Brainstorms and in-person workshops are an essential part of my work as a brand strategy and positioning consultant. Or “were an essential part”, I should say, pre Covid-19.
Since these types of face-to-face ideation sessions aren’t an option any longer, I decided to do a bit of research to see if and how I could adapt my process to make it primarily online and virtual.
As a reminder, the objective of any ideation session, including positioning workshops, is in the first step to generate and identify as many diverse yet relevant ideas (or positioning hypotheses) as possible. In the follow-up steps of the process, these ideas are then grouped by themes and evaluated based on a set of predetermined criteria and objectives. The outcome usually leads to 2 to 4 positioning options (or product concepts, or potential solutions) which can then be explored and validated either qualitatively or quantitatively (or both). As such, the starting point of any problem solving process is really a group’s ability to generate a large number of diverse and innovative ideas (hypotheses) early on in the process.
So, here is what I learned about running effective virtual idea generation sessions:
1. Virtual ideation sessions, when done right, yield actually better results than in-person workshops, at least in terms of generating more and more diverse ideas.
According to the psychologists from the University of Texas*, face-to-face (FTF) settings wherein ideas are shared verbally, groups typically generate fewer ideas than comparable size nominal groups. In other words, 10 people ideating individually will generate more and better ideas than 10 people brainstorming together in one room. And the bigger the group of participants, the bigger the gap in performance.
But they also found that this performance deficit for groups can disappear when ideas are exchanged electronically. In other words, electronic group ideations are more effective than face-to-face ideation sessions. They explain this fact through “production blocking” (going along with the workshop flow and listening to others share their ideas slows down or derails the individual idea generation process) and evaluation apprehension (our ability to come up with ideas is impaired by how we think the other participants will judge our ideas). Last but not least, we’ve all experienced idea generation sessions that are derailed and hijacked by the loudest voice, strongest opinion or highest paid opinion in the room.
So it appears that when a group participates in an online ideation session it is actually more productive and effective at generating potential solutions to a problem than if they all came together in a room.
2. Alternating individual idea generation exercises and group ideation exercises (as part of the same process) yields better results than group ideation (or individual ideation) only.
Alex Osborn, the father of brainstorming noted already in 1953 that “an alternation between group ideation and individual ideation is desirable, since a combination of these two methods has produced maximum results in almost every case.”
This fact is also supported in the research mentioned above, the learning being that this approach “allow(s) both for unconstrained ideation in individual brainstorming and stimulation of additional ideas by exposure to ideas of others”. It basically allows individuals to ideate on their term, producing the best results while reducing the performance gap of group ideation, while still benefiting from the ability of the group to build on this original list of ideas.
3. Spread the ideation process over a few days and allow participants to ideate on their own time and terms.
Doing so also leads to a better outcome as shown by Fjermestad, Hiltz, & Johnson (1998) who compared face-to-face brainstorming with two different types of electronic brainstorm procedures (synchronous and asynchronous). They found out that asynchronous brainstorms (where participants can ideate on their terms) lead to better results than synchronous brainstorms, where all participants come together electronically to ideate.
This makes intuitively sense. Not every workshop participant is good at coming up with a variety of ideas spontaneously. Or comfortable doing so. I, for example, usually need some time before my creative brain can produce its magic. Also, when people are at their creative peak varies by individual. Some are more creative in the morning, others late at night. Spacing the ideation exercise over time and in the process enabling every participant to contribute when it works best for them allows each participant to maximize his/her contribution while improving the overall group’s performance.
4. Use specific frameworks and tools to guide the ideation process.
Broad statements or broad problem definition statements and assignments just don’t yield good results. Creativity, and this is something many people tend to forget, is typically the result of a rigorous and guided process filled with frameworks and “techniques” designed to guide the thought process and thus the inspiration of the participants. The objective here being to inspire participants while helping them remove the natural barriers and biases that prevent them from thinking creatively and outside their normal lanes.
But not all creative problem-solving tools and frameworks are not created equal. Trying to draw inspiration to reposition a liquor brand by observing the workings of an ant farm might be fun and highly creative (don’t laugh, I have actually experienced this) but it’s typically a complete waste of time.
For our position and product concept workshops, we use our own Positioning Roulette methodology and the 26 universal and proven successful positioning triggers (based on the analysis of over 1200 case studies of effective marketing), combined with a series of creative problem-solving techniques and alternating individual and group ideation sessions. This approach yields in my experience the best results, something which was recently confirmed by a consultant working for a reputable international research and consulting firm who recently applied my methodology: “A team that had already worked on a positioning for weeks got some folks in the office together, told us nothing about where they’d arrived and we broke into teams and used the approach and in 20 minutes built pretty much what the team that had been working on it for weeks had come up with. Very cool tool to scrape the corners of your brain“.
While I believe that our approach is the best (sorry for being biased here), there are obviously a lot of different frameworks out there that can be used to improve the outcome of an ideation process. The main point here is that these frameworks and ideation tools become increasingly important in virtual ideation sessions to help inspire both the individual participants and the group overall.
5. Don’t be a slave to one digital ideation platform only.
There are many different online idea generation platforms out there, each with their benefits and limitations. In my experience it is best to not limit yourself to only one platform. Instead, let the overall design of the ideation process and the nature of the different ideation exercises dictate which platform to use. Concept drives execution and not the other way around.
Sometimes a simple SurveyMonkey survey will do to collect initial individual ideas from a large group. Sometimes, a more interactive and collaborative platform might be needed further into the process.
The key is to first “design” the ideation process (using the learnings shared above) and then determine which tool or combination of tools are best suited. The only constraint being obviously to make sure that the tools are simple and intuitive to use, i.e. do not distract from the task at hand. This allows everyone to contribute to the maximum of his or her capacity while still using the power of the group to elevate the ideas.
So here you have it.
Online or virtual ideation sessions can actually yield better results than your typical in-person workshops when 1. Alternating individual and group ideations session, 2. Allowing participants to ideate individually on their own terms by spacing the process, 3. Using frameworks and specific ideation tools and 4. By not limiting yourself to only one online ideation platform.
To learn more about our virtual brand positioning development methodology and how we can help your organization develop positioning platforms, product concepts and messaging strategies virtually, click here.
* Reference:Korde, R., & Paulus, P. B. (2017) Alternating individual and group idea generation: Finding the elusive synergy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 70, 177-190.