Energize your enterprise with virtual brainstorming

The typical image of a brainstorming session is a busy room filled with loud-mouthed colleagues pitching ideas at each other, scrawling words and figures on a whiteboard, or shuffling around post-it notes on the wall. Consequently, for many organizations in which employees are unable to meet face-to-face, brainstorming just isn’t considered to be an option. There is, however, no evidence to suggest that virtual brainstorming isn’t as productive as physical sessions. In fact, several studies claim the very opposite to be true.

A company's viability is highly dependent on its ability to generate a steady flow of new ideas and cutting-edge know-how enabling it to continuously improve its processes and ward off competition and other threats. The establishment of structural processes ensuring that the well of new ideas never dries up is therefore virtually a matter of life and death.

While the ideation process to a large extent occurs quite spontaneously in various work situations, many organizations use brainstorming as a way of systematically stimulating knowledge-sharing, creative thinking, and ideation. In this blog post, we explore the benefits of virtual brainstorming and the various methods used.

Advantages of brainstorming online

According to a comprehensive study in 2007, virtual brainstorming is more productive and creative compared to physical sessions. 70% of respondents said that virtual sessions made them more creative, stimulated and engaged.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic has written about online-based brainstorming in the Harvard Business Review and points to three factors indicating that virtual brainstorming is a better choice:

  • Elimination of productivity blocking. Virtual brainstorming doesn’t suffer from the physical session’s harmful productivity- and efficiency-blocking effects, caused by dominant participants talking too much, kidnapping the session and eclipsing their colleagues. The productivity of a physical session is also very much contingent on how many are taking part. There’s a declining relationship between the number of participants and the number of ideas generated in a face-to-face meeting. Virtual brainstorming is, however, infinitely scalable and has no boundaries in terms of space or time.
  • Total anonymity. When you’re brainstorming online, you can post your ideas, comments and contributions quite anonymously, thereby making the discussions and evaluations totally objective. This benefits the ideation process and ensures that the best ideas, and not the most dominant colleagues, win. Being anonymous also helps introverts step forward.
  • Increased diversity. Managed correctly, virtual brainstorming will boost creativity through a more diversified ideation process. Studies show that the outcome of a session is better if the participants write down their ideas individually before the meeting starts. Virtual brainstorming allows this to take place even during a session (which doesn’t have to be a real-time event). It also automatically generates an archive of all active and inactive ideas as well as their trails of discussions and evaluations.


Methods that unleash creativity

There are a variety of methods that will spark creativity in a group. They generally focus on encouraging people to see things in a new light by triggering associations and challenging their previously held perceptions and ideas. While a few of these methods will work best in face-to-face meetings, the majority can be used in virtual sessions.

Some of the most effective methods have proved to be:

  • Mind mapping. This is one of the best methods for visually organising and categorising your ideation process in response to a problem or challenge. Participants contribute with their ideas and input via a visual tree-like concept, in which every branch and its offshoots symbolise sub-categories. There are online-based mind mapping tools in abundance, such as Miro, Conceptboard, MindMeister, Stormboard, Coggle, xmind and LucidChart. You can, for instance, run Stormboard and MindMeister as integrated apps in Teams.
  • Brainwriting. This technique involves a circular group routine in which participants write down one or several ideas given a specific problem or challenge. They then rotate their ideas within the group so that everyone adds something new to every idea. It’s an efficient method of generating many ideas quickly and of getting everyone involved on equal terms. You can use spreadsheet software like Excel or an online-based whiteboard with post-it notes like Microsoft Whiteboard or Miro for this event.
  • Lotus and Venn diagrams. Both Lotus and Venn diagrams are often used in ideation processes in order to facilitate a better understanding of a problem. Lotus diagrams are based on a core problem or challenge, with participants adding new categories, solutions or perspectives, like the petals of a lotus flower. A Venn diagram is used to visualize the logical relationship between different sets of information. A virtual whiteboard with preconfigured templates, like Conceptboard’s Venn diagram and Miro’s Lotus diagram, is probably the easiest way to use these methods.
  • 5 Whys. The 5 Whys, or Five Whys, method aims to get to the root cause of a problem or challenge. The group is initially faced with a problem, goal, or vision. They must then find an answer as to why it is a problem or why they want to reach the goal/vision. Their answer is then met with another Why? This goes on for another four rounds until the root cause is identified, with every answer forming the basis of the next question. After five iterations the group is faced with the final question: What is stopping you? You can use a digital whiteboard to carry out this exercise.
  • Other methods for effective virtual brainstorming, using shared virtual whiteboards, are random words, KJ Method, mood board and negative brainstorming

Bringing ideas to life

When you have a list of the best ideas generated by your brainstorming session, it’s absolutely vital that you have a solid process and structure in place ensuring that these ideas will be effectively managed. To begin with, you’ll need a transparent and fair voting solution. There are plenty of online polling and survey systems, like Polly and SurveyMonkey, both of which you can integrate into Teams. Just make sure the system offers anonymous voting so as to eliminate the potential effects of group dynamics on the results.

The winning ideas then need to be placed on a collaboration platform for the further development of the relevant product, solution, service or improvement. With a project and collaboration solution such as Trello and Planner, for example, every idea can be efficiently tested, vetted, and developed. There are also so-called Idea Management solutions, like edison365ideas, specially designed to ferry new initiatives all the way from ideas to viable solutions.

Plan for success

This is how to create a successful virtual brainstorming session:

  • Invite people with backgrounds, competencies, and ages that are as wide-ranging as possible. Include the meeting’s agenda, mission, and background information in the invitation.
  • Make sure you give the participants sufficient time to prepare for the session.
  • Select a moderator who has the trust of the participants and the ability to kindle their enthusiasm.
  • Create a virtual brainstorming room with powerful tools for the methods you’ll be using.
  • Have a transparent polling and survey system in place.
  • Conclude every session by formulating a tactical action plan in consensus with the group.