Why traditional brainstorming doesn’t work online, and how to get virtual brainstorming right

Find out why traditional brainstorming techniques don’t work online, and how to get an innovation advantage by using the right virtual brainstorming strategy.

Fear of losing their innovative edge pushes many leaders to reject hybrid and virtual work arrangements. Yet extensive research shows that hybrid and remote teams can gain an innovation advantage and outcompete in-person teams by adopting best practices for innovation, such as virtual brainstorming.

What explains this discrepancy between leadership beliefs and scientific evidence?

Having consulted for over a dozen companies on a strategic return back to the office, I discovered the root of the problem. The vast majority of leaders tried to pursue innovation during the lockdowns by adapting their office-based approach of synchronous brainstorming to videoconference meetings. They found that videoconference aren’t well-suited for traditional brainstorming, and thus feel they need to go back to the office.

Unfortunately, these leaders are stuck with their existing methods for innovation, and haven’t investigated and adapted modalities better suited to virtual innovation. This failure to adapt strategically to their new circumstances threatened their capacity for innovation.

That’s because employee survey results show that 25% to 35% wanted remote work only and 50-65% wanted to return to office with a hybrid schedule of a day or two onsite. 40-55% felt ready to quit if they didn’t get their preferred schedules, and indeed many have already resigned when employers tried to force them to return.

To put it mildly, it’s hard to do innovation with such a large part of your workforce quitting, and the rest demoralized due to such high rates of turnover.

The dangerous judgment errors blocking innovation best practices in the future of work

Leaders often fail to adopt innovative best practices because of dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. For instance, the rejection of better practices in favor of pre-established ways is a dangerous judgment error called functional fixedness, and that applies very much to science-based virtual innovation. 

A related cognitive bias related to functional fixedness is called the not-invented-here syndrome. That refers to leaders feeling antipathy toward practices not invented within their organization, such as novel innovation methods. 

Defeating cognitive biases to return to office successfully and thrive in the future of work requires the use of research-based best practices. That involves a hybrid model of one to two days in-office while permitting a substantial minority of employees to work full-time remotely.

This best-practice setup will translate to diverse benefits: retention of top talent, creation of flexible company culture, and – most importantly in this case – seizing an innovation advantage.

What’s the difference between traditional and virtual brainstorming?

So how does virtual brainstorming differ from traditional brainstorming?

Traditional Brainstorming

In-person synchronous brainstorming represents the traditional approach to intentional innovation. That involves groups of 4-8 people getting together in a room to come up with innovative ideas about a pre-selected topic. 

Research in behavioral science reveals that the benefit in idea generation from such brainstorming comes from two areas identified by scientists

One involves idea synergy, when ideas shared by one participant help trigger ideas in other participants. The other is social facilitation, when participants feel motivated when they know they’re collaborating with their peers on the same goal. 

However, these benefits come with counterproductive effects. One is production blocking. That’s when someone has an innovative idea during a group discussion, but other people are talking about a different topic, and the innovative idea gets lost in the mix. 

If you never had that happen personally, you’re likely extroverted and optimistic. Introverts have a lot of difficulty with production blocking. It’s harder for them to formulate ideas in an environment of team brainstorming. They generally think better in a quiet environment, by themselves or with one other person at most. And they have difficulty interrupting a stream of conversation, making it more likely for their idea to remain unstated.

Those with a more pessimistic than optimistic personality also struggle with brainstorming. Optimists tend to process verbally, spitballing half-baked ideas on the fly. That’s perfect for traditional brainstorming. By contrast, pessimists generally process internally. They feel the need to think through their ideas, to make sure they don’t have flaws. Although brainstorming explicitly permits flawed ideas, it’s just very hard for pessimists to overcome their personality, just like it’s hard for introverts to generate ideas in a noisy team setting. 

