Hail, hail the gang’s not all here.

How to make a virtual brainstorming session productive.

Diana Lillicrap 3.20.2018

A collaborative process can be challenging when the players on the team are all in different places (cities, countries, etc.). Here are a few tips to help you bridge the gap between disparate locations and team creativity.

Who’s on first?

We’ve all been there. Those annoying conference calls where it seems the only thing that gets accomplished is a sense of anti-team development. One person is clickity-clacking on their keyboard, another is breathing like Darth Vader, and everyone can’t wait to get off the line.

Why’s it so hard to concentrate and be productive? Because between emails, texts, and physical interruptions, office phone calls are anything but a focused task. Now factor in a half-dozen others on the same line and you lose any sense of accountability for your part in the productivity of the call.

What’s more, you’ve probably heard the stat that 93% of communication is nonverbal. If you can’t see, respond, or share the facial expressions, gestures, or general feeling of the room with others, it’s hard to know what’s really going on.

Sounds like a losing battle, right? Well it doesn’t have to be if you prepare for the challenges, embrace the situation, and follow a few key rules.

Using the right equipment

Having the right tools in place to support remote collaboration is an important first step. The good news is there are many great options. From Skype, to Google Hangouts, to Join.me, to a plethora of other options, visual and verbal desktop sharing and has never been easier. The trick is to make sure you set up, test, and train your team to use these tools effectively in advance of your brainstorming session. Otherwise you run the risk of getting off on the wrong foot (and late) with a frustrated team rather than engaged participants. Pick a system that will allow your team to see, hear, track, and participate in all the ways you need, and then train and give it a trial run well in advance.

Preparing before the game

The second step in success starts before the session as well. Preparation by the facilitator and the participants is critical for remote collaboration. Determine your agenda, including how much time to spend on each item and who should take the lead in each part of the discussion. Then map it out in a document that allows you to easily take notes as you go (think of it as a virtual whiteboard). Some online screen-sharing software has this built in, but if not, create your own in advance so the conversation flows smoothly and you have an easy way to capture and confirm what’s being said.

Next, prepare your team with some simple prep work. This could be a series of questions to answer in advance, an individual activity to get the creative juices flowing, or an observation assignment to do and report back to the group. Homework and personal assignments aid in creating focus for your session, increase participants’ sense of accountability, and give a means to encourage each person to play a role in the discussion.

Game day best practices

Sustaining energy and the attention of your team will be a challenge so plan to keep your sessions short and your participants to a manageable number. An hour is ideal with a fast-paced agenda. If you have more to cover, it’s a good idea to schedule more than one session. Plus, the breaks can allow ideas to simmer and you might find that better ideas emerge in the second or even third session—especially if you assign homework between meetings.

In planning your session, be sure to choose your brainstorming tools and techniques wisely. Do things that are easy to accomplish on-screen, select activities that work well with verbal responses, and encourage taking turns and building upon each other’s ideas. Here are a few exercises to consider:

Be a good coach

If you are facilitating the session, make sure you realize and embrace the realities of working over screens and phone lines. Be kind but direct. If someone or something is causing a distraction, point it out and ask participants to mute if they are in a noisy area. Establish some ground rules about taking turns, refraining from multi-tasking, and the role expected from each person on the call. Emphasize that the session will be quick-paced and everyone’s input and attention is vital. Acknowledge people by name when they contribute (this makes them feel validated), take thorough notes (assigning this to someone else is good idea so the conversation keeps flowing), and keep to your promise of starting and ending on time. And don’t forget to have some fun. Creativity blossoms when people feel at ease and the conversation is light.

With the right framework, activities, and attitude, brainstorming with your team—no matter how near or far—can be very productive.

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