How to think about virtual ideation sessions

A hybrid of idea-generation sessions is set to emerge, where virtual ideation sessions will be used to complement – and even enhance – in-person brainstorming and innovation, says Bryan W Mattimore

With so much business activities being conducted virtually these days, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that ‘brainstorming’ – or more accurately, what is now called ‘ideation,’ is following suit.

My innovation agency, Growth Engine, for instance, used to design and facilitate more than 75 in-person ideation sessions a year. Now, more than 90% of these sessions are conducted virtually.

When we began designing and facilitating virtual ideation sessions almost seven years ago, we quickly realised there are three different kinds of virtual ideations sessions, all based on the constraints, or in some cases, advantages of ‘time’:

  1. ‘Real time’ virtual ideation sessions… where participants are ‘live,’ contributing and building on each other’s ideas simultaneously
  2. ‘Asynchronous,’ or non-time dependent virtual ideation sessions… where participants contribute original ideas, and build on others’ ideas at their convenience/any time of day
  3. A combination of both ‘real-time’ and asynchronous sessions  

Our bias was that virtual ideation sessions could never be as productive as a live in-person session. Turns out, we were wrong. We even discovered there are actually some important advantages virtual sessions have over in-person sessions beyond the obvious ones of time saving (by not having to travel to the session), social distancing, and lower cost (no travel expenses, room rental, food, etc.)

Virtual meeting technology (Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.) has evolved to the point where 15-to-25 session participants can easily be seen and interact effectively – and authentically – virtually. So, the previous ineffectiveness of ideating virtually, and the attendant psychological distance/lack of group energy caused by the ineffective technology, has been lessened significantly.

Introverts in virtual sessions, for example, are less likely to be ‘overwhelmed’ by extroverts. The virtual platform enables and empowers introverts to share and champion ideas in a comfortable and less-psychologically-threatening environment. Having the option to either record ideas in the program’s chat function; or share them verbally is both reassuring and helpful.

The virtual platform also makes it easy for regional and/or global virtual teams to not only generate new ideas but also provide customized stimuli or ‘thought starters’ to help trigger new ideas from their co-workers. For example, for a virtual ideation project we led for Glaxo Smith Kline, and its 18 worldwide offices, each office shared digital photos of innovative new product, promotion, packaging, and point of sale ideas from their country to inspire a range of new ideas from the entire global team.  

‘Asynchronous’ ideation sessions also have some advantages over live, in-person sessions.  Since these sessions are not time dependent, larger, and more diverse global teams can more easily be scheduled to participate. There is no limit conceivably to the number of participants. IBM’s ‘Innovation Jam’ more than a dozen years ago had 150,000 employees and stakeholders participating.

Not being time constrained also means that participants can more easily add original ideas or ‘builds’ inspired by their co-workers previously-submitted ideas.  

Six tips/best practices for leading virtual ideation sessions

What are some ‘best practices’ for designing and facilitating successful virtual ideation sessions? Here are six.

Designing the session

Leading a virtual ideation session takes every bit as much thought and skill – sometimes more – as leading an in-person one. The most important preparation, of course, is selecting and choreographing the ideation techniques that will be used to trigger the new ideas.

Some of the more than two dozen ideation techniques we have found that can be used successfully in virtual ideation sessions include: 

  • problem redefinition  
  • twenty questions       
  • questioning assumptions
  • target market wishing
  • silly or worst idea      
  • great thinkers role play
  • picture prompts         
  • trend triggers 
  • TRIZ invention principle triggers

*Note: for more information on these techniques, see my book, Idea Stormers, or Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko.

Keep the sessions relatively short

Our in-person ideation sessions typically last from ½ day to two days, with one day sessions being the norm. Virtual ideation sessions we limit to 2.5 or 3 hours to prevent ‘Zoom’ fatigue. So, to accomplish the ideation session objectives for a one or two-day in-person ideation session virtually, we will often conduct two to four ‘mini’ ideation sessions over a two to three-week period.

By conducting more and shorter virtual ‘mini sessions,’ we have discovered three important advantages over one or two-day in-person ideations sessions:

  1. Each successive mini virtual ideation session can be re-imagined and re-designed based on learning from the previous session(s)
  2. The participants for each mini-session can be different — subject matter experts can more easily be invited (or not) to each mini session to leverage their specific expertise
  3. Since the mini sessions will be conducted over several weeks, session participants can benefit from ‘soak time’; that is, having the time to reflect on, identify patterns, discover new insights, and create new ideas that they might not be able to in a one-day in-person session.

Exploit the breakout rooms

Virtual breakout rooms now make it easy to: a) form different cross functional teams to ideate on specific ideation sub-topics, while also b) using customised stimuli to trigger a wide range of diverse new ideas.

Depending on the exercise, team breakouts might include anywhere from two-to-six participants. Breakout teams of more than six participants often lessen the overall productivity of the session since fewer participants generally participate when team sizes are seven or more.

Include a tech expert in the sessions

We have found it’s critical to have a technologist handling ‘the tech’ in a virtual ideation session, so the facilitator can concentrate on his/her job of facilitating the session. The facilitator needs to be free to: explain the ideation exercises, manage the time, and most importantly, help participants build on each other’s ideas by asking provocative questions.

Keep the technology simple

The technology in a virtual session, especially for a new team of virtual ideators, should be kept as simple as possible. Zoom is best for group ideation because of its well-designed ‘breakout room’ function. Microsoft Teams is a close second but has harder-to-manage breakout rooms (called Channels.)

Be cautious about using on-line brainstorming programs/applications since some of the participants in the session may not know the program; and the excitement and productivity of creating new ideas can get lost when having to spend time explaining and managing the ‘how-to’s’ of these different programs.  More seasoned and cohesive ideation teams may consider using virtual ideation session programs such as Miro or Mural.  

Remember to facilitate

It’s critical that the facilitator of the session remember that his/her most important job – irrespective of the virtual technology’s constraints or advantages – is to facilitate the creation, and group building of new ideas. The sessions participants have come together for the express purpose of being inspired by, and building on, each other’s ideas. Otherwise, ideas could simply have been e-mailed in!      

The future of virtual ideation

What will the future hold for virtual ideation sessions? Will some of their significant advantages make in-person sessions ‘virtually’ obsolete?

My prediction is that a hybrid of different types of idea-generation sessions will emerge where virtual ideation sessions will be used to complement – and even enhance – in-person ideations. Some projects will be ideated entirely virtually. For others, because of the importance of the live experience, only an in-person session will do. And finally, some will use a combination of both virtual and in-person since each has its distinct advantages.  

The debate about conducting virtual versus in-person ideation sessions is, to my mind, analogous to when television began to become popular in the late 1950’s. Experts forecast the demise of movie theatres. But today, TV and the movies co-exist nicely because each has advantages over the other.

Bryan W Mattimore is Cofounder and ‘Chief Idea Guy’ of the Growth Engine Company, a twenty-year old innovation and creativity training agency based in Westport, Connecticut. In his marketing consulting career, Bryan has managed over two hundred successful innovation projects, leading to over $3 billion in new sales for one-third of the Fortune 100 companies.

Bryan’s three best-selling books on ideation and innovation process include Idea Stormers, How to Lead and Inspire Creative Breakthroughs and 21 Days to a Big Idea.

A cum laude graduate of Dartmouth with a major in psychology, he is also an innovation and marketing instructor for Caltech, and on the Board of Advisors of the Global Innovation Institute.

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