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Gleb Tsipursky

Innovation

Virtual Brainstorming Is an Innovation Advantage for Hybrid and Remote Teams

Videoconferences are ill-suited for traditional brainstorming. Try this method instead.

Published: Tuesday, October 26, 2021 - 11:03

Fear of losing their innovative edge pushes many leaders to reject hybrid and virtual work arrangements. Yet extensive research shows that hybrid and remote teams can gain an innovation advantage and out-compete in-person teams by adopting best practices for innovation, such as virtual brainstorming. What explains this discrepancy between leadership beliefs and scientific evidence?

Having consulted with more than a dozen companies on a strategic return back to the office, I discovered the root of the problem. The vast majority of leaders tried to pursue innovation during the lockdowns by adapting their office-based approach of synchronous brainstorming to videoconference meetings. However, they found that videoconferences aren’t well-suited for traditional brainstorming, and thus felt the need to go back to the office.

Unfortunately, these leaders are stuck with their existing methods for innovation and haven’t investigated and adapted modalities better suited to virtual innovation. The rejection of better practices in favor of pre-established ways is a judgment error called functional fixedness, and that applies very much to science-based virtual innovation. A related cognitive bias akin to functional fixedness is the not-invented-here syndrome, which refers to leaders feeling antipathy toward practices not invented within their organization, such as novel innovation methods.

Defeating cognitive biases to return to the office successfully and thrive in the future of work requires the use of research-based best practices. That involves a hybrid model of one to two days in-office while permitting a substantial minority of employees to work full-time remotely. This best-practice setup will translate to diverse benefits: retention of top talent, creation of flexible company culture, andmost important in this caseseizing an innovation advantage.

Traditional brainstorming

In-person synchronous brainstorming represents the traditional approach to intentional innovation. It involves groups of four to eight people getting together in a room to come up with innovative ideas about a preselected topic.

Research in behavioral science reveals that the benefit in idea generation from such brainstorming comes from two areas identified by scientists.

One involves idea synergy, when ideas shared by one participant help trigger ideas in other participants. The other is social facilitation, when participants feel motivated because they know they’re collaborating with their peers on the same goal.

However, these benefits come with counterproductive effects. One is production blocking. That’s when someone has an innovative idea during a group discussion, but other people are talking about a different topic, and the innovative idea gets lost in the mix.

If you never had that happen personally, you’re likely extroverted and optimistic. Introverts have a lot of difficulty with production blocking. It’s harder for them to formulate ideas in an environment of team brainstorming. They generally think better in a quiet environment, by themselves or with one other person at most. And they have difficulty interrupting a stream of conversation, making it more likely for their idea to remain unstated.

Those with a more pessimistic than optimistic personality also struggle with brainstorming. Optimists tend to process verbally, spitballing half-baked ideas on the fly. That’s perfect for traditional brainstorming. By contrast, pessimists generally process internally. They feel the need to think through their ideas, to make sure they don’t have flaws. Although brainstorming explicitly permits flawed ideas, it’s just very hard for pessimists to overcome their personality, just like it’s hard for introverts to generate ideas in a noisy team setting.

Pessimists are also powerfully affected by a second major problem with traditional brainstorming: evaluation apprehension. Many more pessimistic and lower-status, junior group members feel worried about sharing their ideas openly, due to social anxiety about what their peers would think about these ideas. Moreover, despite instructions to share off-the-wall ideas, many people don’t want to be perceived as weird or out of line.

As a result of these problems, numerous studies show that traditional brainstorming is substantially worse for producing innovative ideas than alternative best practices. It’s a great fit for helping build team alignment and collaboration, and helping group members feel good about their participation. But you shouldn’t fool yourself that using this technique will result in maximizing innovation. Thus, if you want to leverage innovation to gain or keep your competitive edge, traditional brainstorming is not the way to go.

Virtual brainstorming for hybrid and remote teams

Trying to do traditional brainstorming via videoconference is a poor substitute for the energizing presence of colleagues in a small conference room, thus weakening the benefits of social facilitation. It’s also subject to the same problems of evaluation apprehension as traditional brainstorming. Instead of the losing proposition of videoconference brainstorming, leaders should adopt the best practice of asynchronous virtual brainstorming.

