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How to Get the Best Results From Remote Brainstorming.

One thing you always hear about remote teams is how hard it is to generate good ideas and brainstorm when you work remotely. I disagree. It's pretty easy to brainstorm remotely. What's really tough is actually turning the results of that brainstorm into the best solution to whatever problem you're trying to solve.

I've seen groups reach great answers with a conference call and some scratch paper. Other teams have the latest brainstorming tools and video conferencing gimmicks and still couldn't solve the TV Guide crossword puzzle. The problem isn't getting people to contribute ideas, necessarily, it's putting the process in place to get the best possible input.

Here are some of the ground rules and processes to establish if you want to get the best input and (more importantly) output from your team's collective wisdom:

  • Does everyone understand the problem to be solved or desired outcome? Great ideas are fun to generate, but what is it you're trying accomplish? Solving a problem for your team that IT can't support won't get the job done any easier. Before generating lots of ideas establish what the parameters of a good solution are. Make sure people understand (and question) what the gatekeepers are. The quality of your ideas will go up. Also, do they understand how you're going to make a final decision? will it be a simple majority vote? Will you be making a recommendation to a decision making committee? Many people won't contribute if they don't think their ideas will be discounted by others.
  • What's the time frame for making a final decision--really? Just because you kick up a lot of dust in a meeting, doesn't mean those are the best ideas you can come up with. A lot of teams find that by giving themselves time to think about, fine tune, and build on ideas that come up in the actual brain-storm session they do better work. Here's where the ability to post ideas to a shared file or internal blog can be very helpful. Sometimes you want to sleep on an idea before acting. It's also a great way to get input from those quiet, thoughtful types who don't jump up and down to speak on conference calls.
  • What tools do you have at your disposal and how will you use them? Brainstorming requires visually looking at the input (it helps kickstart other ideas and tangential concepts) as well as getting input both verbally and in writing. There are plenty of tools like Mindjet, Mindmeister, Brainreactions, Grouputer and many, many others. but don't forget things like the chat feature and white board in your webmeeting platform. The best tool is your own ears. Listen not just to what people say, but how they say it. Are they sure that's what they want to say? Is there something else they want to add? Leaders have to facilitate the discussion, not just transcribe what people say.
  • How will you get input and from whom? One of the best ways to get results is to involve the right people in the decision process. If everyone comes fromthe same team, or the same discipline, you're going to get ideas that sound a lot the same as the old ones. Don't be afraid to invite people who might have a stake in the outcome to participate early. If you have people on the team whose first language isn't English, consider taking ideas both in writing as well as verbally. Sometimes these folks aren't the first ones to pipe up in a meeting. Don't let a strong accent or uncertainty about their language skills be the reason you miss out on great ideas.
  • What's going on with your team that might help or hinder your efforts? Are all your team members playing nicely together? Will people in the remote offices give you their best efforts if they feel they'll only be overruled by the bunch of lunatics at the Home Office? Listen closely to who is contributing--and who isn't. Is one group or individual cutting others off at the knees or are people really giving a fair hearing to all ideas. If you're not aware of the team dynamics, you can seriously cripple your group's efforts and limit the quality of the results.
What's important to remember, is that technology is merely the medium through which the information flows. Setting the right parameters, encouraging input and truly facilitating the discussion (as opposed to merely playing host and emcee) is the real work of brainstorming and leading your team to great decisions and problem solving.

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photo by flickr user J.J. Verhoef CC 2.0
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