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Your best ideas may come from virtual brainstorming sessions

Posted by Grace Townsley

October 28, 2021    |     4-minute read (660 words)

As pandemic restrictions are winding down, many companies are ending their remote work policies. One big driver of the shift is employers’ desire to gather their thinkers under one roof again. Many leaders fear that continued virtual meetings will erode what’s left of their collaborative and innovative environment. But considering a large number of workers strongly prefer their hybrid or remote work schedules, how can companies encourage innovative collaboration without forcing their workers to return to their desks?

Reevaluate how you view the relationship between remote work and innovation. 

First, let’s consider the act of brainstorming

When you think about collaborative innovation, what comes to mind? 

If you’re like most business leaders, probably a big room with a conference table. A group of 8-12 team members sitting around the table, laptops open, and stacks of post-it notes strewn about. And the group leader at the front of the room, scribbling away on a giant whiteboard as dozens of ideas are shouted out. At the end of the brainstorming session, the leader triumphantly circles one idea and exclaims, “This is it!”

What if the traditional brainstorming session wasn’t the only way to come up with innovative ideas? In fact, what if you learned that this whiteboard meeting actually hindered innovation, more than it fostered it? 

There’s a better way to brainstorm

Conventional brainstorming, the kind where a group of people toss out ideas and attempt to solve problems live, just doesn’t work well. Even worse, it tends to cause productivity loss. That means the group comes up with fewer and worse ideas together than they would have if they brainstormed individually and compared answers afterwards. 

When people are discussing ideas together, their thought patterns quickly converge, and they end up thinking about the problem in the same way. But when left to think alone first, each member brings a unique idea to the table, giving the group a broader list of ideas to choose from. 

Remote work can actually provide a unique opportunity to brainstorm better. 

Think separately, decide together

One way to brainstorm better as a remote group, and remove the barriers to innovation, is to try the following exercise.

  1. Have each team member individually come up with their own ideas, adding them to a shared, but anonymous, document. One way to do this is by using an anonymous Google survey.

  2. Once every member has submitted their ideas, the leader will send the full list of anonymous ideas to the whole team.

  3. Team members anonymously comment and ask questions on one another’s ideas.

  4. Every member submits a second round of revised ideas, again through the anonymous survey. 

  5. Finally, gather virtually or in-person to discuss the revised ideas. In this meeting, the team can choose which ideas to move forward on, and what steps to take first. 
This exercise protects individual team members from facing idea anxiety, the concern that others will judge or dismiss their idea. For introverted team members, or those new to the group, having this brainstorming barrier removed is particularly important. 

Besides this exercise, there are a variety of other ways to come up with innovative ideas virtually. Collaborating on a shared document, pitching a slide deck of ideas in a virtual meeting, or even communicating back and forth in a Slack channel can help propel your business forward without requiring your employees to return to the office full-time. 

Consider virtual brainstorming a benefit, not a drawback

The bottom line is that traditional brainstorming isn’t actually the only way – or even the best way – to come up with innovative solutions. When your team members have the opportunity to individually problem solve in addition to collaborating in the group, they will come up with better ideas than ever before. Remote work doesn’t have to mean the end of innovation. When business leaders intentionally leverage the power of productive virtual brainstorming, they can produce the best ideas they’ve had. 

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