Maybe now that weve all been thrust into a work-from-home workforce for the past year, we are finally on the precipice of leaving the dysfunctional brainstorm behind. Did they even work before? Louder, extroverted types tend to dominate, people talk over one another, and there is tremendous artificial pressure to get to the right idea in a short period of time. Good riddance. So how to have a successful virtual brainstorm?

Pretty much everyone in advertising will roll their eyes if you suggest having a “brainstorm.” Prior to Covid, brainstorms were more like parties, but less fun and fewer ideas came out of them. The problems with traditional brainstorming:

  • Human dynamics get in the way – loud person, shy person, office politics, unconscious biases (gender, race, etc.), etc.
  • False urgency. Most brainstorms happen within an hour or two timespan. They start and then they end. But the problem is, creativity doesn’t work this way. Ideas happen on the idea’s time, not ours.
  • The myth that as long as you’ve got a full room of people, you’re good to go. No, no, no. A bunch of people in a room only magnifies the “human dynamics” problem mentioned above. There can be too many people in a brainstorm.

Three Ways to Improve Virtual Brainstorms

  1. More brain and less storm. For creativity to thrive, we can’t put a gun to its head. Putting too tight a time constraint on creativity is just such a gun because creativity doesn’t work that way. It can’t be forced. Brief the team and then let them work independently first (proven, HBR study) AND THEN come together to share their ideas and build on them. Or, better yet, avoid all meetings and provide a virtual space for them to post their ideas as they happen for the others on the team to see and be inspired by.
  2. Think like an NFL General Manager, not like a cheerleader. Don’t get political with who you invite to the brainstorm. Meaning, don’t invite someone because you feel like you should, or they might get mad if they’re not invited. For an effective virtual brainstorm you want to first identify what kinds of people you want in the abstract and then recruit people who fit the bill. You’ll want to have very different perspectives colliding: different people, different world views, different professional disciplines, etc. That way, more creative directions will be explored and the output will be exponential.
  3. The proven power of four. In my experience and after much trial and error I’ve found that four people in a virtual brainstorm is ideal. Any more than four and they get intimidated and post fewer ideas. Any fewer than four and there aren’t enough perspectives colliding and the ideas narrow in their creative bandwidth. Four is ideal.

In summary, don’t be afraid to come up with ideas virtually. I’ve found that virtual creative development, when done the right way, is actually better than in-person. It strips away all the human dynamics that can get in the way, it allows the participants to be creative the way they want to be, and, while it may take a couple days instead of a couple hours, a virtual brainstorm will leave you with more and better ideas with which to work.

And there’s nothing virtual about that.

Will Burns, CEO of Ideasicle X ,is an advertising veteran from such creative agencies as Wieden & Kennedy, Goodby Silverstein & Partners, Mullen and Arnold.

Ideasicle X is the first SaaS platform designed from the ground up specifically for idea-generation for teams working remotely. A virtual platform where any four talents of your choosing mentally collide, spark each other, and build upon each other’s ideas. Ten years in development, the model we have pioneered is changing the way advertising agencies work with freelance creative talent and with their employees.

Brainstorm stock photo by REDPIXEL.PL/Shutterstock