Over 15 months into the pandemic, I’d wager that every professional has been subjected to at least one dry, subpar virtual brainstorming session. While letting the ideas and creativity flow seems as if it should be effortless, in reality, a lot of work happens behind the scenes to run a great brainstorming session—virtual or otherwise.
I’ve led hundreds of brainstorms over the years, so I’ve invested a lot of thought in developing a process that generates solid creative output. However, even with this decades-long focus on what makes the perfect brainstorm, I’ve had to rethink some methods to adjust for virtual sessions.
When it comes to virtual brainstorming, these are the dos and don’ts to get the most out of the Zoom room.
This is as true in virtual sessions as it is in live ones, and while preparation may seem to run counter to the free-wheeling brainstorming process, the exact opposite is true.
Creative thought requires guardrails. Actors have a script, dancers have preselected music, even improvisers adhere to a specific style and formula for creating a scene from thin air.
A completely blank slate is intimidating. Being asked to share any thought that pops into your head leaves participants feeling self-conscious and frozen.
Instead, the moderator should prep before the session by defining goals and creating prompts to share with the group. Each prompt should be specific and have a set time limit in which the group can discuss.
It’s easier to generate truly off-the-wall ideas within boundaries than it is in a limitless void. Establishing some ground rules for your session will help your team tap into those free-and-loose thoughts within the safe parameters you create.
Don’t: Lean on the virtual whiteboard
My team and I have found that so many of those “handy dandy” virtual tools designed to aid in brainstorming sessions actually hinder collaboration.
How many of us have felt the sheer panic that comes with a pin-drop silent Zoom meeting, with all participants staring hopelessly at the blank, pristine virtual whiteboard?
When you’re brainstorming remotely, you already have a layer of distance between yourself and your team. Incorporating virtual tools does nothing more than add another layer between your brainstorming participants. That’s the last thing you need when trying to inspire quick, collaborative creative thought.
Do: Drop the bad idea BS
We’ve all attended a brainstorming session that began with the moderator gently explaining, “There are no bad ideas.” Every time I hear someone say that, I cringe.
Let’s keep it real: There absolutely is such a thing as a bad idea. The key, though, is in knowing that bad ideas are okay. It’s up to the moderator to create a space where no one feels shame for voicing a lousy idea.
This is true in all creative pursuits, brainstorming or otherwise. It’s time to reframe the concept of “bad.” In brainstorming, there is no test to pass or GPA to aim for. We’re all working toward the same goal. A bad idea might come out in the session, but it’s not something to create stress or punishment around.
Instead, great brainstorm session moderators know how to look beyond the “good” or “bad” of an idea and see the kernel of possibility in even the worst concept.
Don’t: Pressurize the group
Releasing the pressure to generate only good ideas is an essential first step to creating a psychologically safe atmosphere.
Brainstorming is about getting every idea into the room without judgment. You can set the stage for this before you all walk into the session by creating prompts that place focus elsewhere, beyond the participants.
A prompt that’s about what the group wants others to think, feel, smell, see, or hear gets brainstormers out of their heads and into a sensory-focused creative space.
Once you’re in the session, the key is to keep things moving. Even if an idea that seems great comes up, don’t dwell on it. You’re wasting space that could be filled by an even better idea in the next few moments! When people are sharing ideas, ask them to limit crosstalk and preambles.
Your brainstorming session is not about solving your entire problem, it’s about taking the first step to finding a solution. The best way to do that is to get as many potentially viable ideas out in as little time as possible.
Do: Incentivize idea sharing
In our sessions, we like to end each prompt by awarding a prize to one of the participants. How we decide to award the prize depends on what we’re trying to get out of the group.
In some cases, we’ll give it to the person that had a stellar idea. In other instances, it’s the quiet member of the group who piped up in this segment that gets the reward.
While we don’t want to create an environment where people will feel shame for sharing a bad idea, incentivizing idea-sharing more generally is a way to win friends and influence people to speak up more.
Do: Keep an open mind
This last tip is as true for moderators as it is for participants. Brainstorming is all about keeping an open mind. Withhold judgment of ideas as they happen. Instead, listen to what the participants are saying. Be open to hearing something surprising and changing your mind.
As a brainstorming participant, there’s nothing more deadly than coming in with your mind made up about the three ideas you’re going to contribute. Oftentimes, the best, most creative ideas come up organically in the session. That’s the whole point of brainstorming, after all!
If you’re facilitating, ask someone to tag along to the session and take notes (not publicly on the whiteboard, but privately on their computer). This allows you to be fully present in the session. Afterward, you can review the notes and see if there are any standout ideas worth pursuing further.
As the hybridization of how we work continues, we must learn how to retool our offline skills to suit online interactions. It’s possible to run an online brainstorming session that’s just as great as a crackling in-person one. It just requires a little reimagining of tactics that have worked in live sessions for years to get creative juices flowing virtually.
Lynn Altman is the President and Founder of Brand Now, an innovation and design agency that enables F100 and F500 companies to leverage their resources while acting with the energy and agility of a start-up.