Perform a virtual brainstorming

The last article was about planning a virtual workshop (link). In today’s post you will get to know how brainstorming works, what kind of preparation is needed and of course a lot of experiences. For this purpose, we will show you how brainstorming works in detail by means of a case study. But let’s start with the theory.

What actually is brainstorming?

Brainstorming is a creative method that allows you to get as many views and ideas as possible on a selected topic. You can distinguish between two phases: the execution and the evaluation. Both phases differ fundamentally, both in the approach and in the tools to be used.

Phase 1 – the collection of ideas

As the name suggests, in this phase you collect as many ideas as possible. Try to write down everything that comes to your mind about the topic. Every idea is important, everything is noted down and nothing is judged. As simple as these rules sound, it is sometimes difficult to implement them. For example, if you are collecting all the ideas for a small party with friends and someone suggests a fire show, write down this idea, even if in your head a fire show has nothing to do with a small party. The concept behind this huge collection of ideas is that you and other attendees can be inspired by the ideas you note down. Even if the fire show is possibly exaggerated (which none of the participants should say at this phase!) now certainly no one forgets to think of an alternative entertainment program.

Not commenting negatively on other participants’ statements and ideas can be difficult but it must be made clear to everyone in the group to hold back on this point. As the leader of the brainstorming session, you must intervene if someone makes negative comments and immediately remind them of the agreed-upon rules. To reduce such situations, it can be helpful for you as the leader to thank the participants who mention ideas that are initially outlandish. To make absurd ideas takes courage, and you as the leader can honor that. If you explain this view together with the rules at the beginning, it could help reducing judgements.

Tools for phase 1

For the realization it is important that all collected information is visually available to all participants. Thus, you need to write down all the ideas so that everyone can see them. Most of the time, as you write down the ideas, groupings already emerge. Let’s take the aforementioned party preparation example again. One idea could be to provide food, e.g. salad, bread, cheese – which can be grouped. Together with drinks this belongs to the group catering, for example. To write down the ideas a Mind Map is useful. Here is an example for the mentioned party:

Mind map example
Mind map example

 If the workshop takes place virtually, look for a suitable program in advance and familiarize yourself with it. You can find many free mind map programs e.g. via our search (link). Share your screen during the brainstorming and write diligently.

Experiences for phase 1

Things can get heated, and that’s good. Try not to slow down the creative process by thinking long and hard about forming new groups. It is important to write everything down quickly. You can rearrange in quieter phases.

If it doesn’t really get going, it’s good to think of a few absurd suggestions beforehand and throw them in yourself. If you don’t know anything about the topic, no one will hold it against you. If you yourself are an expert on the subject, why don’t you come up with any good suggestions? That is allowed. It doesn’t matter how the ideas get onto the page.

Sometimes the groups are very heterogeneous. There are introverts and extroverts. When you lead the brainstorming, it’s your job to integrate everyone. Ask introverted participants directly for their ideas. They usually have some, and often good ones. This way you can also slow down participants who dominate the conversation. In the end, you don’t want to have one person’s idea on the page, but everyone’s ideas.

Phase 2 – the evaluation

You have now collected many ideas. Take a short break for now. Now it is time to evaluate the ideas. Try to be objective. The break should help you to gain some distance. Do you have a favorite idea? Do you think another one is particularly bad? Free yourself from this and forget which idea came from whom. To evaluate ideas objectively it will help you to ask if the idea can be implemented within your possibilities and if the idea is an effective and efficient answer to your topic (you don’t know the difference? Learn more here ). As an example, consider the party again. If your goal is that the guests have fun, it will be an entertaining party and you still don’t have to spend a lot of money, the fire show might not be the best idea. If it is a company party, e.g. for an insurance company, a fire show with a staged “mishap” can be a successful effect. So, you have to reflect your ideas against your goals. Evaluate each idea. You will see that some of them can be easily deleted and others you will discuss a lot. For those where you don’t agree quickly, you may find the decision matrix helpful. This is a way of selecting the most effective idea from a large number of ideas. To do this, you write down the ideas one below the other. Next to the ideas you write criteria that are important for your goal. In the first step, you evaluate the criteria with regard to your goal. How important is the criterion for the fulfillment of the goal? Use numbers from 2 to 10 in increments of 2, where 2 is not very relevant and 10 is very relevant. Now you evaluate each idea according to the criteria (in order not to influence yourself, you can cover the evaluation of the criteria). If the idea can fulfill the criterion well it gets 5 points, if it fulfills the criterion sufficiently it gets 3 points and if the idea fulfills the criterion only badly or not at all it gets one point. Now multiply the rating of the criterion with the rating of the idea and add up the points for each idea over all criteria. The higher the number of points, the more suitable the idea is.

