Microsoft SharePoint

Running a Brainstorm Session in Virtual Space

Brainstorming rules are guidelines that help an individual or team get as many ideas spoken out and written up as possible, without thought to the validity or rightness of the ideas as they are spoken out. The guidelines for brainstorming are especially directive in terms of separating the creative and idea generation stage from the analytical and judging stage where ideas are evaluated for merit. If the two stages are put together — so that as soon as one person has spoken out an idea, another person immediately judges its merit for all to hear (“That’s a really dumb idea”) — then the creative idea generation part of people shuts down. Potentially good ideas are not spoken out, because people fear the immediate judging of others. And even bad ideas are not spoken out, even though a “bad” idea phrased in a particular way may trigger a thought in another person’s mind that results in a breakthrough and brilliant idea.

Thus when brainstorming rules apply, that means (1) we are trying to get as many ideas on the table as possible, and (2) we will come back as a collective group later and sort, organize and judge the ideas. But the two stages are kept distinctly separate.

Each person has to be very careful in an in-person meeting to suppress the judging and idea evaluation parts of themselves when brainstorming rules apply, in order to not ruin the creative idea generation spark that is kindled within other people. A snigger, a raised eyebrow, a smirk aimed at one of the participants — all of these can result in the creative juices being shut down.

But what about in virtual work? When we can’t be together, but we still need breakthrough ideas and thus embrace the discipline of brainstorming, how do we translate the guidelines of brainstorming to work facilitated by collaborative tools? One option is to hold the brainstorming session through a page in a wiki.

Be very clear that brainstorming rules apply. If the brainstorming work is being run through a wiki page, write clearly at the top of the page, “Brainstorming Rules Apply”, and create a link to the page in the wiki that lists the rules of brainstorming. Doing so serves as a written reminder to everyone visiting the page how they are supposed to act at this point in time.

Write down — or type in — your own ideas, and type them all in. Don’t leave any out. Don’t judge your own thoughts. Stay with the programme. Remember that although your ideas may not be brilliant, they may stimulate a brilliant idea in the mind of another person. The objective is a collective breakthrough, not an individual ego stroke.

In addition to what you write in, read what others have written. When you think of something related to what another person has said — the idea that it stimulates for you — write it in on the line underneath.

Keep others to account for following the rules of brainstorming. If someone has written a judgmental comment next to an idea, it needs to be removed. The person who has set up the brainstorm should be alerted to the comment, and they should remove it and have a private talk to the offender. Remind them that brainstorming rules apply. Perhaps it was an unconscious evaluation of the idea, perhaps it was intentional. During an in-person brainstorming session, the facilitator is equally charged with capturing good ideas and preventing people from getting out of brainstorming mode. In a virtual space, the same two charges apply.

A second option is to run the brainstorming session in real-time, via a conference call and shared screen session. One person is assigned responsibility for capturing the ideas that are spoken out by the other team members, and writing them down so everyone can see the flow of ideas. It is good to have a Tablet PC to do this, using something like OneNote 2007 for capturing the ideas in rapid form. Handwritten text signals to the brain that things are less formed and finalized than typed text does. Yes, even the little cues count!