A few amazingly creative bridges: what does your most creative bridge look like?
A virtual innovation team leader for a few years now, Julie Payet had to learn how to run online brainstorming workshops on–the-go. She has been kind enough to share some her learnings with me, now that virtual meetings are likely to become the new normal, even after the COVID 19 lockdown is lifted.
Julie : Brainstorming or creative meetings by videoconference was, I thought at the beginning, the one impossible thing. How do you create stimulation and emulation between participants? What can replace post-its, white boards, physical moves?
How did your first experiments go?
They were tedious, exactly at the opposite of what you expect of a creative meeting. I tried the whiteboard to replace the post-its and start getting what people have on their minds. Reading it out, classifying the inputs is, on-line, totally boring and you need a lot of resilience from the participants. Then when there is a debate, interruption is very difficult, so people really have to wait their turn to talk, they get easily demotivated. You become more directive, and you do have a result in the end, but with very little guarantee that people are engaged behind it.
What mistakes did you do? What did they teach you?
The biggest one was lack of preparation. I’m a very good improviser in real situations, so I tend to underprepare. This doesn’t work online.
With a few years experience now, what do you reckon are the main differences to physical brainstorming?
1. The people who easily express themselves can be different on-line and off-line.
2. The group energy goes down more quickly.
3. A visual transcription of what is said is more critical, it doesn’t stay “in the air”.
What are your practitioner tips for successful virtual creative meetings?
Given these differences, preparation is even more critical for a virtual than for a physical meeting. Here are 6 areas on which I focus my preparation.
1.Keep the group small.
4 participants is a good number, up to 6 can work well. You'll be better off running 2 sessions if you want to work with more than 6 people. Include some expert profiles, not only creatives. They will fuel the group with knowledge when the energy goes down and add stimulation. I encountered a lot of introvert experts who interact better in video conferences, contrarily to some extravert managers who need the physical vibration of the group to have more idea.
When teams work virtually all year long, I have experienced that groups who make the time for informal news and jokes create more cohesion and maintain more efficiency in the long run. This is true as well in a single session. Also, if not everybody knows each other, participants need to introduce themselves. Beyond practical reasons, it is a way for everyone to feel they’re being taken into consideration, and assert how they will contribute to the call. A nice introduction gives a good atmosphere to free speech and idea generation. During the session, leaving the chat box open to all lets emotions be expressed. It replaces one –to-one live chatting in a room, and I feel it is necessary for people to feel relaxed.
A section should be no longer than 10 minutes; the deliverable can be a template to fill: a simple ppt presentation with a template per page works well. This will renew the energy level every 10 mn and avoid “drop-outs” (doing something else on their computers). You can have a full efficient hour like this. Don't try to make your meetings longer, you will only waste time and engagement for future meeting.
This means that you need to anticipate the directions of the brainstorming with the sections, which feeds one another. For this you can have preparatory sessions with some stakeholders. It feels more directive, but you can prepare a lot of themes, and the group may cover only some of them. Reversely, ideally you will also improvise some during the discussion, inserting new slides to fill together. The last deliverable must appear as a conclusion and give a sense of achievement and group satisfaction.
In physical creative meetings, you can renew the interest and the energy level by simple tricks such as making people change places, go around the room to read paperboards, change the color of post-its, ask them to draw instead of writing… It allows to rest some parts of the brains and stimulate new ones. In a virtual meeting you have to find other ways to do this, and the variety of stimuli can help. Texts, pictures, videos, various deliverable templates in totally different formats.
The whiteboard where everyone can first reflect and then write a few words can be used (as post-its in a meeting), but it’s very slow to go through all the contributions. Can be used once or twice in the session. Writing live (screen shared) all the discussion is powerful, reorganizing the information along the way.
My key takeaways
The key to successful virtual meetings is to maintain the dynamics and the energy.
Work with a small group, and don't be afraid to structure ahead to make sure you keep your participants engaged.
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