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Why Your Virtual Workshops Are Falling Flat: Ways to Improve the Effectiveness of Remote Brainstorming Sessions and Increase Team Engagement

Most of us have experienced a lackluster brainstorming session. It goes something like this: A 30-minute invite drops into your calendar for 4 pm with the subject line “Workshop: New ideas to promote X product”. Attached to the invite is a brief agenda with a slide deck including an overview of key target audience groups and performance data since the product was launched in the market 6 months ago. You attend the meeting at 4 pm, fueled by coffee and eager to wrap things up early so you can send final emails for the day, a shared sentiment across all team members. The facilitator kicks off with a quick introduction of the opportunity we’re here to explore and asks if everyone has read the attached slide deck. Some unconvincing nods reveal that no one has read the information, but that's enough confirmation for the facilitator to continue. The floor is then open for the attendees to share their ideas. The most extroverted member of the team chimes in with an idea to try a new platform to promote the product. They have a vested interest in driving this initiative and argue that it’s a quick win. There are already processes in place and buy-in from leadership to support the execution of the idea. Content with the approach and quite frankly disengaged, the team agrees to explore the idea. The next 20 minutes are spent exploring the next steps and the ‘how’ behind executing the idea. The facilitator is content, the team has a plan forward and is accountable for driving the initiative. The meeting ends 5 minutes earlier than scheduled, and the team is happy to have some extra time back in their day.


So what went wrong?


Insufficient Preparation and Context Setting


One of the primary reasons for uninspiring virtual brainstorming sessions is inadequate context setting and preparation. Without a clear understanding of the problem and relevant information, participants are ill-equipped to contribute meaningfully. There are two approaches you can explore to ensure that all attendees have the relevant information needed to contribute meaningfully. The first approach is to circulate a maximum one-page overview of the relevant information ahead of the session with sufficient time for the attendees to read it. This is best suited when attendees are familiar with the product, challenge/opportunity, or there is a high level of accountability in the team, i.e., they have skin in the game. This works because the one-pager doesn’t feel like a monumental undertaking; it can be read in less than 10 minutes and facilitates pre-thinking, which is useful for team members who need time for deep thinking. The second approach is to spend a third of the actual brainstorming session going through the relevant information with the team and providing context for the objective of the session. The second approach ensures that all team members are across the crucial information and have the opportunity to ask questions. This works well when the meeting has been scheduled at short notice, the team is new to the brainstorming topic, or the team you have engaged is time poor or has reduced capacity.


If You Want Out of the Box, Get Out of the Box


When virtual workshops first entered stage right, they were somewhat of a novelty, and the change in setting and use of online tools to facilitate sessions created a new enthusiasm among creative teams and problem solvers. Now, we are entering an era of digital fatigue, and the once-novel virtual workshop needs a rethink to ignite successful ideation.

Here are some strategies to reignite creative thinking in your team:


  • Start with a warm-up exercise. A popular warm-up exercise is the alternate use exercise. In this exercise, pick a random object like a tennis ball or a toothbrush and get the team to spend a few minutes coming up with alternate uses for the object. This gets the team to start thinking out of the box.

  • Use your hands. While a little awkward at first, get the team to play with an object on their desk, or if the brainstorming topic calls for it, get the team to build a prototype with their hands using paper or Lego blocks. The idea is based on the evidence that working with your hands helps activate parts of your brain that cannot be accessed by thinking and speaking and gives you a method for externalising your thoughts.

  • Dedicate 5 minutes to get the team to write down 10 ideas or solutions in quick succession. This prompts “ideaflow” a metric coined by Jeremy Utley and Perry Klebahn used to measure the number of ideas your team can produce in a set timeframe. The ideas don’t have to be good; it’s a method designed to improve the volume of ideas, which in turn creates more options and over time, the team builds their capacity to come up with new innovative ideas. It also unblocks the mental pipes, and bad ideas are flushed out to make way for better ideas.


Diverge and Converge

Effective brainstorming involves both divergent and convergent thinking. Allow attendees time to generate ideas individually before coming together to discuss and refine them as a group. This approach encourages a broader range of ideas and prevents premature convergence on a single solution. If you spend a third of the brainstorming session setting the context and going through relevant information, spend a third getting attendees to come up with ideas individually, and then a third of the session coming back together to discuss them and select the ones to test.


