One of the most common complaints about working on a virtual or hybrid team is, “People can’t brainstorm and collaborate the way they do in the office.” For many teams, this is a critical issue because the whole point of being in teams is to create a sum that’s greater than all of the talented parts. 

Can you brainstorm, share ideas, and innovate even if you aren’t locked in the same conference room? Hundreds of organizations will tell you it’s possible, but it will take a concerted effort and perhaps adopting some best practices from those who are already successful.

Also, remember that not everyone does their best thinking or makes their most convincing argument in a live meeting setting. Whether it’s nervousness, a lack of confidence, or fear of conflict, some people may not contribute to the discussion despite their great ideas and unique outlook. Distance actually forces us to gather ideas in new ways.

Does everyone understand what we’re trying to do?

If you want people to get creative to solve a problem, they need to know what the problem is we’re addressing. Often this seems obvious to one party but not to another. This can be done asynchronously through email and Slack conversations, but may best be solved by having a quick meeting so people can ask questions, check assumptions, and understand the constraints before jumping into brainstorming solutions.

What order of solution are we looking for? 

This sounds very complicated and formal, but basically a first degree change builds off the way you do things now: “We need to do what we do faster, smarter, or cheaper.”  A second order of change is much more dramatic. Essentially, it’s, ”What we’re doing isn’t working and we need to think of something completely new.” 

Start with asynchronous solutions so you can make the best use of your meeting time.

Brainstorming experts will tell you that the good solutions don’t come at the beginning of the meeting. In fact, it may take thirty or more ideas before you start to get to the really creative solutions. By using tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams channels, people can give thought to solutions, contribute to the discussion when they have time, or time zones are more convenient, and develop a preliminary list of ideas. If people look at those contributions before meeting, it will shorten the time spent on non-productive suggestions or ideas that can be tossed out of hand. Using chat discussions also is helpful for creating thoughtful feedback, along with links to supporting ideas or similar solutions which can boost the quality of your discussion.  

Make your meeting time count.

Synchronous discussion is often where the best ideas come from, because people can build off of suggestions from others in real time, ask clarifying questions, and overcome creative conflict to craft a truly brilliant outcome. In order for these meetings to be productive, several things must happen (whether this is all in-person, all-virtual, or a hybrid meeting depends on your circumstances). If people show up prepared to discuss a specific problem, understand the background and what’s already been tried, and have given the matter some thought (all of which can happen asynchronously before the meeting) the time can be spent in actual discussion and brainstorming. All participants should have equal opportunity to share and comment, and visual cues such as whiteboards (real or virtual) will allow people to return to and build off of previous ideas. Seeing each others’ faces on video will help as well.

Not everything needs to be done in one meeting. 

When you are trying to get everyone together physically, and space is limited, there’s a tendency to want to solve everything in one meeting.  Often though, great ideas need time to germinate, and some very good thinking goes on after the official meeting is over. By utilizing asynchronous solutions, discussions can continue even after the official meeting. Information can be fact checked, and you have a chance to add the “Hey, I’ve been thinking…” ideas that often turn good solutions into great ones. Several short meetings (one to kick off, one to generate ideas, one to make a final decision) with lots of discussion and “think-time” may result in better input and thus better outcomes.

Evaluate brainstorm ideas fairly, no matter where they come from.

One of the most toxic behaviors in brainstorming is not giving ideas the fair hearing they deserve. Chat discussions often allow people to be more thoughtful about suggestions, and take the emotions associated with live meetings out of the mix. One way to ensure ideas get heard is for whoever leads the discussion to be clear on ground rules, and to enforce them when conflict arises or strong personalities begin to dominate. The second idea is to incorporate tools like the PIN technique, where feedback to an idea should start with what’s positive about the  idea, then move to what interesting, unclear or unknown, and then finally what’s negative about that idea. (We’ve written about this in more length here)

The most important factor in how successfully a team brainstorms isn’t whether or not they are in a room sharing the same cold pizza, but if the culture allows for honest feedback, encourages contributions from everyone, and captures ideas in a usable form. With a little work and some practice, virtual and hybrid teams should be just as successful as those who work together in person.

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Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammateoffers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.

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