In my last article on Bridging the Gap, I introduced some key concepts for planning virtual meetings:
- Consider the focus of the meeting or workshop;
- Minimize duration & maximize value;
- Involve everyone – create a collaborative spirit among those who will participate.
With these themes in mind, your distributed team’s discovery, design and planning activities can be accelerated with the use of virtual brainstorming to collect divergent information. Allowing remote and local participants an equal opportunity to reflect and contribute their unique perspectives will make effective use of your meeting time.
Best practices for virtual brainstorming
There are a couple of things I found surprising when I first started conducting virtual brainstorming sessions:
- Silence can be productive. I like to start a live brainstorming session by asking each person to quietly consider their individual answer and jot down their conclusions. At first the silence feels a bit odd during a teleconference, but allowing time for personal reflection encourages subsequent contributions from those with a more contemplative style.
- Anonymity is an equalizer. When the organizational hierarchy or clients are present at a meeting some people tend to filter their words and stay in the “safe zone” of conversation. However I was delighted to find that the self-editing tends to disappear when text input is gathered anonymously. Virtual meetings can actually deliver an advantage over face-to-face: participants get to see everyone’s comments but not who they are attributed to, generating a more true and robust collection of insights and concerns.
Virtual brainstorming scenarios
When a distributed workshop calls for brainstorming ideas, plan your virtual meeting with a web and teleconference tool that will simplify the process. Here are a few scenarios that business analysts deal with quite often.
Scenario 1: Gather team input.
Web-based whiteboards enable a meeting leader (or participants, with permission granted) to scribe during a virtual meeting. Capture discussion bullet points on a blank screen that is shared on each participant’s computer screen via the internet. Some tools even have drawing features to graphically represent the discussion; my favorites create a work space for multi-user drawing & virtual sticky notes; find a tool that’s compatible with your style by experimenting with these free web resources: Scribblar, Twiddla, and Dabbleboard. Other tools are purely text-based, using a discussion board interface; Writeboard and Huddle whiteboard feature work well to create a new topic for multi-user editing or comments. Another option to try is the text chat function common in web conferencing software (for example GoToMeeting or Webex). Pose a question to stimulate written brainstorming contributions and ask everyone to concurrently type their responses. The Chat window will provide a shared scrolling view of the individual answers.
Setting it up: Determine who will attend, then use the tool’s invitation features to send an e-mail link that will help attendees to schedule and join the electronic workspace at the appropriate time. Once the meeting is done the tools enables saving a record of your whiteboard work.
Scenario 2: Stakeholders must collaborate to uncover key issues & impacts.
If generating ideas has been problematic try using small group breakout sessions to encourage everyone to participate. Results improve by pairing a smaller number of people together for private collaboration, then having each small group report their results to the combined assembly of participants. MaestroConference enables a teleconference leader to designate small group membership and initiate a timed breakout session. Most web conferencing software also includes a phone breakout feature for their audio tools.
Setting it up: In addition to the invitation process, the meeting leader designates random or assigned sub-group membership. Once the teleconference is underway, meeting leader features allow you to launch the breakout session, instantly initiating multiple private teleconferences. Designated facilitators can even drop in on the individual conversations if needed to guide the discussions. Closing the breakout session using manual or timed features rejoins the audio into a single conversation.
Scenario 3: Requirements sign-off from a client with a globally distributed team
When time zone differences interfere with same time communication turn to asynchronous brainstorming. Asynchronous activities do not take place in real time; rather participants log in to contribute on their own schedule. Document editing and threaded discussions are conducted over the Internet in a shared space for text editing (mirroring word processing features) and comment entry (as a discussion post). This type of brainstorming can also help to gain input in advance of a live workshop or as a follow up assignment. Your organization may use a Business Collaboration platform such as SharePoint; a Yahoo Group or Wiki can also serve this purpose in the private sector.
Setting it up: A similar invitation process authorizes invitees to join the working document space. The discussion host can set up alerts to be notified of additions from collaborators.
My virtual collaboration experiences have become more engaging and productive by introducing these methods for gathering wide-ranging input.