Taming the HIPPO and Anchoring Bias


The HIPPO, or the Highest Paid Person's Opinion, and anchoring bias can stifle creativity and innovation within a team. Facilitators must create an environment where all ideas are given equal consideration, regardless of the seniority or status of the individual presenting them. Oftentimes if the most senior person in the room is the first to present solutions less senior team members can feel uncomfortable challenging the idea and providing counterviews even if they have the subject matter expertise. Similarly watch out for anchoring bias where the first idea presented is looked upon as the best solution even if it’s not the most relevant or there are stronger solutions that are yet to be explored. Creating psychological safety in teams is key to minimising the impact of the HIPPO and anchoring bias.

Here are some tips to building psychological safety in your virtual workshop:


  • Lead by example by modelling vulnerability and openness. Facilitators should aim to encourage feedback from others and admit openly when they don’t the answer. A statement of ‘there are no bad ideas’ will help set the tone for the session and demonstrate that it’s safe to express thoughts and opinions without fear of judgment.

  • Set some ground rules at the beginning of the session. As part of housekeeping set up guidelines that promote respectful communication and active listening. While not always necessary sometimes it can be beneficial to ask participants to refrain from interrupting others and avoid dismissing ideas outright.

  • Encourage equal participation by giving space to the quieter members of the group to voice their ideas. Invite input by calling on these team members or creating opportunities for everyone to share their ideas. This ensures all ideas are considered and that the end result is not just informed by the more extraverted members of the group.

  • Invite challenge by spending time looking at the potential pitfalls or risks of an idea. Workplace culture is a big influence on a team’s comfort levels and offering constructive and honest feedback is a crucial element in enabling growth and improvement.

  • Address dominant voices if necessary and intervene to ensure all team members have an opportunity to contribute. This can be done gently by thanking the dominant individual for their contribution and calling on others to weigh in.


Schedule Brainstorm Sessions in the Creativity Sweet Spot


Set your team up for success by strategically timing sessions when participants are most likely to be alert, energised, and receptive to creative thinking. Avoid scheduling sessions during periods of low energy or cognitive fatigue, such as first thing in the morning, immediately after lunch or late in the afternoon. Instead, aim for times when team members are likely to be at their peak mental performance, such as mid-morning or early afternoon. Additionally, consider the workload and commitments of participants to ensure they have the time and mental bandwidth to fully engage in the brainstorming process. While not always possible, it can help to understand your team members' chronotype and most productive times of day and schedule the session around that time. If you have a group of early-birds who love tackling their hardest work first thing in the morning, schedule your session during that time to maximise effectiveness.


Here are some other watchpoints that can reduce the effectiveness of your workshops and some strategies you can use to address them.


What to Do When the Brainstorm Gets Off Track: Create a Parking Lot


When discussions veer off course or new ideas arise that are not directly relevant to the current topic, create a parking lot to capture the idea for future consideration and acknowledge the validity of the idea. This designated space allows facilitators to capture ideas without derailing the current discussion and maintaining focus on the primary objective.


Death by Democratic Idea Selection: The Pitfalls of Voting for the Best Idea


While democratic idea selection may seem fair, it often leads to the dismissal of unconventional or innovative ideas in favor of those that are familiar or safe. Instead of voting for the best idea, encourage participants to make a case for their ideas, explore it from different angles and build upon each other's contributions collaboratively. This approach promotes creativity and allows for the emergence of truly innovative solutions. Prioritisation frameworks such as RICE or Impact Vs Effort can also be useful tools to ensure the best ideas come out on top. Having a set framework for vetting ideas also creates a sense of fairness and there is a rational reason as to why an idea might not have made the cut that can be understood by all.


The Importance of the Guest List: Aim for Diversity and ‘Save a Seat’


Lastly, carefully consider who you are inviting along to your brainstorming session. Aim for diversity in terms of job roles, subject matter expertise, seniority, and thinking styles. Including individuals with varied experiences and viewpoints enriches the discussion and increases the likelihood of generating novel ideas. Additionally, always leave room to "save a seat" for unexpected contributors who may offer valuable insights. As the facilitator ask yourself who else you could invite to the session that will add a diverse perspective to the topic.


By and large, the success of virtual brainstorming sessions hinges on effective facilitation, a structure that promotes novel thinking, adequate understanding of the purpose of the session and what is trying to be achieved and the creation of a supportive space that encourages participation and diversity of thought. By being conscious of the potential pitfalls of remote team ideation and implementing the above strategies, you can transform your lackluster brainstorming sessions into energising forums that generate groundbreaking ideas and drive meaningful change. After all, it’s all about having fun and winning together.

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