Virtual Brainstorming for an Innovation Advantage for Hybrid and Remote Teams in the Future of Work

“Our software engineers and product designers need to go back to the office full-time. Otherwise, we’re going to lose our competitive advantage in innovation.” That’s what Saul, the Chief Product Officer of a 1,500-employee enterprise software company, said at the start of the company’s planning meeting on the post-vaccine return to office and the future of work. 


He continued: “Doing brainstorming by videoconference doesn’t work nearly as well as in-person meetings. So letting them work virtually now that vaccines are available is a non-starter. I can guarantee that our competitors will overtake us quickly if we don’t return product people to full-time in-office work.” And then he sat back in his chair and crossed his arms, daring anyone to defy him. 


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Hired as the consultant to help the company figure out its return to office and permanent future of work arrangements, I was facilitating the meeting. It was my ninth such engagement. Over two-thirds featured leaders responsible for the company’s products expressing some version of this concern, although Saul was the most aggressive about it.


So what explains these struggles with innovation and what can be done about them? My experience of helping over a dozen organizations transition to a post-vaccine office return provides important insights for any leaders who want an innovation advantage in the future of work. Hybrid and even remote teams can gain a substantial innovation advantage if they don’t stick to office-based innovation processes. Instead, by adopting best practices for innovation in the return to the office and the future of work, hybrid and remote teams can outcompete in-person teams in innovation.


Returning to Office Full-Time Threatens Innovation 


My response to Saul, as well as to those other leaders, started by determining a shared goal: to maximize innovation in the most efficient and effective manner. All the leaders overseeing products agreed with this overarching goal.


Then, I probed how these leaders tried to pursue innovation during the lockdowns. They all told me they tried to adapt their office-based approach of synchronous brainstorming to the new videoconference modality.


Therein lies the problem. None of them tried to research best practices on virtual innovation to adapt strategically to their new circumstances. Instead, they tried to impose their pre-existing office-based methods of innovation on virtual work. While understandable in the initial stages of the lockdowns, it might seem surprising that they would pursue this same office-based toolkit over the many months of the pandemic. Yet that’s exactly what happened.


Thus, these leaders have pushed for a full-time in-office schedule after vaccines grew widespread, despite the obvious dangers of doing so. After all, even prior to the surge associated with the Delta variant, extensive surveys of employee desires for post-vaccine future of work arrangements showed that 25% to 35% wanted remote work only. In turn, 50-65% wanted to return to office with a hybrid schedule of a day or two on campus. Only 15-25% desired to go back to Monday to Friday 9-5 schedules.


Those employee desires represent a definite mismatch to the demands of product leaders, the large majority of whom wanted to go back to the office full-time. The surveys, taken before the Delta surge, showed that 40-55% intended to find a new job if they did not get their desired working preferences


Indeed, we know that many already resigned due to their employers trying to force them back to the office. Of course, the Delta variant will cause many more to quit, due to fears about breakthrough infections: recent data shows that waning vaccine immunity after 6 months results in vaccine efficacy falling to 39% against Delta.


It’s obvious that having a large portion of your workforce resign as part of the Great Resignation pushed by the coercive efforts to get them to return to the workplace is no way to maintain an innovation advantage. That’s why even before the Delta surge, Google backtracked from its intention to force all employees to return to campus and permitted full-time remote work to many in the face of mass employee resistance and resignations. Amazon did the same for similar reasons. 


These trillion-dollar companies lost many billions through their self-defeating actions due to top employees leaving, serious hits to employee morale and engagement, and having to change the basics of their return to campus plans. If these top companies, with supposedly the best leadership and policies, can screw up their return-to-office plans so badly and hurt their innovation advantage, no wonder leaders of less-resourced smaller companies do so as well.


The Dangerous Judgment Errors Blocking Innovation Best Practices in the Future of Work


Numerous leaders fail to adopt innovation best practices for the future of work because of dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. These mental blindspots, which often lead to wishful thinking, result in poor strategic and financial decisions when evaluating options. They render leaders unable to resist following their gut and their personal preferences instead of relying on best practices on returning to the office.


