Brainstorms: Don’t Phone It in

Ah, the brainstorming session. Some argue that it births innovative ideas; others say that it quenches them. We at Jacobs Agency like to employ brainstorms when our usual process of conducting stakeholder input sessions is thwarted because the stakeholders don’t have answers and/or aren’t all on the same page with what those answers are. For us, brainstorms are an effective way to attain consensus and direction in a short period of time.

Brainstorms are delicate environments. Participants are often of mixed seniority, fostering a “don’t want to sound stupid in front of my boss”/“don’t want to lead the room” paranoia that can make it difficult to elicit the lively, spontaneous sharing of ideas that the technique promises. To be successful, the facilitator must foster an ecosystem of trust. Participants need assurance that their ideas—no matter how risky or misguided—are all equally valid in the embrace of the brainstorm, and that they won’t be shot down or laughed at. On their best day, brainstorms foster collaborative problem-solving, efficient idea-generation and unexpected revelations. On their worst, participants decide to phone it in—literally.

Recently, Jacobs Agency hosted a brainstorm with a long-standing client of ours, which I facilitated. While far from counting myself as a professional facilitator, I planned an agenda with various exercises—and lots of candy and coffee—including lots of activities using Post-It notes to make the generation and examination of ideas dynamic and synergetic.

The room would be composed of three agency folks and four client stakeholders—two marketers, two product owners. A perfect mix…until the client decided not to show up in person. About an hour before the session, we learned that they had decided it was logistically easier just to do it over the phone. Over the phone? My mind recalled the hundreds of awkward conference calls I’ve sat on—the talking over each other, the radio silence that sets in when you know other parties’ phones or headsets are on mute, that they’re probably replying to e-mails or walking their dog. And while I don’t begrudge the modern world—telecommuting and WebExes are terrific time-savers—I have a hard time understanding why a person would want to participate in an ideation session remotely, especially one that they are paying for. Where’s the fun in that?

We did conduct the brainstorm virtually, and while I won’t claim that it was among the best I’ve ever facilitated, it got the job done. Here are some tips for facilitators and participants to ensure the best possible outcome if you’re conducting a brainstorm over the phone.

Facilitators should prepare by tapping into a new set of tools and techniques:

  • Meeting software is a must. Mind-mapping applications (such as FreeMind) make it easy to post up ideas quickly and move them around into different buckets and categories.
  • Populate PowerPoint with premade positioning axis slides and SWOT charts—or whatever tools support your particular brainstorm needs.
  • Call up a digital timer to the screen to add urgency to periods of individual idea generation.
  • Call out individual participants in a round-robin fashion to ensure everyone’s ideas are heard, and no one “hides.”
  • Extra energy goes a long way over the phone.

The hardest-working members of the virtual brainstorm group are the participants. For them, it’s not the ideating that’s hard. It’s the attention:

  • Unplug from competing virtual interfaces and sequester from real-world distractions.
  • Focus on the conversation. Take notes and jot ideas—something you might be less likely to do ITRW (in the real world).
  • Speak up more frequently than you might otherwise. Your energy and willingness to participate sets a good example for others.

Having done it, I do think that virtual brainstorms can be successful. However, I would recommend it only as a last-resort option—but if it must be so, then the facilitator and the participants need to agree to work harder for good results.

Addie Palin is a senior account manager at Jacobs Agency. Addie can be reached at mailto:[email protected].

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