decision matrix example
decision matrix example

The example shows a problem. Effort and costs have a negative connotation, fun a positive one. A high score for fun also means that the idea is more fun. A high rating for costs or effort, on the other hand, means the idea has low costs or little effort. This often leads to confusion of the participants and to little purposeful discussions. To avoid this problem, all criteria can be described positively, e.g. cost-efficient instead of cost and low effort instead of effort.

The practical example

The workshop begins

Mia sent out the invitation in the last article and today the workshop is about to start. Everyone has arrived punctually in the virtual meeting room. Before they start brainstorming, however, Mia welcomes her friends and presents the agenda once again (see planning a virtual workshop). After no one has anything to object to or add, they begin the round of introductions. This is followed by setting rules for the workshop. Since there are only three of them, they refrain from announcing themselves before speaking, which can be useful for larger groups. However, they find it important to let the other person speak and to listen actively. This also includes not being distracted, so they agree not to have the cell phone next to them. The mail and chat program on the computer also stays off. Mia once again talks about her goals for the workshop. For her, the most important thing is to get a common understanding of the range of features of the video chat and also to record and evaluate all of her friends’ ideas. For Peter, it’s important to have fun with the workshop. Moreover, after the workshop he wants to know what to start working with. Zou agrees with everything said and adds that for her it is important to learn something new. Let’s see if everyone achieves their goals.

The brainstorming session

As a way to gather as many ideas as possible about features of the video chat, Mia decided to do a brainstorming session. To make sure they all have the same understanding, she explains the procedure again. She explicitly points out the rules of conduct in phase 1 and asks that no ideas be evaluated negatively. And then the brainstorming begins. Peter has already written down a lot of ideas at home, and he is really bubbling over with ideas. Mia notes down the points in a mind map as quickly as she can. Zou is a bit more reserved; she is not as technically skilled as Peter and Mia. But Mia finds exactly that interesting and asks Zou directly what is particularly important to her in a video chat? There would be a recording function, for example, so she could watch important parts again afterwards. Peter also suggests that they doesn’t have to do everything by there own, but can make use of existing open source solutions. Mia intervenes: “It’s about functions, not solutions!”. She is right about that, but that was also an assessment. The idea is good for now and should be included. Zou points this out to Mia and Mia apologizes to Peter and writes the idea down as well. After about 15 minutes, they have created a huge Mind Map and take a short break.

The evaluation

They work on the ideas directly in the Mind Map. For this, Mia uses different colors to mark the good ideas and cross out the less purposeful ones. They also mark the ideas that are not features, but still helpful. They are unsure about a few of the ideas. They write these down in a decision matrix. The criteria they think of for evaluating the features are: Effort, user benefit, and knowledge for implementation. They want to evaluate the user benefit most importantly and assign 10 points. Since they want to be finished however also in time, they assign for effort (or better effort-poor) 8 points and since they acquire missing knowledge gladly, they assign for it only 4 points. Each idea is evaluated with respect to its criteria and the best 3 they want to include.

Mia, Peter and Zou have now defined the functional scope. But the workshop does not end there. In the next step, they want to specify their ideas and will carry out a variation of eventstorming. You’ll find out how this works and what the results will be in the next article.