One dangerous judgment error impeding innovation in the future of work is called functional fixedness. When we have a certain perception of appropriate practices, behaviors, and processes, we tend to ignore or even actively reject other appropriate practices, behaviors, and processes. Our mindset of these functions is fixed and unyielding, even if other practices, behaviors, and processes may offer a much better fit for a changed situation, and would be much more effective at solving our problems. 


That’s why so many leaders failed to address strategically the problems associated with innovation due to the March 2020 lockdowns and the abrupt transition to telework. Perceiving this shift as a very brief emergency, they focused, naturally and appropriately, on accomplishing the necessary immediate tasks of the organization. 


That’s fine for an emergency, a week or two. Yet COVID lasted for over a year. So they adapted their existing ways of interacting in “office culture” to remote work. They did not make the effort to figure out strategically what kind of culture and collaboration and communication methods would work best for innovation in the virtual world. That left them unprepared for the hybrid and remote future of work.


A second cognitive bias, which is related to functional fixedness, is called the not-invented-here syndrome. It’s self-explanatory: many leaders have an antipathy toward practices not invented within their organization. They reject external best practices as not fitting their particular culture, style, or needs, even when adopting such practices would be much better for their own stated goals. Ironically, leaders who decry how virtual work impedes innovation tend to stick to old-school, traditional practices of advancing innovation. They fail to adopt external and innovative best practices on innovation, even with extensive evidence showing their benefits.


Defeating cognitive biases to return to office successfully and thrive in the future of work requires the use of research-based best practices. It means a mainly hybrid model of one to two days in-office while permitting most employees to work remotely as needed. A substantial minority of employees should work full-time remotely if they are reliable and productive. That setup helps facilitate an easy way to shift to full-time work from home for all staff if need arises, such as during a variant surge, by creating a culture and systems and processes that facilitate remote work. This best-practice setup will translate to diverse benefits: optimization of innovation and collaboration, retention of top talent, and the creation of flexible company culture, systems, and processes.


Virtual Brainstorming for Hybrid and Remote Teams


Traditional Brainstorming


Brainstorming represents the traditional approach to intentional, non-serendipitous innovation. That involves groups of 4-8 people getting together in a room to come up with innovative ideas about a pre-selected topic. 


At first, everyone shares their ideas, with no criticism permitted. Then, after group members run out of ideas, the ideas are edited to remove duplicates and obvious non-starters. Finally, the group discusses the remaining ideas, and decides on which to pursue.


Research in behavioral science reveals that participants in brainstorming enjoy these sessions and find it to be effective in generating ideas. That benefit in idea generation comes from two areas identified by scientists


One involves idea synergy, meaning that ideas shared by one participant help trigger ideas in other participants. Experiments show that synergy benefits are especially high if participants are instructed to pay attention to the ideas of others and focus on being inspired by these ideas. 


Another benefit comes from what scholars term social facilitation. That’s about the benefit of social support from working on a shared task. Participants feel motivated when they know they’re collaborating with their peers on the same goal.


Sadly, these benefits come with costs attached. One of the biggest problems is called production blocking


Did you ever participate in a brainstorming session where you had what you felt to be a brilliant idea, but someone else was talking? And then the next person responded to that person, and they took the conversation in a different direction? By the time you had a chance to speak, the idea seemed not relevant, or too redundant, or maybe you even forgot the idea. 


If you never had that happen, 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. 


Finally, conflict-avoidant and/or politically savvy team members feel reluctant to share more controversial ideas that challenge existing practices and/or the territory associated with high-status team members, especially the team leader. These ideas are often the most innovative ideas, but they remain unsaid.


A related problem to evaluation apprehension is brainstorming groupthink. That refers to team members coalescing around the ideas of the most powerful people in the room. In the idea generation stage, groupthink involves lower-power team members focusing more on reinforcing and building on the ideas of the more powerful participants. In the idea evaluation stage, groupthink results in the ideas of the more powerful getting more preferential selection.


