Using Technology to Harness Your Team's Ideas
Many managers lead partly or fully virtual teams. Team members may be physically present only a few days each week, or they may be entirely virtual – living in distant cities, other countries, or completely different time zones.
With teams like these, how can you run effective brainstorming sessions? This is a question that virtual team managers need to answer. And it's why many are turning to the concept of online brainstorming.
In this article, we'll look at how you can use online services to help your team share and discuss their ideas.
What Is Online Brainstorming?
Online brainstorming, also known as "electronic brainstorming" or "brain netting", is a term used to describe techniques that use the internet to share and develop ideas.
There are many tools and services that you can use for online brainstorming. They vary in approach and complexity, but they have one thing in common: they allow colleagues to share ideas online. This can take place over a period of hours or days, or it can happen simultaneously, depending on the location and preferences of the participants.
This article looks at the platforms that you can use to host online brainstorming sessions. See our article on brainstorming to find out how to run these sessions – the principles are broadly the same whether you are online or off-line.
Pros and Cons of Online Tools
Online brainstorming can be more productive than face-to-face group brainstorming. One study found that groups using online brainstorming methods generated more unique, high-quality ideas than groups using traditional brainstorming approaches.
Another study found that online brainstorming led to greater satisfaction and a greater sense of equality among those taking part.
One of the main advantages of online brainstorming is that it allows less confident team members to contribute ideas without feeling pressured by more opinionated colleagues. Depending on the tool used, it can also be anonymous, which may encourage people to share more radical ideas. And, depending on the tool that you choose, you may not need to lead the brainstorming session or take notes.
As with all Web-based approaches, however, online brainstorming tools are dependent on a reliable internet connection. If this isn't available, people may be prevented from contributing.
Participants may also need training or support to use online brainstorming tools effectively, especially if the concept or software is new to them. Allow time before your brainstorming session to outline how to use the approach, or have an IT-savvy colleague on hand to help with any problems.
Online Brainstorming Tools
There are many simple but effective tools available for online brainstorming. Use the suggestions below to find one that's right for your team's needs.
One of the simplest online brainstorming tools is Google Drive®.
To brainstorm with it, create a document or spreadsheet file, or upload an existing document. You will need an account to do this, but your colleagues don't need accounts to access the file.
Ensure that you have "shared" the document with everyone who will be accessing it. Then send invitations via Google Drive to anyone you want to access the document.
They will all be able to access it simultaneously (or at times convenient to them) and their comments will appear in the document as soon as they are entered.
Your team members can either share their ideas by inserting comments into the document (to do this, they need to click on the "comment" icon in the toolbar), or they can enter text directly into the document itself. Each change will be labeled with its author's name, and Google Drive will automatically save all changes.
An advantage of this approach is that not everyone needs to be present at the same time. A brainstorming session can last several days, with repeated input by people in different time zones.
An instant messenger (IM) or chat platform also provides an effective way to brainstorm electronically if all members of your team are all online at the same time. Simply invite them to the group chat at a specified time.
Depending on the service that you use, you may be able to save the "chat" for reference, and to use it to send files and hyperlinks.
Some companies use a third-party electronic brainstorming platform to help their remote teams collaborate. The advantage of this approach is that many of these platforms offer templates and tools that can help you to generate or summarize ideas.
For example, Stormboard allows you to share videos, prioritize ideas, vote on favorites, and generate reports on the group's activity and final thoughts. Access to the tool is free, and the site also provides a mobile app.
There are other online tools that you can use to share ideas with colleagues.
Online videoconferencing is great when a discussion needs to be recorded, but other approaches are needed if teams are online at different times.
Skype is also ideal for bringing together dispersed teams – you can easily set up group calls with 10 or more people, if necessary.
If you are discussing confidential material in your online brainstorming sessions, seek advice from your IT department to check that your preferred platform is secure.
Overcoming Information Overload
Team members can occasionally become overwhelmed by the amount of information that's being shared, especially when the group is large or opinionated.
One way to combat this is to use a delivery method that slows down the influx of ideas. This gives each team member more time to process what he or she reads and more time to develop ideas based on new information. Tools such as Google Drive are helpful here, as users can log in independently as time allows. Alternatively, you may want to use a facilitator to pace the discussion.
There are plenty of good tools that virtual team managers can use to run online brainstorming sessions.
When used effectively, online brainstorming can generate radical ideas, bring shyer members of the team into the discussion, and log all ideas in one place automatically.
However, there is a danger of information overload, which you can overcome by choosing tools that team members can access independently, or by using a facilitator to guide the session.