Blank Post-it notes on grey wood desk

Brainstorming from home

Brainstorming from home

Posted on July 2020 By Nicholas Farley

Blank Post-it notes on grey wood desk

It’s 2020 and the majority of us aren’t working together in the same rooms anymore.

From research we’ve carried out, 95% of participants won’t be returning to the office for a full 5 days a week once this is over.

However, we still need to generate ideas collaboratively. Fortunately, even remotely, there are many approaches that can help you solve some complex business issues effectively.

Sourcing the team

When your team are collaborating to find a solution to a new problem, it’s important to remember that the solution comes from taking advantage of the group knowledge of those involved in the process.

Deciding who is involved in the brainstorm is critical. Before the pandemic, it may have been hard to get a broad group of people together in many organisations – for reasons such as locations, schedules and other commitments.

For the majority of us, our default is to have face-to-face meetings, so we didn’t engage much with those who couldn’t be present physically for parts of the idea-generation process. A lot of us have also experienced the hybrid meetings of some physical, some digital presence – which are generally horrible for the remote attendees.

The ease in which bringing in a broad group of participants to attend these virtual sessions is one advantage of the remote working. But, this selection process should be done carefully. Start with a list of roles and expertise you want, and then find the people who fit that description. Ask your colleagues for recommendations of people who fit the required expertise, to cover those you might not be aware of.

Organising your brainstorm this way will help establish a group that is more diverse, from a range of backgrounds and perspectives to solve the problem.

Take advantage of scheduling difficulties

In many multinational corporations, the people needed to attend these brainstorms are more than likely going to be across time zones. However – this can be a blessing. You don’t actually need the group to be together to come up with the best ideas.

Proven by the groupthink theory, during the idea-generation stage, people take a different approach to looking at a problem when working alone. As part of a group though, people think alike and converge on a common solution.

With this in mind, begin your brainstorming session by asking each person to think of potential solutions on their own, or part of a smaller team and capture their thoughts on a document. These documents can give you a great place to start, after everyone has had a chance to work on the problem.

Then, compile these thoughts and create a shared document on Google Drive or something similar that all can edit and expand upon. Looking at these suggestions and the direction they’re moving in will often shed some light on other areas of expertise to be added, which will benefit the group and their ideas.

The great thing about continuing to expand the group is that it gives the opportunity of allowing people with new perspectives to look at the problem. Then, you can bring the entire group together to discuss the most auspicious ideas and gain a consensus from the team on the ones to move forward with. 

Get specific

There is plenty of research that shows the more distant you are from something, the more abstractly you think about it – it’s called construal-level theory. In a remote working environment, this means whilst you’re physically distant from the site of the problems you’re trying to solve, you think about them more abstractly.

Initially, this can be a good thing - abstraction can help you to find good analogies to provide insight. The danger however, is failing to come up with specific solutions, as it’s hard to respond and build on generic ideas. Therefore, it’s important to think in specifics.

When the solution scenario is specific, it leads people to think about issues that might not have come up if the discussion remained abstract. The problems that may arise as a result of this suggest that these issues would not have surfaced if we weren’t envisioning the solution in detail.

This process of iterative design requires that everyone be willing to treat the elements of that design as tentative from the start. If key people start to defend early decisions, then group members disengage. But, when people see that the specific scenario changes from one version to the next, then they remain committed to improving it.

With mass amounts of uncertainty a problem for every organisation for the near to mid future, there is bound to be plenty of tough problems in the coming months and years. So, it’s imperative to get brainstorming right – online or in the room together. These lessons learnt from brainstorming virtually will serve us well when we’re face to face again.

If your recruitment plan is part of the complex problem your team is working towards solving, we’d be happy to discuss what we can do to help so feel free to reach out.

This article has been adapted from an article in the Harvard Business Review.