Pessimists are also powerfully impacted by a second major problem for traditional brainstorming: evaluation apprehension. Many more pessimistic and/or lower status, junior group members feel worried about sharing their ideas openly, due to social anxiety about what their peers would think about these ideas. Moreover, despite instructions to share off-the-wall ideas, many people don’t want to be perceived as weird or out of line. 

As a result of these problems, numerous studies show that traditional brainstorming is substantially worse for producing innovative ideas than alternative best practices. It’s a great fit for helping build team alignment and collaboration and helping group members feel good about their participation.

But you shouldn’t fool yourself that using this technique will result in maximizing innovation. That’s why, if you want to leverage innovation to gain or keep your competitive edge, traditional brainstorming is not the way to go.

Virtual brainstorming

Trying to do traditional brainstorming via videoconference is a poor substitute for the energizing presence of colleagues in a small conference room, thus weakening the benefits of social facilitation. It’s also subject to the same exact problems of evaluation apprehension as traditional brainstorming.

Instead of the losing proposition of videoconference brainstorming, leaders need to adopt the best practice of asynchronous virtual brainstorming.

How to get virtual brainstorming right

So how can you gain the full benefits of virtual brainstorming? Here’s how to get it right in seven steps:

  1. Initial idea generation – Team members generate ideas and input them digitally into a shared collaboration tool. To tap social facilitation, the group can input ideas during a digital co-working meeting. Focus on quality over quantity and consider contradictions between ideas. Science has found that this focus on opposing goals facilitates innovation. The submissions should be anonymized to avoid evaluation apprehension. However, the team leader should be able to later track each person’s submissions for accountability.
  2. Idea cleanup – The facilitator categorizes ideas and sends them out to all team members.
  3. Idea evaluation – All team members anonymously comment on each idea. 
  4. Revised idea generation – Team members can do another idea-sharing session, reevaluating old ideas or generating new ones.
  5. Cleanup of revised ideas – Clean up and categorize the revised ideas using Step 2. 
  6. Evaluation of revised ideas – Comment on revised ideas.
  7. Meet to discuss ideas – Finalize which ideas can transition towards implementation. This kind of practical planning meeting is easy to have virtually for full-time virtual workers. It also works well to have steps 1-6 done virtually by hybrid teams, and do step 7 in-office. However, it’s critical to avoid doing steps 1-6 in the office to avoid production blocking and evaluation apprehension.

Does virtual brainstorming really work?

Behavioral economics and psychology research definitely demonstrates the superiority of digital brainstorming over in-person brainstorming. For example, a study comparing virtual and in-person groups found in-person groups felt better about their collaboration. However, the feeling proved deceptive: virtual brainstorming resulted in more ideas generated.

In fact, research finds that while the larger the in-person group, the fewer novel ideas per person, the opposite is the case for electronic brainstorming. That means with more people, you get a larger number of novel ideas per person. That’s likely because of the removal of evaluation apprehension and production blocking, which tend to increase with the addition of more people. 

Virtual brainstorming creates the maximum number of novel ideas, gaining an innovation advantage. It also provided the optimal experience for the most group members, balancing the preferences of introverts and extroverts, optimists and pessimists, lower-status and higher-status members.

Team leaders who wisely prioritize focusing on integrating introverts, pessimists, and lower-status team members into the team – which is more difficult than extroverts, pessimists, and higher-status members – find virtual brainstorming especially beneficial.

You can no longer reply on pre-pandemic innovation methods

Leaders who want to gain an innovation advantage in the future of work need to avoid sticking to pre-pandemic innovation methods. Use research-based best practices such as virtual brainstorming to boost innovation in your hybrid and remote teams.  

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is on a mission to protect leaders from dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases by developing the most effective decision-making strategies. 

A best-selling author, his new book is Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters.

His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting,coaching, and speaking and training as the CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts. It also comes from over 15 years in academia as a cognitive neuroscientist and behavioral economist with dozens of peer-reviewed articles published in academic journals.