A final problem relates to group size. The more people you get in a traditional brainstorming session, the less ideas you get per person. Scholars attribute this loss of efficiency to a phenomenon called social loafing. The more people participate, the more tempting it is for each individual to not work quite as hard at generating ideas. They feel – rightfully so – that they can skate by with less effort and engagement. That’s why research finds that the most efficient size of traditional brainstorming groups for the maximum number of novel ideas per person is 2.


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. Thus, if you want to leverage innovation to gain or keep your competitive edge, traditional brainstorming is not the way to go.


Saul challenged me when I brought up these problems, saying he never experienced them. I pointed out that top leaders – like Saul – are rarely subject to these challenges. 


Leaders tend to be extroverted and optimistic, as these personality traits facilitate leadership. Leaders by definition are the centers of power in product brainstorming sessions: they can interrupt at any time without any problems and all groupthink coalesces around his ideas. Because they own the outcomes of the brainstorming meeting and are thus strongly motivated, they don’t feel social loafing. It’s a classic case of bias blind spot, our tendency to not see our own mental blindspots.


I challenged Saul in return, suggesting to him that we run an anonymous survey of his staff to see if any of these problems exist. He took me up on my challenge. The survey revealed that his staff perceived production blocking and evaluation apprehension as serious problems that impede traditional brainstorming, and Saul was ready to listen to alternatives to traditional brainstorming at the next planning meeting. Fortunately, most other product leaders trust the credibility of peer-reviewed best practices and don’t require such extra efforts to get proof.


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 as traditional brainstorming. No wonder leaders responsible for innovation dislike it.


Instead of the losing proposition of videoconference brainstorming, leaders need to abandon their functional fixedness on synchronous team meetings for brainstorming. They need to adopt the best practice of asynchronous virtual brainstorming.


Step 1: Initial Idea Generation


All team members generate ideas by themselves and input them into a shared spreadsheet. You can do so via many software platforms: when I facilitate brainstorming meetings, I typically use a Google Form, which automatically produces a Google Spreadsheet with responses. 


To tap social facilitation, the group can input ideas during a digital co-working meeting. You all get on a videoconference call for an hour, turn off your microphones but keep speakers on, with video optional (although preferable). If someone has a clarifying question, they can turn on their microphone and ask, but avoid brainstorming out loud. However, doing so is not necessary, especially if the team is geographically distributed such that time zone differences make coordination difficult.


Research has shown that to get the most number of novel ideas, all team members should be told to focus on generating as many novel ideas as possible, rather than the highest-quality ideas, and informed that this is the outcome on which they would be measured. Likewise, participants should be encouraged to consider contradictions between different and often-opposing goals in their innovative ideas, such as maximizing impact while minimizing costs. 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, as such accountability helps maximize novel ideas.


Step 2: Idea Cleanup


The brainstorming meeting facilitator accesses the spreadsheet, removes duplicates and combines similar ideas, breaks ideas up into categories, and sends them out to all team members. As an alternative, a subgroup of or even all participants can access the Google Spreadsheet and work together asynchronously on this process. If you adopt the latter process, for the sake of anonymity, create throwaway Gmail accounts for collaborating on the spreadsheet.


Step 3: Idea Evaluation


After the ideas are cleaned up, all team members anonymously comment on and rate each of the ideas. Thus, in a 6-people groups, each idea should have 5 comments and ratings. The ratings should assess at least 3 categories, each on a scale of 1-10: the idea’s novelty, practicality, and usefulness. Additional ratings can depend on the specific context of the brainstorming topic.


Step 4: Revised Idea Generation


After commenting on and rating ideas, team members do another round of idea generation, either revising previous ideas based on feedback or sharing new ones inspired by seeing what others generated. In both cases, the process tapes the benefits of synergy through gaining the perspectives of other team members. 


Step 5: Cleanup of Revised Ideas


The next step is to clean up and categorize the revised ideas. Use the same process as step 2.


Step 6: Evaluation of Revised Ideas


Following that, do another round of commenting and rating, this time on revised ideas, in parallel to step 3.


