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Brain-Netting: How to Brainstorm Online Better in a Distributed Team

You just received word that a new project has been okayed and
funded. You’re eager to set up a brainstorming meeting with your team. But only
two of your team members are local. The others are either on the other coast or
another continent!

You could fly everyone in at great expense, or you could find
some other way to brainstorm as a team. Enter “Brain-Netting,” or brainstorming
on the Internet.

Brain-netting online brainstorming tools and techniques
Online brainstorming tools and techniques of brain-netting. (graphic source)

Online brainstorming isn’t a new idea, but with new software and tools it’s much more effective now than ever before. The Internet, however, is far from perfect. It takes careful planning and lots of human intuition and insight to make Brain-Netting an effective technique.

An Overview of Online Brainstorming Tools and Brain-Netting Techniques

It’s easy to talk about brainstorming “on the Internet,” but the
reality is that that expression is as clear as mud. It’s like talking about
brainstorming “in the real world.” The term begs the question “where and how do
you work together on the Internet?” 

There are a slew of answers to that
question, which vary from the free to the expensive, from the simple to the
complex, and from the effective to the useless. Let’s review these online brainstorming tools and deconstruct effective techniques.

1. Brain-Netting Tools From the Simple to the Sophisticated

The very simplest form of Brain-Netting—which can be used both
for virtual teams and for teams that include shy or reticent members—asks
team members to email their ideas to a central location for review. Once you go
beyond that very simple approach, there are quite a few options:

  • Group Calls – Traditional verbal brainstorming using group connectivity. You
    gather your group together for a conversation using voice-only, video, or
    shared-screen chats.  There are multiple
    providers of such services, and most are cheap or free. ConferenceCalling.com
    (pay-per-use) and FreeConferenceCall.com (free) are two of the top providers.
  • Chat Apps – Slack, Yammer, Sribblar, and several other applications allow you
    to share emails based on topic of interest, level of privacy, and more. You can
    create little chat rooms for just a few collaborators, or share information and
    ideas much more broadly. You can also use forum software or project apps like Trello or Basecamp for group conversations.
  • Video Conferencing – The next step up would be video conferencing with the option of
    sharing not only video of one another but also computer screens. It’s great to
    be able to actually show people the site or software you’re working with, while
    describing or discussing it aloud. Top options for this type of service include
    Skype, GoToMeeting, and UberConference. Google Hangout is also an option,
    though it’s not as well suited for business needs.

Learn how to get your team setup and working together with Slack: 

But what if you actually want to collaborate by working together
on documents, whiteboards, or mind-mapping activities? You still have a wide
range of options at various price points.

  • Collaborative Documents – At the bottom of the list are free collaborative document
    editing sites such as Google Docs. These tools allow team members to write,
    edit, add comments, and otherwise mark up documents and spreadsheets. Google
    Docs, however, is not an all-in-one solution: if you want to talk while you
    edit, you’ll have to get on Skype or some other conferencing system at the same
  • All-in-One Solutions – Next up are some of the all-in-one options that allow you to
    talk, share screens, draw on whiteboards, video conference, annotate, and more.
    Some of these start out free and then add on paid services. Options including
    join.me, WebEx, and Skype for Business – all of which allow quite a bit of
    collaboration while viewing while talking!

Discover how to start sharing and collaborating on documents in Google Docs: 

But these options are just a start. Because there’s a whole new
industry building tools for groups interested in doing more elaborate,
sophisticated brainstorming from a distance. With names like MindMeister,
Concept Board, StormBoard, and RealtimeBoard, they offer whole suites of tools
for building mindmaps, creating timelines, annotating reports, and more. They’re
neither free nor cheap, but they may be your best option for capturing a wide
range of ideas and insights in a manageable manner.

2. Limitations of Brainstorming Online With Brain-Netting

As you start thinking about working with a collaborative group
across time and space, you begin to run into some basic issues. For example:

  • If one team member is in Korea while the other is in Detroit,
    you can run into some serious scheduling conflicts.
  • If some team members are full time employees while others are contractors or
    freelancers, you may run into problems with shared software. Do you really want
    to buy expensive software for a team member who will be leaving (with his
    software) in six months?
  • If some team members are technically savvy while others have a tough time
    turning the computer off and on again, you may find that certain people drop
    out of the process altogether rather than learn a whole new way to communicate.
  • If some team members are using Macs while others are using PC’s, you may run
    into compatibility issues.
  • Complex software can take time for everyone to learn—which means it’s only
    helpful when you’re planning to use it many times with the same group of people.

It’s also important to remember that, no matter how
sophisticated the software or the connectivity, brainstorming requires the
intelligent cooperation of a group of human beings. In other words, successful Brain-Netting—just like any type of brainstorming online or off—requires skilled facilitation by
someone who understands the process, the people, and the goals.

