The Way We Work
July 25, 2012 by Julia Camenisch

Apparently, there’s a bit of the Borg in all of us; we tend to collaborate better electronically than we do in person—when the conditions are right. Otherwise, brainstorming as a group instead of on our own can be a lot less effective than reputation might lead you to believe.

“Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption,” wrote Susan Cain in the New York Times earlier this year. “The most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted…They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic.”

Collaboration and group brainstorming aren't just a prominent theme in business today: The power of teamwork and loosely connected groups is a reality of the future of work. How do you create balance between the rewards of independent creativity and the benefit of diverse opinions?

Turns out that balance can be created online. "The one important exception...is electronic brainstorming, where large groups outperform individuals; and the larger the group the better," Cain observed in her article. There’s something about the anonymity and yet connectedness created through the Internet that allows people to overcome their in-person inhibitions and truly collaborate.

However, this is not to say brainstorming sessions will be productive simply because they’re conducted remotely. Studies by Karen Dugosh and Huei-Chan Yang show that it takes certain rules for brainstorming online to outperform the lone individual. The presence of these key ingredients elevate a meeting from time-wasting to creative dynamite.

As business owners with remote employees, both Tim Vickey of Level671 and Marjorie Asturias of Blue Volcano Media have dealt with some of these issues. These oDesk clients regularly conduct brainstorming sessions with their remote contractors, collaborating on everything from software development to SEO campaigns.

Homework is Where the Work is

Proctor and Gamble’s innovation unit is said to have this rule for brainstorming sessions: "Arrive on time with your homework done."

This idea of “homework” for meeting participants is a fundamental building block of a successful session. In his 2009 book User Experience Remastered, Chauncey Williams cited a study by Tom Kelley showing that better ideas are generated when members of a team have taken time to think through issues before the meeting begins.

For Vickey, that preparation starts at the top with his project manager and himself. “I like to have someone (usually me) take the first crack at laying out how something should be done. Having it on paper means the first person looking at things has to think through the whole situation completely.”

He notes that if a project’s leadership hasn’t done the initial legwork, “[they’re] going to veer the project in the wrong direction.”

Asturias requires her team to brainstorm individually before a session. “I give them the topic and then say, 'Here's the URL—check out their site, products, any existing social media or digital marketing initiatives you can find, and come prepared to share your feedback and any ideas you have on how we might promote them on social media.’” This type of solo brainstorming means everyone comes to the table with workable ideas already percolating so that more can be accomplished during the group session.

Collaboration Needs Everyone

A tricky aspect of collaboration is getting everyone to participate. Some people are natural dominators and will control the discussion if not kept in check. Others will keep quiet, preferring not to make waves or interrupt. But this imbalance can give the conversation a dangerously one-sided slant.

“Team Members specialize in their parts of the project—programmers should know programming more than anyone else, and designers know graphic design best.” says Vickey. He keeps everyone participating by facilitating individual conversation. “I usually do brainstorming as a one-to-one relationship. Let everyone talk directly to me, even if they're all sending ideas at the same time.”

Ideas must be evaluated and dissected in order to separate the good from the great. Astorias embraces the importance of critique but insists it be respectful. “Criticism is always allowed and encouraged, but I shoot down anyone who is rude or unprofessional...I or someone else will say, "That's not bad, but probably because of X, we wouldn't be able to execute that, or that wouldn't really work well in this situation."

The Buck Must Stop Somewhere

Vickey discovered that a group-controlled session is rarely effective—that’s why good leadership is essential. “It's really easy to veer off course and divert attention to something that may be very cool, but catastrophically different than what you were hired to complete.  Someone on the team has to keep the conversation germane to what you're trying to get paid to do!”

In a brainstorming session, participants often tailor their ideas towards the personality of the perceived decision maker. That can cause friction with other group members if there isn't a clear group leader.

On the Blue Volcano media team, everyone knows that Asturias is that decision maker. “My assistant keeps track of everyone's ideas and writes them all down, then organizes it and sends a copy of the final document. If I have follow-up questions about an idea someone had, I go back to them to clarify. I then evaluate everything based on the notes that my assistant compiled. I'm the final decision maker.”

A workable structure, an appropriate forum and a set of basic guidelines are important ingredients for a productive meeting. Beyond those basics, every remote team has a different working style and culture which influence what type of session works best. There’s rarely a one-size-fits-all approach, so don’t give up if a particular session isn’t productive. Instead, retool and try again.

What advice do you have for conducting a productive brainstorming session with a remote team? Share your advice and experiences in the comments section below.

Julia Camenisch

Contributing Author

Julia Camenisch is a freelance technology and business journalist. She also works as an editor and copywriter for a wide range of clients, including national magazines, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Julia brings to oDesk a passion for empowering small businesses through the innovative use of technology.

  • shariful islam

    i want to work odesk but how?