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How to Brainstorm — Remotely

Jul. 20, 2020 Harvard Business Review

Fortunately, even in a remote environment there are several approaches that can help you solve complex problems effectively.

Get a wide reach

When you and others work together to generate a new solution to a problem, it’s important to remember that you’re doing so by taking advantage of the collected knowledge in the heads of the people involved in the process. The description of the problem serves as a cue for them to reach into their memory and retrieve related information.

Determining who is involved in a brainstorm is therefore critical. Prior to the pandemic, in many organizations it was often hard to get a broad group of people together, because of their varying schedules and/or locations. But because our default was to have in-person meetings, we didn’t engage much with people who couldn’t be physically present as part of the idea-generation process. And we knew that hybrid meetings in which some people are present and some are online are generally a horrible experience for those attending remotely.

One advantage of working remotely is that it’s now easier to bring in a broader group of participants. You have to do this carefully, though. Don’t start with a list of people you want involved in your brainstorming session. Instead, identify the roles and expertise you want, and then find people who fit that description. Ask your colleagues for recommendations of people you might not know who have relevant expertise. This will help you ensure that the group you bring together is more diverse, bringing a range of different backgrounds and perspectives to the problem-solving task.

Take advantage of scheduling difficulties

When people are working remotely, it can be difficult to get everyone scheduled for meetings at the same time, particularly if people are spread across time zones. For brainstorming, though, this can be a blessing. Because you actually don’t need the group to be together to come up with the best ideas.

The groupthink theory shows that, during idea generation, individuals think differently about a problem if they work alone. But when you bring the group together to generate ideas, they tend to think alike, converging on a common solution.

So start your brainstorming process by having each person generate potential solutions on their own, or perhaps have them work in small groups to think about possibilities. What you want to avoid is having the entire group start throwing out ideas at one another—which isn’t ideal in a remote environment anyway. Make sure everyone has had a chance to engage and work on the problem first. One way to do that is to have small groups capture their ideas in a document. A second is to have group members send their initial thoughts to you and to compile them before anyone starts to discuss them.

After that initial stage, collect the solutions that have been generated and send them around to the group to build on them. Create a shared document with the preliminary ideas that everyone can edit, and invite people to further develop the initial proposals. When you read over the collection of ideas that have come in, you might also find that some of the proposals would benefit from the expertise of someone who is not already part of the group. One great thing about having this process extend out over time is that it gives you opportunities to engage new people who can bring valuable perspectives to the problem. Then, later in the process, you can bring the entire group together to discuss the most promising ideas and to reach a consensus about a small number of options to be considered further.

Get specific

There’s a lot of research showing that the more distant you are from something in time, space, or socially, the more abstractly you think about it. This is called construal-level theory. In a remote working environment, this means that you are often physically distant from the site of the problems you’re trying to solve and you therefore think about them more abstractly.

Initially, that abstraction can be a good thing. If you start with a general representation of a problem, you increase the chances that you’ll be reminded of something that comes from another area of your expertise. Abstraction, in other words, can help you to find good analogies to provide insight.

The danger, though, is that you will stay up in the clouds, failing to come up with specific solutions. And it’s hard for people to respond to and build on generic ideas.

We’re going through this process right now at the University of Texas, as we plan for our fall semester during the Covid-19 pandemic. I’m leading the working group that is planning our academic offerings. For the past several weeks, we’ve created a specific scenario for not only the mix of classes that would meet in-person and online but also other factors such as the maximum occupancy of classrooms and the use of cloth masks by students, staff, and faculty.

Each week, more than 250 people comment on the scenario and point out potential problems. Not surprisingly, that means it changes considerably. Because the scenario is specific, it leads people to think about issues that might not have come up if the discussion remained abstract. For example, we’ve had to grapple with finding spaces for students on campus who have a class in-person followed by one taking place online. Where will those students sit to attend the online class? It’s not clear that this problem would have surfaced if we weren’t envisioning the solution in detail.

This process of iterative design requires that everyone be willing to treat the elements of that design as tentative from the start. If key people start to defend early decisions, then group members disengage. But, when people see that the specific scenario changes from one version to the next, then they remain committed to improving it.

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