Brainstorming and Mindmapping Remotely Isn't Easy, But It's Worth The Trouble

Last Updated Jan 19, 2011 10:18 PM EST

One of the most important functions a team has is capturing information and bouncing great ideas around. Working remotely creates unique challenges because it's not simple to get input from everyone, capture the information and share the results with the whole team in real time. It can be done, but it takes careful planning, strong facilitation skills and the right tools.

Mind-mapping, or idea-mapping as it's sometimes known, is a very useful and underutilized tool for teams but it's tough to do remotely. Many teams use common webmeeting tools but these are often not sufficient. According to Scott Raskin, the CEO of Mindjet, part of the problem is the way most people lead webmeetings.

"Collaborating with remote teams, as it's usually done, doesn't work," he says. "Web conferences can be great to broadcast information they're not conducive to real-time collaboration. The problem is one person must maintain control of the document. Collaboration shouldn't be a stilted and slow formal process that only occurs when you pass the "ball" from user to another". Additionally, too many people don't use the interactive features that are available, relying on PowerPoint decks and limiting functions like chat and letting everyone write on the white board (assuming you have a tool that offers these tools- they don't all do so).

"Change is hard even when the change is beneficial. We all know that it's better to eat healthy and exercise yet we don't always do what's best for us, do we?". Raskins warns managers to be prepared for the initial friction as you move from strictly linear applications to a more free-form approach. "For a team looking to use maps remotely to plan, manage information or processes, it's important to come together (virtually or in-person) to define the basic structure of the map templates that you'll be using. Without it, members may be tempted to reorganize the content in ways that make sense to them but may in fact disorient the other team members".

"Facilitating information mapping sessions can become challenging when participants are brand new to the concept. New team members may find it daunting to engage maps that have been previously created without an introduction or understanding the map's 'rules of engagement'". In other words, they need to know where and how to contribute ideas, notes, update status, etc. It's also tempting to provide early access to project maps with new team members but you should be careful. These maps can be a little overwhelming since these team members haven't participated in the map's creation. The organization and depth of the map may be confusing without an accompanying explanation.

Here are some tips for helping your team brainstorm better whether online or in person:

  • It's important to provide new users with a brief overview of mapping and how it works. This can be as simple as explaining how a map can be used to capture everyone's input, then how the information should be organized to make sense to everyone. Leveraging templates for repetitive processes like project planning will also accelerate adoption over time.
  • Like any meeting, your mindmap should have a clear purpose and outcome. You can add branches for the agenda, goals, desired outcomes and even a "parking lot"for ideas you haven't got a place for yet.
  • That chaos is kind of the point: content comes first, organization comes second
  • The brainstorm doesn't necessarily end when the session is over- it can (and probably should) be used as a living document. This is where software like Mindjet and others come in and actually have major advantages over the good old flipchart. You should be able to search, add to and reorganize the information and when the information is digital .
Leaders must master both the facilitation skills to run great brainstorms as well as the technical competence to use the tools at their disposal if they're going to leverage the brainpower on their team. It shouldn't matter if they're on opposite ends of the planet or meeting over doughnuts in the conference room.

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photo by flickr user Elsie esq CC 2.0