discussion. Such a discussion might take place with the entire team at once, or with a smaller, more manageable number of team members, depending on the size of your team and the number and scope of the ideas that made the initial cut. Note: The purpose of this discussion is not to revisit priorities, but rather it’s to make sure that everyone has a shared understanding of which ideas have been selected for further exploration, and why.
  • Assign small working teams to transform the top ideas into well-reasoned proposals. Be clear about what you’re asking these teams to do, the output needed, when it’s due, and how much time they can expect to spend. For example, I usually ask teams to create at least a handful of SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-based) goals for each initiative, along with a rough cut of time and resources  needed (e.g., funding, full-time headcount, part-time headcount, external consulting, program dollars and IT investments). Download a template to help guide team discussions and ensure that reviewers and decision-makers can evaluate proposed ideas using a consistent set of information. Above all, let these teams know that they are not necessarily responsible for implementing these ideas. They are simply gathering and synthesizing the information needed to help make well-informed go/no-go decisions.
  • Share the resulting proposals across the entire team, as well as to other stakeholders, if appropriate. Give people plenty of time (at least five working days, ideally) to review proposals, ask questions, build on ideas, or provide feedback before proposals are formally presented. Be clear as to what you’re asking reviewers to do, and how. I like to have people use an online tool like Google Docs or Slack, where everyone can see each other’s comments and add their own. This way, the proposal authors can engage in an asynchronous conversation, allowing them to integrate ideas and comments and respond to questions in advance.
  • Evaluate the proposals and make the tough decisions. Ideally, these small teams will have a chance to present their proposals to decision-makers in real-time. Make sure that all use a consistent format when presenting, and know exactly how much time they have, including Q and A. Hold off making any go/no-go decisions in the moment to give decision-makers needed time to discuss the implications, especially if significant additional resources are required, or if work must be restructured as a result. Let people know when you plan to announce your decisions, which should take place no more than a week later, and preferably less. Appoint a senior leader to act as sponsor, champion and coach of each working team. Establish a high-level timetable by which initial deliverables are due, such as the creation of a detailed project plan, appointment of core and extended team members, or a budget proposal. Download our tips for “Making Decisions That Stick” in this downloadable PDF 
  • Now, make it happen! Some ideas can be easily absorbed into the team’s current work processes, while others may require entirely new work streams or teams. Almost certainly, today’s work must be shifted, relationships changed (or new ones formed), new skills learned, and communication pathways altered or opened. Select the person who you feel is in the best position to lead the work of the implementation team for each chosen initiative, and encourage him/her to invite representatives from organizations most likely to be affected to join the team, which should number no more than 3-5 core members, along with subject matter experts as needed. Ask that senior leaders, acting as team sponsors, run interference if needed to make sure that team members have buy-in to spend the needed amount of time on this work.
  • Determine how, when and where the progress of each implementation team will be tracked and reported. For example, your team’s shared portal may be the primary means by which team members can report on progress, solicit new ideas, or ask for assistance. Team meetings can then be used to report quick highlights or to elicit ideas for removing obstacles. Consider how and how often you’ll be sharing your team’s “report card” with senior leaders, collaborators and other stakeholders outside of your team. Create an environment where team members feel safe in promptly acknowledging problems or a lack of progress so that everyone has a true indication of progress (or lack thereof) and can offer ideas or assistance if possible.
  • Recognize and celebrate all of the work it took to bring this idea to fruition. Acknowledge achievements all along the way as teams hit key milestones. Give shout-outs on team calls, in group messages, via video, private emails, and handwritten thank-you notes to those most responsible for moving the work along during this phase of implementation. Thank those who had to suddenly shift gears and those who helped clear away barriers. Acknowledge the hard work, dedicated time and tough changes that people had to go through to make this idea a reality. Invite senior leadership to express appreciation in meaningful ways.

It takes a lot more than a couple of brainstorming sessions to cultivate a truly innovative team. You and your team members have to be ready, willing and able to make the space, time and energy to move those ideas to action. For a distributed team, this work requires exceptional coordination, with frequent touchpoints, which may take many forms. To paraphrase Thoreau, “If you have built castles in the air, that is where they should be. Now go put the foundations under them.”

Links

Download our PDF files for real-life examples of a strategic planning activities timeline, a working group strategic planning proposal template and a template for assessing proposals

Brainstorming Across Borders – past Communique

Brainstorming Across Borders – practical tips guide from Guided Insights – downloadable PDF

Using Technology to Transcend Cultural Barriers – past Communique 

Rewarding, Recognizing and Celebrating Achievements from Afar – past Communique 

Collective Genius  published by Harvard Business Review Press, by Linda Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove and Kent Lineback

How to Prioritize Your Company’s Projects, Harvard Business Review, December 2016

Too Many Projects: How to Deal with Initiative Overload, Harvard Business Review article available for purchase, September/October 2018