Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 15;   April 13, 2016:

Virtual Brainstorming: I

by

When we need to brainstorm, meeting virtually carries a risk that our results might be problematic. Here's Part I of some steps to take to reduce the risk.
A globe puzzle

When we work in virtual teams, and we encounter a need for a brainstorming session, we try it. That can lead to trouble — virtual brainstorming isn't just another virtual meeting. Because much of what makes brainstorming effective is unavailable in virtual environments, following the face-to-face brainstorming pattern tends to expose teams to a significant risk of producing substandard results.

Some virtual teams try virtual brainstorming because they don't realize that brainstorming depends critically for its success on face-to-face interactions. But more teams, I suspect, conduct virtual brainstorms because they lack financial resources sufficient to bring all members of a virtual team to one location. Even if they do request those resources, some decision-makers don't realize how significant the risks of virtual brainstorming actually are.

The financial case for face-to-face brainstorming sessions is straightforward, if one includes in the cost estimate of a virtual brainstorm session the possibility of investing several months of work in what turns out to be a bad idea that resulted from that session. Although the financial case might be straightforward, it might not be persuasive. The travel costs associated with a face-to-face meeting for a virtual team's brainstorming session are very clear to decision makers, but the risks of substandard results from a virtual brainstorm are less clear to them. Because decision-makers tend to want to believe that the low-cost option, virtual brainstorming, is adequate, they're subject to a cognitive bias known as optimism bias, which makes it difficult for them to accept the merits of the financial case for face-to-face brainstorming. Making a persuasive financial case is therefore a long-term proposition.

The immediate need, then, is to devise methods for conducting virtual brainstorming sessions that limit the risk of inferior results. Here is Part I of a set of suggestions for accomplishing that.

Enforce suspension of judgment
Participants must be free to contribute whatever might occur to them. If they feel that their contributions might be judged, they have a tendency to self-censor, which limits the flow of ideas. In a face-to-face session, we can readily enforce suspension of judgment. Enforcing this fundamental element of the brainstorm design is difficult in the virtual environment, because it's more difficult to tell when someone is disengaged.
Training before the session is Although the financial case against
virtual brainstorming might be
straightforward, it might
not be persuasive.
therefore much more important for virtual brainstorms than for face-to-face brainstorms. If someone does express an opinion about another's contribution, have a concise, humorous, non-verbal signal for announcing a violation of the norm of suspension of judgment. A klaxon, siren, or train whistle would do nicely. To promote engagement, instead of accepting contributions in random order, poll the attendees in a fixed order, round-robin style.
Have a very clear problem statement
In face-to-face sessions, we can readily clarify any ambiguities in problem statements. In virtual brainstorms, confusion is more likely to go undetected, and when detected, it can be trickier to resolve. When multiple languages or cultures are involved, these problems are even more troublesome.
Be ruthlessly clear when writing problem statements. Include examples, and write statements in multiple different forms. If language is an issue, have professionals translate the problem statement into all relevant languages.

We'll continue next time, focusing on issues relating to how the team connects for the session.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Virtual Brainstorming: II  Next Issue

Leading Virtual Meetings for Real ResultsAre your virtual meetings plagued by inattentiveness, interruptions, absenteeism, and a seemingly endless need to repeat what somebody just said? Do you have trouble finding a time when everyone can meet? Do people seem disengaged and apathetic? Or do you have violent clashes and a plague of virtual bullying? Read Leading Virtual Meetings for Real Results to learn how to make virtual meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot shorter. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenGBFYqdeDxZESDSsjner@ChacmtFQZGrwOdySPdSsoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:

Something from Abraham, from Mark and from HennyAbraham, Mark, and Henny
Our plans, products, and processes are often awkward, bulky, and complex. They lack a certain spiritual quality that some might call elegance. Yet we all recognize elegance when we see it. Why do we make things so complicated?
A team raises a wall of a new home sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban DevelopmentWorkplace Barn Raisings
Until about 75 years ago, barn raising was a common custom in the rural United States. People came together from all parts of the community to help construct one family's barn. Although the custom has largely disappeared in rural communities, we can still benefit from the barn raising approach in problem-solving organizations.
A light bulb, the universal symbol of creativityAsking Brilliant Questions
Your team is fortunate if you have even one teammate who regularly asks the questions that immediately halt discussions and save months of wasted effort. But even if you don't have someone like that, everyone can learn how to generate brilliant questions more often. Here's how.
A dead Manchurian AshWorkplace Politics and Type III Errors
Most job descriptions contain few references to political effectiveness, beyond the fairly standard collaborate-to-achieve-results kinds of requirements. But because true achievement often requires political sophistication, understanding the political content of our jobs is important.
A serene mountain lakeNine Brainstorming Demotivators: I
The quality of the output of brainstorming sessions is notoriously variable. One source of variation is the enthusiasm of contributors. Here's Part I of a set of nine phenomena that can limit contributions to brainstorm sessions.

See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A possibly difficult choiceComing April 21: Choice-Supportive Bias
Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to evaluate our past choices as more fitting than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations interested in improving decision processes. Available here and by RSS on April 21.
Two people engaged in pair collaborationAnd on April 28: The Self-Explanation Effect
In the learning context, self-explanation is the act of explaining to oneself what one is learning. Self-explanation has been shown to increase the rate of acquiring mastery. The mystery is why we don't structure knowledge work to exploit this phenomenon. Available here and by RSS on April 28.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenGBFYqdeDxZESDSsjner@ChacmtFQZGrwOdySPdSsoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.