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. 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.

SharePoint 2010 – It’s not just about the technology


I have spoken in the past about Microsoft SharePoint® and its support for collaborative development and information sharing. This week I have talked to many organizations who wish to start transitioning from previous SharePoint servers(2003 and 2007) to a more updated SharePoint (2007 or 2010).  I applaud these companies as they will find several new or enhanced features that really focus on improving the user’s experience. However, to achieve the most benefit for developers, project teams and users, it will require planning, design and development from both IT staff and knowledge management (KM) professionals.  Yes, there are skilled people who actually understand the organizing and management of content into knowledge bases!

Suggestions from KM World
KMWorld has given a lot of thought to transitional activities from the knowledge management perspective including a series of articles called The Reality including this topic list. I found “The Reality Series 8 on An ECM manager’s view” to be enlightening. Here are some thoughts and observations from that article:

  • “Train users on how to administrate sites before they need to manage them”
  • Encourage everyone to seek SharePoint training. Get management support for training time and classes. Microsoft offers several downloadable classes at a fairly low cost as well as classroom training – not to mention books and internal brownbag seminars.
  • Let users keep track of their own My Site details and index on a community search page.
  • Take advantage of the information you can glean from usage reports to understand what users are doing and what information they search for. Apply that knowledge to create better-labeled and indexed files.
  • Work with users to create meaningful knowledge organization using the expanded SharePoint 2010 Managed Metadata Services.

More About Metadata
Metadata – data about data – helps users find the information they need quickly and more completely than just searching titles. Common wisdom of Microsoft’s SharePoint developers in the past was that people would not take the time or have the ability to add content tags that facilitate and enrich search results. Based on conclusions from observing users in the world of social media however, it is apparent that individuals will provide meaningful labels says Pat Miller, development lead for the Enterprise Metadata / Taxonomy features in SharePoint 2010. 

In his post on the Microsoft Enterprise Content Management (ECM) Team Blog, Pat introduces us to the background and capabilities of Enterprise Metadata Management supported by SharePoint 2010. This new focus and capability will provide your organization with noticeable – and measurable – productivity improvement,  because it uses organization-specific taxonomies to expand information search and make results more relevant to user’s needs.

Here are the take-aways I hope you use when transitioning to SharePoint 2010:

  • Create a rich taxonomy that includes descriptive terms and labels – different names for the same term. Involve users and KM professionals in selecting term groupings and families – terms that inherit values through a hierarchy.
  • Find out what data, information and knowledge activities your users do now – including social media interactions – and make them easier.
  • Work with KM professionals to train users in adding taxonomy-based tags to documents, work products and media files.
  • Give users tools and permission to edit local taxonomies for their projects.
  • Take advantage of new capabilities to accommodate multiple languages and homographs (to quote Pat Miller, this means: “a word that is spelt the same, but has a different meaning. You should be able to have a hierarchy that has “Paris” existing in both France and Texas. To keep things a bit more sane for the user, we don’t allow homographs to have the same parent.”
  • Schedule routine maintenance of the organization’s taxonomy.

Bottom line – don’t upgrade and still use SharePoint out of the box!  Use the opportunity to do a “SharePoint Makeover” that ensures your collaboration portal will work for your users. (I will discuss my ideas on that in another post).

How is it going with your transition to a newer version of SharePoint? Have you tried creating and using Metadata Management?  Or improving the navigation for users?  Please let us know with a comment.

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