Step 1: Initial idea generation

Team members generate ideas and anonymously input them into a shared collaboration tool. The submissions should be anonymized to avoid evaluation apprehension. However, the team leader should be able to later track each person’s submissions for accountability.

To tap social facilitation, the group can input ideas during a virtual co-working meeting, when everyone is working separately from each other in their home offices but they know they are all working on the same task at the same time. Focus on quality over quantity and consider contradictions between ideas. Science has found that this focus on opposing goals facilitates innovation.

Step 2: Idea cleanup

The facilitator categorizes ideas and sends them out to all team members.

Step 3: Idea evaluation

All team members anonymously comment on each idea.

Step 4: Revised idea generation

Team members then do another idea-sharing session, reevaluating old ideas or generating new ones. Thus, this is a new round of brainstorming, based on what each team member observed during the evaluation session.

Step 5: Cleanup of revised ideas

Clean up and categorize the revised ideas using the same method as step two.

Step 6: Evaluation of revised ideas

Comment on and rate revised ideas, using the same method as step three.

Step 7: Meet to discuss ideas

Finalize which ideas can transition toward implementation. This kind of practical planning meeting is easy to have virtually for full-time virtual workers. It also works well to do steps one through six virtually by hybrid teams, and do step seven in-office. However, it’s critical to avoid doing steps one through six in the office to avoid production blocking and evaluation apprehension.

Does virtual brainstorming work?

Behavioral economics and psychology research definitely demonstrate the superiority of digital brainstorming over in-person brainstorming. For example, a study comparing virtual and in-person groups found in-person groups felt better about their collaboration. However, the feeling proved deceptive: Virtual brainstorming resulted in more ideas generated.

In fact, research finds that while the larger the in-person group, the fewer novel ideas per person, the opposite is the case for virtual brainstorming. With virtual brainstorming, more people yields a larger number of novel ideas per person. That’s likely because of the removal of evaluation apprehension and production blocking, which tend to increase with the addition of more people.

Virtual brainstorming creates the maximum number of novel ideas, gaining an innovation advantage. It also provides the optimal experience for the most group members, balancing the preferences of introverts and extroverts, optimists and pessimists, lower-status and higher-status members. Team leaders who wisely prioritize focusing on integrating introverts, pessimists, and lower-status team members into the teamwhich is more difficult than with extroverts, pessimists, and higher-status membersfind virtual brainstorming especially beneficial.

Conclusion

Leaders who want to gain an innovation advantage in the future of work need to avoid sticking to prepandemic innovation methods. Use research-based best practices such as virtual brainstorming to boost innovation in your hybrid and remote teams.

Discuss

About The Author

Gleb Tsipursky’s picture

Gleb Tsipursky

Gleb Tsipursky is on a mission to protect quality leaders from dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases by developing the most effective decision-making strategies. A best-selling author, he wrote Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (2019). His expertise comes from 20+ years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training as the CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts, and over 15 years in academia as a behavioral economist and cognitive neuroscientist. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, Twitter@gleb_tsipursky, Instagram@dr_gleb_tsipursky, LinkedIn, and register for his Wise Decision Maker Course.

Comments

Nice!

I have used this technique, or variants of it, for many years now, and it works very well. Like many people who were around in the 80s and 90s, I learned the traditional Osborn Rules, "just throw the ideas out...no comments, no criticism" open brainstorming technique. About 10 years or so ago, I found some literature that demonstrated that teams could actually come up with more ideas, more diverse ideas, and higher quality ideas if they modified that to allow for some (non-adversarial) evaluation and debate around the ideas during the session. 

One thing I have missed in the virtual environment, though, is Affinity Diagrams. For a while there was a product called BoardThing that looked like it would actually work...people could move the ideas around on a virtual whiteboard, and you could (theoretically) conduct a true Affinity process. It was pretty glitchy, though, and the number of people in a session seemed to be limited. If anyone knows of any new product that might allow for virtual Affinity Diagramming, I'd love to hear about it. 

Refs:

[1] Lehrer, J. (2012). Groupthink: the brainstorming myth. New Yorker, 30 January 2012.

[1] Nemeth, C., Personnaz, B., Personnaz, A., & Goncalo, J. (2004). The liberating role of conflict in group creativity: A study in two countries. European Journal of Social Psychology (34), 365-374. DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.210