7 Ways To Coax People Out of the Box in a Virtual World
By Nancy Settle-Murphy

Posted March 08, 2012

Before the latest economic downturn, many of my clients would bring together people from all over the world, put them into a conference room with pots of coffee and carbo-loaded snacks, and kept them there until they emerged with a raft of creative new ideas. Now, with organizations imposing travel bans for most internal meetings, the question becomes: How can we translate this type of high-energy, face-to-face brainstorming experience into a virtual session where we wring innovative ideas out of each person, using a phone and a computer?

This is taken from a piece I wrote with Rich Trombetta, author of “Mustard Doesn’t Grow on Corn” and president of the Innovation Company. We adapted each step of Rich’s NEWIDEA!! process, which promotes seven key behaviors key to innovative thinking, to a virtual environment.

  1. N – No Negativity
    Make sure your first reaction is positive, not negative. Since you can’t use body language to convey an enthusiastic response, affirm the idea with a word or two: “Great.” “Wow.” “Sounds good.” Silence can be construed as criticism when nonverbal cues are absent. Even if you’re not wild about the idea, simply saying “yes” can let the other person know you are listening openly.
  2. E – Encourage the Person
    When a person shares an idea, allow her to fully express what she is trying to contribute. Sometimes a new idea can, quite frankly, sound a little crazy. Resist the temptation to move on to other ideas without probing with a couple of questions to help you tease out key concepts at the heart of her idea. For example: “Now that is a real out-of-the-box idea. What led you to even think of that?” (Note how this statement can encourage your colleague versus this one, which can cause an immediate shut- down: “Sounds really far-fetched. Is that all you have?”)
  3. W – Wait & Listen
    When working remotely, meeting time is typically extremely tight. Make sure to build in time for reflection, ideally by setting up a follow-up session (may be asynchronous or same-time) no more than one or two days after the initial brainstorming session. This gives everyone a chance to absorb the meaning and implications of new ideas and provides an opportunity to ask questions or provide input.
  4. I – Include Input
    Focus on building on your colleague’s idea by using the word “and”‘ instead of “but.” This demonstrates that you’ve been listening intently and that you believe the idea has merit. For example, if your colleague suggests that your company offers a live chat line for customers, your response might be: “Yes, and we can also host monthly virtual customer advisory boards where we can get an even deeper understanding about the problems they’re having.” Much better than: “But a customer advisory board would give us a much better understanding than a chat line.”
  5. D – Document the Idea
    Thanks to virtual meeting tools, participants can easily capture their own ideas in writing for all to see instantly. Among the benefits: Ideas are uncensored and unfiltered by well- intentioned scribes who may otherwise miss key concepts as they struggle to keep up. People are less inhibited, since they can contribute anonymously. And many more ideas can be generated in far less time, with everyone brainstorming simultaneously, instead of waiting their turn. Plus, people can quickly see the whole range of ideas on the virtual table, which typically inspires a fusillade of yet more ideas.
  6. E – Explore Options
    Once people get their right brains really cranking with great ideas, choices need to be made as to which ideas deserve further exploration. When meeting virtually, team members can take advantage of virtual meeting tools that allow you to prioritize ideas to come up with a short list. Consider setting up a follow-up virtual meeting to do the selection process for a few reasons: Some people have a hard time suddenly making the switch from right brain to left. Participants may want an opportunity to synthesize and organize ideas before voting. And, if only a subset of people will make the decision, setting up a second meeting may spare hurt feelings.
  7. A – Action
    Once you have a short list of winning ideas, you actually have to do something with them, or you will have wasted energy and raised expectations for nothing. The next step might be to flesh out ideas with action plans to back them up before seeking approval from a decision-making body. In other cases, team members may be empowered to implement actions independently. Sometimes an idea may simply be left alone, in which case the action is to do nothing. In any event, be sure to communicate back to the group the disposition of all ideas so people won’t be left hanging.

Adapting this process to a virtual environment takes planning and practice. Start to use some of these techniques in your everyday meetings, and you’ll be rewarded with innovative ideas, even from those who have been reluctant to contribute in the past.

Posted by Nancy Settle-Murphy