Zoe Aitken11 June 2020

How to best prepare for a ripper ‘virtual’ brainstorming session

Getting a group of people together to brainstorm ideas was already hard enough in the pre-pandemic world. Re-hashing the same ideas over and over again, the same people contributing their ideas each time, the cynics up the back of the room saying “we already tried that”, and being left with a mountain of post-it notes to make sense of.

If that wasn’t challenging enough, we’re now being forced to run these sessions virtually and are faced with a whole bucket of new challenges.

But ‘the show must go on’ as they say, as innovation has never been more critical than right now. And getting a diverse group of minds together has always been one of the most effective ways to generate creative outcomes to a challenge. Diversity and creativity go hand-in-hand. So, a group of people are much more likely to generate creative and effective solutions to our challenges than trying to tackle it solo.

When it comes to running a virtual brainstorming session, preparation is key. As Benjamin Franklin aptly said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail”. Never has a truer word been spoken when it comes to running an effective virtual ideation session. So, here are five things for you to think about when preparing for your next session.

  1. Get your timings right

The first thing to consider is WHEN to run your ideation session. Typically, we plan our sessions based around our participant’s availability and give little thought to when people will actually generate their best ideas. Research has shown that people are typically at their most creative when they’re tired, which is usually in the afternoon. This is because our brains become less effective at filtering out distractions as the day goes on, and therefore we’re open to a much wider range of information. This leads to more creative ideas. Therefore, try to plan your virtual ideation session for the afternoon.

With this in mind, it’s best to split out your ‘ideation’ and ‘shortlisting’ sessions. Because while our minds might be at their most creative in the afternoon, they’re certainly not primed for analysing ideas and making effective decisions at this time. Shortlisting is best left for the morning, when we have full and effective cognitive resources available. This also keeps both sessions much punchier which is a win for everyone. There is nothing worse than a virtual session that drags on and on!

In terms of how long, keep it punchy to maintain the group’s engagement. This is even more critical for virtual sessions. Anywhere up to three hours is workable, with two to three rounds of ideation that utilise different stimulus. The important thing is to allow enough time for both solo reflection as well as time for the group to build on each other’s ideas. You’ll need to read the group in terms of how long to spend on each round. Some stimulus works better than others, so try not to be tied to strict and equal timings for each round. The rule of thumb: ‘while the ideas are flowing, keep it going’.

  1. Send out your challenge in advance

Another way to ensure both quantity and quality of ideas in your virtual session is to send out your challenge in advance. Around five to seven days prior to your ideation session is the perfect timing. This allows people time to mull over the challenge, and to get their unconscious mind onto the case. Our unconscious mind is a remarkable complex problem solver and will begin forming ideas during this incubation period. This means that participants will be primed and ready to share their initial ideas from the moment they join your virtual session.

  1. Prepare diverse stimulus

Developing your stimulus is another important preparation task. Stimulus is important for generating diverse and creative solutions, as it helps participants come at your challenge from different perspectives. So, don’t forfeit using stimulus in your virtual session. At Inventium, we divide our participants into groups of four to five people, and then develop and send out an electronic stimulus pack to each group. Each pack contains a collection of different stimulus items to be used for each round of ideation. And by mixing up the stimulus packs (i.e. one per group) we’re promoting diversity of ideas.

  1. Deliberate over your guest list

Running a virtual ideation session expands our potential guestlist tenfold. We’re no longer geographically limited and can invite absolutely anyone, anywhere in the world. And this is great news for creativity! Science has repeatedly shown that diversity promotes creativity and with geographical boundaries removed, we’re able to invite a much more diverse group of participants. Therefore, open your mind to who could bring a unique perspective to your challenge. Think beyond just people in your organisation to agency partners, suppliers, customers and even competitors.

  1. Align on and get familiar with your tech

There’s nothing worse than trying to clunkily figure out the tech during a meeting. It impacts participant’s engagement, timings and the quality of the outcomes. So, align on your tech before your session and get very familiar with it. You will need to decide on your tech platform for both hosting the session, as well as to capture the team’s ideas.

In terms of your hosting tech, one of the main functionalities you’re looking for is the ability to run break-out groups. Break-out groups are essential for aiding quality discussion, ensuring input from every participant, maintaining energy levels and ultimately the diversity and quality of the ideas generated. It’s also recommended that you pre-determine your break-out groups to ensure a diverse mix of people in each group.

When it comes to capturing ideas, the main purpose of this is to ensure that you have a central and live place to record ideas as they’re generated. It also helps ensure the quality of your outputs as everything is captured in the same format and saved in a centralised location. There are a number of different whiteboarding platforms that you can explore for this purpose (such as Miro or Mural). At Inventium, we’re big users of Google Drive and create a centralised Google Slides document for everyone to capture their ideas.

Obsessing over the above five factors will help set you up to run a super effective and engaging ideation session.

For tips like these plus a LOAD more, join me at our upcoming webinar ‘How to turbo-charge your virtual ideation sessions’ on June 24. It’s perfect for anyone who wants to turbo-charge their facilitation skills in a virtual format or even for those who run a lot of meetings where you are looking to boost engagement and creativity.