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.
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