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April 2024
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The Art of Virtual Brainstorming

Distance can actually be an advantage to creative collaboration.

By Greg Glasgow

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By adapting to shifting workspace norms, as well as COVID-19, people around the world have gotten good at working on their own from home. But what about working together? Did the art of brainstorming and collaboration start to fade when people stopped working together in the same physical space?

Not by a long shot, experts say. In fact, it may have even gotten better.

Eryc Eyl, a Denver, Colorado-based speaker and consultant on organizational culture, says a key advantage of virtual brainstorming sessions is that on screen, everyone—from company leaders to new hires—is in the same size box, as opposed to in-person meetings that give certain leaders key seats at the head of the table.

“It really does flatten hierarchy, which is necessary in brainstorming,” he says. “It’s necessary in collaboration to get people out of the mindset of, ‘What’s the boss going to think?’ I think that democratization has been very helpful.”

Beginnings of the Brainstorm

The concept of brainstorming has been around since the 1930s, when New York businessman Alex Osborn, co-founder of the BBDO advertising agency, noticed that his employees came up with much more creative ideas for ad campaigns when they were working together than they did on their own.

Osborn started providing employees with a clear problem to solve, using four brainstorming rules:

  • Go for quantity: The more ideas that are generated, the higher the chance that at least some of them will be great.
  • Withhold criticism: Osborn believed that people would come up with more creative ideas when they weren’t afraid of being judged.
  • Welcome wild ideas: Sometimes the best solutions aren’t the obvious ones, and off-the-wall concepts can often be ideated into something that works.
  • Combine and improve ideas: Also expressed as “1+1=3,” this rule stems from the concept that the right ideas, combined in the right way, can be better than the sum of their parts.

Brainstorming for Toastmasters

Brainstorming is a useful tool for clubs, as well as District leaders and others. It can be just as effective online as it is in person, according to many clubs and Districts who have mastered virtual versions of nearly every Toastmasters activity, from club meetings to contests. Even better: The brainpower behind brainstorming is now global.

“Online brainstorming allows for participation of team members from all corners of the globe,” says Gorata Hlope, a member of the Eloquent Speakers Club in Gaborone, Botswana. “Distance can actually be an advantage—it allows for collaboration with fewer limitations and greater possible outcomes.”

In 2020, Hlope used online collaborative tools to help organize and lead several first-time virtual events for District 74.

A New Era

For those leading online brainstorming and collaboration sessions, Eyl recommends the following:

  • Understand the technology: Know what’s possible in the platform you’re using so you can give participants the most robust, varied experience possible.
  • Start with an icebreaker: Especially in the virtual world, and even with teams that have worked together for a long time, it’s important to establish or re-establish the sense of trust that comes more easily when people are physically together in the same room.
  • Pick a format in which the chat or Q&A is only visible to the moderator: This keeps things flowing smoothly and allows people to ask questions without fear of ridicule.
  • Use polling to keep people engaged: A good poll question can get conversations started.
  • Use breakout rooms: Online tools like Zoom make it easy to separate people into smaller groups, encouraging more participation and making it possible to experiment with different combinations of people skills and personalities.

Even when the pandemic is over, virtual collaboration will continue, Eyl says. It has technology on its side. And the traditional office—where every worker is together, in person, every day—might just be a thing of the past.

“We will continue to find ways to get good at doing things virtually. I don’t see this going away.”

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