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.

Virtual Team Collaboration with Web Conferencing

A few months ago, a colleague of mine attended an on-line class on using Photoshop to edit portraits. The presentation was informal and had some technical problems, but the content was good and she signed up for a series of on-line classes by this vendor. So, why am I telling you this? The small start-up company that hosted the training made a big impact, improved their credibility and perhaps signed-up customers for their fee-based services, too.

There are many – hundreds – of software products that support Web conferencing. David Woolley provides an almost overwhelming list, annotated with brief comments on many of these in Web Conferencing – Online Meetings & Presentations . In the interest of full disclosure, Silver Bear Group, (the company I collaborate with and sponsors this blog), has successfully used and really loves GoToMeeting and GoToTraining from Citrix Systems.

We have talked several times on this blog about the importance of collaboration for project teams – especially virtual teams. (See:  Collaboration Tools for Virtual Project Teams and Project Management Collaboration and Communication Tools.) Web conferencing can be part of this facilitated collaboration. Web conferencing offers support for team meetings, training, customer meetings, program reviews and informal team discussions.

When organizations need to decide on which Web conferencing software best supports their organization, technically trained project managers may be asked to participate in making that cost/benefit decision. Here are some questions to ask about your company’s specific Web conferencing needs in order to select the best service now and support for the future.

Some questions to ask:

  1. Do you need a hosted or on-premise solution – this decision affects performance, cost and security? (The line is blurring between these now with the “cloud” concept)
  2. Do you need the ability to send and receive video (video conferencing) from all sites or only from a central sending site (web casting)?
  3. Do you want to be able to record meetings and training presentations?
  4. What are the maximum number of people routinely attending meetings?
  5. Do you need mainly 1-to-many ability or do you want more collaborative, many to many sessions?
  6. How much can you spend?
  7. Do you need audio as a phone call-in and/or VoIP?
  8. How easy is setup and using the software? Will you have technicians available as needed or will managers and attendees need to handle setup and troubleshooting?
  9. Do you need to support multiple operating systems – Windows, Mac, and Linux?
  10. Do you need to integrate with existing tools and documents such as Outlook, Office, databases?
  11. Do you need the ability to hold ad hoc meetings?
  12. Do you need registration for the sessions with email notices?

In a June 2010 report by Ted Schadler of Forrester Research called “The Forrester Wave™:  Web Conferencing, Q2 2010”, he compared the industry leaders in supported conferencing including Adobe Connect, IBM Sametime, Microsoft OCS, Cisco WebEx, Citrix GoToMeeting, IBM’s Lotus Live and Microsoft’s Live Meeting. A link at the end of this post provides excerpts from the report, provided by Adobe.

In addition to core capabilities that most conferencing tools provide, Mr. Schadler recommends you also evaluate tools considering:

  • Quality user experience
  • Predictable costs
  • Support for smart devices including mobile phones (And now tablets – I just used GoToMeeting on an iPad and it was great!)
  • Easy integration with other collaboration tools such as email or a stored document
  • Integration with existing VoIP for audioconferences

Have you had successful or poor experiences with video conferences and conference-supporting software? What happened?

LINK: The Forrester Wave™: Web Conferencing, Q2 2010
http://www.adobe.com/enterprise/pdfs/wave-web-conferencing-q2-2010.pdf

Webinar: 5 Strategies for Leading Diverse, Distributed Teams to Success, Citrix and Forrester
http://learn.gotomeeting.com/forms/012511-NA-G2MC-PM-WBR-SM?ID=701000000005XBk

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