In their book The Net and the Butterfly: The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking, co-authors Olivia Fox Cabane and Judah Pollack make a simple analogy: Your brain’s creative mode behaves like a butterfly. Your ideas can be beautiful, yet erratic and hard to catch. Capturing butterflies requires a lightweight, delicate net.
Yet, when we brainstorm in a business setting, we often default to highly structured, conventional routines designed to extract maximum results in a minimal timeframe. Sure, once these well-worn customs of creativity were novel practices. But now? Well, many have worn out their welcome in the minds of many meeting attendees, who make no secret of their boredom and frustration, charging that too many well-meaning, collaborative gatherings waste their time.
It’s a vexing challenge for meeting leaders, who, faced with today’s increasingly dispersed workforce, shoulder the necessary obligation of making business interactions – in-person, by phone, online or, more often these days, some combination of all three modes – snappy sessions. No wonder many brainstorming moderators opt for an approach guided by what Cabane and Pollack call the brain’s “executive mode,” the task-oriented network that drives repetitive, unconscious habits, such as tying your shoes.
Given this conflict between creative and executive modes, moderating a meeting today can feel like trying to catch butterflies with the kind of net fisherman use to snare cod.
Effective Virtual Brainstorming Requires “Alone Time” and Group Interaction
While our natural creative and executive modes are at odds, neither should be sacrificed.
“Our performance peaks when we alternate–first working alone, then coming together to share our ideas, then going off by ourselves again to mull over what we heard,” Cabane and Pollack wrote in a recent column for Fast Company.
“It’s a process,” they explained. “This is because our brains’ creative engines are fueled both by quiet mind-wandering, allowing novel and unexpected connections to form, and by encountering new information, which often comes from other people.”
Per Cabane and Pollack, the typical brainstorming session “over-delivers on the latter and under-delivers on the former.” So, “introverts just feel alienated, and extroverts aren’t pushed to reflect more deeply on the ideas they’ve batted around amongst themselves.”
How to Use Moderation Tools to Facilitate Better Virtual Brainstorming
Considering “butterfly” insights from Cabane and Pollack, we searched recent articles for new twists on old brainstorming methods – with an eye toward adapting them to our powerful set of moderation tools.
Before delving into a specific example, we would like to share two guiding principles for brainstorming in a virtual setting:
1. Break Creative Collaboration into Multiple Sessions
In an age when complaints about having too many meetings abound, scheduling more of them may seem counter intuitive. But the aim is to increase the satisfaction of participants in your brainstorming sessions by giving them time to think in the cycle recommended by Cabane and Pollack.
Consider scheduling brainstorming according to this 3-session cycle:
- Meeting 1 – 20 minutes with the moderator explaining the rules of a new idea-generating exercise and issuing individual assignments for the next meeting.
- Meeting 2 – 30 minutes at least one day later, when participants share ideas, notes and other responses to the exercise.
- Meeting 3 – Another 30 minutes at least one week later, after participants have had time to mull feedback from the second session.
2. Shift Brainstorming Interactions from Passive to Active
The temptation to sit on the sidelines is strong enough in a conference room. The pull of passivity intensifies when participating remotely. So, here’s how we suggest moderators use our tools to facilitate greater engagement in brainstorming:
- Integrate video connections – Sinking into the background is less likely when the webcam is “on.”
- Use zoom and annotate when sharing – Whether documents or slides, nudge viewers with some type of motion other than scrolling or paging.
- Poll to boost engagement – Asking what everyone thinks consumes less time with a little help from canvassing.
- Chat strategically to maintain interest – If you notice someone isn’t contributing, shoot over a polite note asking for feedback.
- Send recordings with assignments – Limit meetings to 30 minutes or less, so that reviewing recordings for information and insights is a moderate burden on your participants’ schedules.
One Way to Enhance Virtual Brainstorming with the 3-Session Cycle and Moderation Tools
Many of us are familiar with the practice of capturing ideas on sticky notes and then assembling and reassembling those pieces of paper into storylines. Variations include using assorted colors of ink and paper for different business functions, such as sales, or separate stages of a process, such as customer service. Try the 3-session cycle by assigning each brainstormer one part of the story to capture on one set of sticky notes. They should use their choice of pens, markers and paper as usual, but on their own time, not during the group session. For the next meeting, they bring either scans or shoot smartphone pictures of their work to review and share with colleagues using on line moderation tools.
In their Fast Company article, Cabane and Pollack offer three of their favorite brainstorming systems that balance creative and executive modes. And in “10 Creative Exercises That Are Better Than Brainstorming,” the HubSpot Marketing blog provides more techniques that can be adapted to our moderation tools by motivated meeting leaders.