Guide to Effective Brainstorming (with a remote team)

“Let’s get together and brainstorm that.”
“We need to schedule a brainstorming session.”
“I want you to brainstorm some solutions.”

It is a noun. It is a verb. It is a gerund (my mother would be proud I remembered). For a project manager, brainstorming is more than a part of speech, it is a process intended to release team member’s creativity. Alex Osborn is credited with creating the concept of brainstorming as described in his writings from the early 1940’s. Osborn, an advertising executive, suggested the process as a way to generate new marketing ideas. In his approach, spontaneous ideas from a group of people were solicited actively using these rules:

  • No criticism of ideas
  • Go for large quantities of ideas
  • Build on each other’s ideas
  • Encourage wild and exaggerated ideas

Project managers can use brainstorming to generate a list of project risks, new business concepts and to find potential solutions for vexing problems. And, let’s face it – we constantly face problems in our business world. Sometimes brainstorming works great and other times it fails. I recently read an interesting list of tips to improve brainstorming by Kevin Coyne and Shawn Coyne, adapted from their book, “Brainsteering.”

They advise putting some parameters on the idea generation process to reflect the possible by taking into consideration the financial constraints and timetables of your organization. They also suggest that several short brainstorming meetings may be more productive than one long marathon meeting — hard to argue with anyone who recommends shorter meetings. After a short list of favorite ideas is generated, they recommend fleshing out some details, but not making a decision. Rather, the Coyle’s have found that presenting the final list to the “real” decision makers and then giving meeting attendees feedback quickly on the decision and next step is the best practice.

Brainstorming with a Remote Team
More project managers than ever are working with remote or virtual teams. I have talked about the challenges and suggested techniques I have found useful for managing remotely in previous posts — Virtual Team Collaboration with Web Conferencing, Collaboration Tools for Virtual Project Teams and Project Management Collaboration and Communication Tools.) But, what about brainstorming when your team is virtual?  Most of us are not used to this idea and it may seem impossible.

Do not despair. In his book “Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation ” Frans Johansson has some interesting figures on studies on brainstorming with a virtual team. Using two teams of 20 people each to brainstorm ideas, he found that the virtual group came up with twice as many ideas working alone as the group of 20 people meeting face-to-face.

Tools and technology can facilitate brainstorming with a remote team. Facilitate.com provides a list of tools and techniques for improving the effectiveness of virtual meetings and creative thinking. And, there is more. According to the Anywhere Office, “The list of tools to choose from gets more impressive with each passing month. Skype video conferencing, discussion boards, whiteboard applications, web meetings services like GoToMeeting or Live Meeting, and web-based collaboration tools like Central Desktop or SharePoint Wiki, all can lead to very rich virtual brainstorming and collaboration with your virtual team or colleagues. The key is finding the right tool for the type of collaboration you need to do and then taking some time to learn how to use it.”

Have you used brainstorming successfully with team, either face-to-face or remotely. Did you have problems or failures? Share your experience via your comments.

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