Brainstorming in the remote world can be complex, full of gimmicky suggestions or awkward interruptions over Zoom. But it doesn’t have to be – brainstorming can be an incredible tool both in and out of your meetings. Here, Kevin Duncan, coach and author of The Ideas Book, outlines some useful brainstorming techniques that will serve as a launching pad for deeper thought.

1. Have direction, not rejection

Duncan says that the first and worst thing you can do in a brainstorming session is shut someone down immediately.

“We call these people blockers or idea killers, and they are not helpful to have around.”

However, there is such a thing as a bad idea – that’s where Duncan says you need to have adequate facilitation, or else you’ll end up going down the wrong path.

“The best way to do this is to establish clear rules of engagement at the beginning of the session,” Duncan says. His examples include “no showboating, no jargon, no cynics, productive listening, and taking the issues seriously but not yourself.”

Each team can cultivate their own rules based upon their own culture and create a brainstorming environment that works best for them. You can take this with you outside of just a brainstorming meeting, as you’ll have a mental frame for how to approach each situation, even if you’re just proofing another’s work.

2. Trust yourself

Next, a key feature of great brainstorming is that the best tool is, in fact, your own brain.

“It is perfectly possible to have a brainstorm with only one participant – you,” Duncan says. “In that respect, any communal technique can be applied by an individual on their own. It works really well because it channels your thinking rather than just having random ideas.”

Duncan recommends being inquisitive and open to all input both in and out of a meeting in order to facilitate intellectual plasticity.

“As a way of life, I recommend that you become a mental magpie,” he says. “That means being constantly curious, collecting a wide range of stimuli and making connections to join seemingly unconnected thoughts together to create something new. Overall, always ask first, can I solve this problem myself?”

3. Let the quiet ones speak

There’s always one member of your team that’s a bit shyer than the others, and in order to conduct a fruitful brainstorming session, it’s imperative to get their input.

“Another serious problem is a failure to hear the ideas of quieter introverts,” Duncan says. “If everybody shouts over them, we are not getting the benefit of a diverse range of views, expertise, and experience.”

To solve this problem, Duncan says, a brainstorming session requires a goal-oriented leader.

“Strong facilitation is needed to shut down the shouters and draw out the ideas of all participants in equal measure.”

Sometimes it can be hard to tell who’s the leader on a project, especially if all team members are providing the same input. However, each project on Hive can have customized assignees, so it’s easy to tell who’s working on what project – and from there, who can lead the brainstorming session.

4. Utilize your tech

Sound tech isn’t just a helpful tool in the remote world; it’s a necessity, especially in an immersive brainstorming session.

“Usually, these sessions rely on high levels of energy and people bouncing ideas off each other, and this is a lot harder to achieve online,” Duncan says. “Having said that, during lockdown we have had numerous examples of ingenious adaptations to the in-person techniques we normally use.”

Duncan specifies that a brainstorming exercise called the Four-Corner Walkabout is particularly translatable into a virtual format.

“In-person, people add their ideas on flip charts to build thinking collectively. Online, this has been reinvented in a shared drive so that anyone can contribute at any time and anonymously if they wish. It’s great for showing how ideas build through teamwork.”

Conduct your own Four-Corner Walkabout with Hive Notes, where you and your teammates can collaboratively add comments as your virtual meeting is occurring.

5. Keep it small

Duncan says that in order to have a productive brainstorming session, you don’t have to have too many voices in the room. Just like your mind is your best tool, the same goes for your co-workers – so if you’re feeling stuck, let everyone think, and then reconvene. The same goes for situations outside of a meeting where you might be coming to an impasse when attempting to problem-solve; sometimes, people need processing time on their own.

“If in doubt, you should ask individuals to work on the brief on their own and then pool the ideas to review them,” he says.

Additionally, while a group brainstorming session can be fun and exciting, you should caution against having a crowd, as voices will be lost in the fray.

“If you are running a communal session, do not subscribe to the idea that having more people will lead to more ideas,” Duncan says. “It doesn’t. The maximum number in any session should be eight, and research shows that the optimum number is four.”

If you find yourself with too many cooks in the kitchen on a particular project, there are ways to receive feedback while also managing the chaos. For instance, you can even give them access to a project in Hive with read-only permissions, so you can have eyes on your project without having hands on it as well.

6. Test out techniques

Brainstorming techniques always provide a good frame precisely related to the issue that you’re tackling, and Duncan recommends using them as an opening to have hard conversations. Some good places to start are activities like:

  • The Briefing Star for very specific problems
  • Three Good Three Bad for topics that are difficult to talk about
  • Eyes of Experts for a creative exercise in outside input
  • Category Stealing looks at how others deal with similar issues

“When you are familiar with a whole suite of techniques, then you can become adept at knowing which ones are most suitable for the particular problem you are trying to solve,” Duncan says. These techniques can then be integrated into your catalog of problem-solving abilities, and you can spend more time working through issues and less time managing communication hiccups.

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