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Get Out-of-the-Box Thinking in a Virtual World

Nancy Settle-Murphy

You need to tap the best thinking of a diverse and far-flung group of people in your organization. Trouble is, no one is available to travel to a central location - even if you had a travel budget for this brainstorming session. In addition, the entire organization could use a boost in cultivating a culture of innovation over the long haul.

The brainstorming sessions you're used to take place with people happily ensconced in a conference room, pots of coffee and carbo-loaded snacks to fuel the brain, and colored papers littering the walls. So how do you translate this type of high-energy, face-to-face brainstorming experience into a virtual session where you encourage innovative ideas from each person using just a phone and a keyboard as the stimulus? And how can you expand some tips and techniques to "bake" in a culture of innovation beyond this one opportunity?

Joining me in writing this article is Rich Trombetta, author of Mustard Doesn't Grow on Corn and president of the Innovation Company, a consulting firm that works with organizations to get every employee constantly sharing and implementing new ideas. (Full disclosure: Rich and I brainstormed this piece at a local Starbucks, but given the requisite dose of caffeine, we could have brainstormed this easily over the phone.)

In this issue, we have adapted each step of Rich's NEWIDEA! process for a virtual environment. NEWIDEA! is a simple process that promotes seven key behaviors, each of which is outlined below.

N - No Negativity
Make sure your first reaction is positive, not negative. Since you can't use body language to convey an enthusiastic response, affirm the idea with a word or two: "Great." "Wow." "Sounds good." Silence can be construed as criticism when nonverbal cues are absent. Even if you're not wild about the idea, simply saying "yes" can let the other person know you are listening openly.

E - Encourage the Person
When a person shares an idea, allow her to fully express what she is trying to contribute. Sometimes a new idea can, quite frankly, sound a little crazy. Resist the temptation to move on to other ideas without probing with a couple of questions to help you tease out key concepts at the heart of her idea. For example: "Now that is a real out-of-the-box idea. What led you to even think of that?" (Note how this statement can encourage your colleague versus this one, which can cause an immediate shut- down: "Sounds really far-fetched. Is that all you have?")

W - Wait & Listen
Listen first to understand. When working remotely, meeting time is typically extremely tight. Make sure to build in time for reflection, ideally by setting up a follow-up session (may be asynchronous or same-time) no more than one or two days after the initial brainstorming session. This gives everyone a chance to absorb the meaning and implications of new ideas and provides an opportunity to ask questions or provide input.

I - Include Input
Focus on building on your colleague's idea by using the word "and"' instead of "but." This demonstrates that you've been listening intently and that you believe the idea has merit. For example, if your colleague suggests that your company offers a live chat line for customers, your response might be: "Yes, and we can also host monthly virtual customer advisory boards where we can get an even deeper understanding about the problems they're having." Much better than: "But a customer advisory board would give us a much better understanding than a chat line."

D - Document the Idea
Thanks to virtual meeting tools, participants can easily capture their own ideas in writing for all to see instantly. Among the benefits: Ideas are uncensored and unfiltered by well- intentioned scribes who may otherwise miss key concepts as they struggle to keep up. People are less inhibited, since they can contribute anonymously. And many more ideas can be generated in far less time, with everyone brainstorming simultaneously, instead of waiting their turn. Plus, people can quickly see the whole range of ideas on the virtual table, which typically inspires a fusillade of yet more ideas.

E - Explore Options
Once people get their right brains really cranking with great ideas, choices need to be made as to which ideas deserve further exploration. When meeting virtually, team members can take advantage of virtual meeting voting tools that make it easy to come up with a short list of winning ideas. Consider setting up a follow-up meeting for the selection process for a few reasons: Some people have a hard time suddenly making the switch from right brain to left. Participants may want an opportunity to synthesize and organize ideas before voting. And, if only a subset of people will make the decision, setting up a second meeting may spare hurt feelings.

A - Action
Once you have a short list of winning ideas, now you actually have to do something with them, or you will have wasted energy and raised expectations for nothing. The next step might be to flesh out ideas with action plans to back them up before seeking approval from a decision-making body. In other cases, team members may be empowered to implement actions independently. Sometimes an idea may simply be left alone, in which case the action is to do nothing. In any event, be sure to communicate back to the group the disposition of all ideas so people won't be left hanging.

Adapting this process to a virtual environment takes planning and practice. Start to use some of these techniques in your everyday meetings, and you'll be rewarded with innovative ideas, even from those who have been reluctant to contribute in the past.

Bottom line: If people believe that their ideas have been taken seriously, they'll be much more enthusiastic about brainstorming ideas the next time.

About the Author
Nancy Settle-Murphy is a facilitator of remote and face-to-face meetings, trainer, presenter and author of many articles and white papers aimed at getting the most out of remote teams, especially those that span cultures and time zones. Go to Guided Insights, a facilitation, training and strategic communications consulting firm, for more information about their services, including workshops and webinars.

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