3. Adjusting to the Asynchronicity of Brainstorming Online

Many groups that are brainstorming at a distance are in very
different time zones. One group is sleeping while the other is awake; one is
eating breakfast while the other is heading to happy hour. How does such a
group work together? The answer is asynchronicity.

Asynchronous collaboration is a simple idea: some people work
while others are sleeping, and then the two groups switch roles. This is a fine
idea, and it works well when your plan is to collect ideas, annotate documents,
and otherwise share insights about a project or product.

The difficulties with asynchronicity arise in situations such as

  • Employee A is asleep and thus unable to defend his ideas; as a
    result, employee B completely revises employee A’s work. Employee A wakes up
    and is instantly put on the defensive.
  • A facilitator has been hired to help manage a distributed
    brainstorming project. The facilitator, who lives in time zone 1, goes home
    just as collaborators in time zone 2 show up for work. The second group of
    collaborators make up their own rules—making it impossible to continue the
    facilitated process the next day.
  • A team member starts working on a distributed brainstorm process and realizes she has a question. She posts her question—but must then
    wait six hours to hear a response, as the respondent has been either driving to
    work or in meetings all day.

Managing an asynchronous brainstorming process requires quite a
bit of trust, but it also has some advantages. Yes, conversations evolving
while you are asleep or (takeover) issues do happen, especially on hot-button
topics. But you also have the opportunity to take time to reflect before you compose your responses, really thinking things through rather than dashing off a response
from the top of your head. And because
time passes between interactions, team members have the opportunity to comment
on ideas over time. 

It can lead to more thoughtful group brainstorming—with some of the similar benefits a team would get from the process of brainwriting: 

4. When Does Brain-Netting
Make Sense?

When should you go beyond a simple “send me an email” approach
to working with a virtual team? Here are a few rules of thumb:

  • Consider your goals, your team, your timeline, and your budget.
    If you’re brainstorming a complex project with a sophisticated group of
    designers who have plenty of time, money, and collaborative spirit—a big
    software purchase may make sense. But, if you’re in a rush to collect ideas from a
    diverse group, why go there?
  • Some teams do better than others with Brain-Netting. If your
    business is accustomed to virtual or remote teamwork, everyone knows the basic
    ground rules. Once you’ve established expectations for general use, it becomes
    easier to work together from a distance whenever the opportunity arises.
  • The
    simplest approach is usually best. If you can get everyone together on GoToMeeting or WebEx and facilitate a brainstorm online session to get the ideas
    you need, why get more complicated?
  • Free, well-understood tools are generally a good option. If you can use Google
    docs to manage a collaborative brainstorming process, why invest in expensive
    software and training?
  • Use
    tools that are intuitive for your group. If you’re working with a group of
    designers, visual tools are often a good option. If you’re working with
    financial analysts, you might be happier sharing and marking up spreadsheets,
    charts, and graphs.
  • Choose
    tools that will help you to collect, review, and compile outcomes. Sticky notes
    and mind maps may look great, but if the software you choose can’t help you to
    produce a report or generate a to-do list, they may turn out to be a time sink.

5. Using Online Brainstorming Tools Effectively

No matter which Brain-Netting tools you use, the basic rules of
brainstorming apply. That’s because no technology can take the place of a
skilled facilitator, encourage participation, or know when it’s time to take a
break, sum up, or try a new tactic to enhance creativity.

So… here are the basic rules for running an effective Brain-Netting

  • Understand your software, its options, and its limitations
  • Train
    your team to use the software effectively
  • Describe
    your goals and the process you’ll use to achieve them
  • Explain
    the schedule. Include information about timing of responses and how long the brainstorming will take place, whether that’s over a few hours, a number of days, or longer.
  • Facilitate
    the process. If it’s all happening at once, you can facilitate as you would in
    person—but if it’s asynchronous, you may need to pop in at regular intervals
    to intervene in arguments, call on reticent team members, sum up points, or
    shake things up.
  • Know how you will end the session, present findings, and organize the group for
  • Explain
    how the software will be used in the future for additional discussion, task group
    meetings, etc.
  • Stay on top of it!

Start Brainstorming Better Online

Brain-Netting is a wonderful option for the right team at
the right time. 

If you have a widely distributed team with the technical and personal skills to use online brainstorming, choose the tool that meets your particular needs. 

If, on the other hand, your team is not tech savvy or comfortable with virtual, asynchronous teamwork—consider the possibility of getting together in the same room at the same time as a simpler and more appropriate alternative.

Discover additional brainstorming techniques: 

Or, jump into our ultimate, multi-part guide to better brainstorming techniques, for more in-depth tutorials on brainstorming and methods of generating many great ideas.