Step 7: Meet to Discuss Ideas


At this point, it’s helpful to have a synchronous meeting if possible to discuss the ideas. Anonymity at this point is unnecessary since there are clear ratings and comments on the ideas. Group participants decide on which ideas make the most sense to move forward immediately, which should be put in the medium-term plans, and which should be put on the back burner or even discarded. As part of doing so, they decide on the next steps for implementation, assigning responsibility to different participants for various tasks. 


This kind of practical planning meeting is easy to have virtually for full-time virtual workers. Of course, it also works well to have steps 1-6 done virtually by hybrid teams, and do step 7 when they come to the office. However, it’s critical to avoid doing steps 1-6 in the office to avoid production blocking, evaluation apprehension, groupthink, and social loafing. 


You can also attain the same outcome through an asynchronous exchange of messages rather than a meeting. Yet in my experience facilitating virtual brainstorming, having a meeting reduces miscommunication and confusion for more complex and controversial innovative ideas.


Does Virtual Brainstorming Work?


Virtual brainstorming appears to solve the biggest obstacles to traditional in-person brainstorming. Here’s the big question: does it 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. While in-person brainstorming may feel more fun, it actually results in worse outcomes. 


Another group of scholars researched group size. It found that the larger the group of participants, the more benefits to electronic brainstorming in terms of ideas generated. That’s because electronic brainstorming is not subject to social loafing. Each participant works by themselves and knows they’re accountable for the quantity of novel ideas, with novelty determined by ratings from group participants.


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 synergy, with a greater total number of ideas inspiring participants to have more additional ideas.


A hidden benefit of virtual brainstorming comes after the initial brainstorming process is complete. While traditional brainstorming leaves a far-from-complete record of ideas, due to sparse notes and fuzzy memories, scholars found that the complete record of electronic brainstorming has a substantial benefit as a treasury of novel ideas. As a situation changes, ideas that seemed more practical and useful in the past may appear less so in the future, and vice versa. The group can thus always go back to past ideas and re-rank them accordingly.


My experience implementing it for clients reveals similar outcomes. At first, many participants – especially the more extroverted, high-status, and optimistic ones – complain about the “dry” nature of the process. They miss the fun and engagement of collaborative ideas flying around the table. 


In contrast, more introverted participants take to the process pretty quickly, finding it a relief from the cognitive overload of a noisy environment where they can’t hear themselves think. So do more pessimistic and lower-status ones, relieved by not having to feel judged for their ideas and less worried about criticizing the ideas of others in the evaluation stage.


After two or three sessions, even the extroverts tend to come around. They acknowledge, even if sometimes grudgingly, that the process seems to produce more novel ideas than traditional in-person brainstorming. In fact, hybrid groups trained in this process, who have the option of doing steps 1-5 in-person, nearly always prefer to do virtual brainstorming for these initial steps, while doing step 6 in the office. 


That approach creates the maximum number of novel ideas, gaining an innovation advantage. It also provided the optimal experience for most of the 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.


“Okay, I give you the virtual brainstorming, that makes sense,” said Saul, less grudgingly than before, after I outlined the benefits of this practice over in-person brainstorming. “I’ll have to have my teams experiment with it and see how we can make it fit our needs.”


He was as good as his word and did some serious experimentation over the next couple of weeks until the third planning meeting. His staff felt surprised at how many innovative ideas they produced using this innovative methodology. It seems that their creative energies were waiting to be unleashed, and this methodology for intentional virtual brainstorming provided the outlet. 




If you want to gain an innovation advantage in the future of work, you need to avoid the tendency to stick to pre-pandemic innovation methodology. Instead, you need to adopt research-based best practices for innovation in the return to the office and the future of work, such as virtual brainstorming. By doing so, your hybrid and remote teams will enable you to gain a true competitive advantage in innovation.


Key Takeaway


The future of work will reward those who adopt best practices for an innovation advantage, and penalize those who do not. To seize a competitive advantage, you need to adopt virtual brainstorming for hybrid and remote teams…> Click to tweet

Questions to Consider (please share your answers below)

  • What are your traditional strategies for advancing innovation?

  • How useful might virtual brainstorming be for your team?

  • What next steps will you take to innovate based on this article?

Image credit: olia danilevich

Originally Published at Disaster Avoidance Experts on .