Friday afternoon I helped conduct the first in a series of brainstorming events organized by members of the ThinkBalm Innovation Community. Our goal with the events is both to develop and refine a best-practices approach to conducting brainstorming within virtual environments and to provide opportunity to experience the collaborative brainstorming capabilities of various immersive platforms (such as Second Life, Open Sim, and 3DXplorer to name a few). I’ve also been developing a simple brainstorming note-taking tool for use in Second Life. So, the process of brainstorming has been on my mind lately.
The Challenges of Brainstorming
These common challenges face any group, whether they meet physically or virtually, that seeks to produce ideas on a specific topic in a short period of time (aka brainstorming):
Effectively Communicating Concepts: Voice is arguably the most flexible and familiar tool. However, it is easy to misrepresent or misinterpret, especially if you do not have visual nonverbal cues to support (like physical posture, hand gestures, facial expressions). And even when you do have those cues, they sometimes can be misinterpreted, skewing the meaning of your contribution. Using visual elements can play a large role in helping to convey complex concepts (a series of photos, a flowchart, even a sketch on a whiteboard or napkin).
Time Limitations: There never seems to be enough time to thoroughly explore a challenge or problem, yet we are often expected in short brainstorming sessions to “step out of the box” and generate truly innovative game-changing ideas. Time is the most precious commodity to often overworked staff, so making the most of the scheduled time is of extreme importance. A major limitation with voice is that it is asynchronous. It does not allowing for multiple simultaneous contributions.
Getting and Staying Focused on the Core Topic: Having too broad of a topic to focus upon inhibits the discussion from the beginning, since no one knows where to begin. It also rarely leads to significant ideas since the discussion is so broad and variable. On the flip side, having too narrow of a topic restricts participants creativity. Although, chasing those rabbits down paths that seem to lead nowhere can often lead to some of the most creative and innovative ideas.
Recording the Exchanges: It’s always tough to capture the ideas and rationale in discussions for practical future use. Audio recordings and transcripts of sessions are one way, but who has the time to dig back into these? Human notetakers are extremely useful, however must interpret and synthesize much of what is expressed. It often falls on them to bring order and structure to the chaos of the discussion. But if they misunderstand some key element or concept, much is lost in the translation.
Establishing and Maintaining a Safe Environment: Stepping out and expressing that bizarre idea takes courage. You have to trust that the other participants will accept the contribution and not think you mad. Having a safe environment should not be underestimated. One strongly critical comment could shut down participants and inhibit truly creative expression. But establishing trust, particularly among strangers and in short periods, is a difficult challenge.
The Ideal Virtual Brainstorming Tool
So, any tool built to facilitate brainstorming in a virtual environment must somehow address these basic challenges. Here are my thoughts on the key elements needed in an immersive brainstorming tool:
Must be Quick: During a vigorous discussion, ideas come fast. The tool must respond quickly to user input, or it becomes a roadblock to the rapid ideation process.
Allows for Synchronicity: Voice is useful, but an attention hog. The tool must allow multiple users to both input as well as review ideas and thoughts synchronously.
Easy to Use: If you barely have the time to conduct the brainstorming meeting, then you certainly don’t have the time to spend on training people how to use yet another tool. It must be intuitive to operate, especially for those new to virtual worlds.
Exportable Results: Sometimes it may not be possible to return to the virtual environment to review the results. The compiled results must be easily brought into the physical world for use. This may mean exporting via text, image, 3D construct, or some other method.
Add Unique Value: If it can be easily replicated in the physical world, then why bother with an immersive solution? The tool must provide unique value that is difficult or impossible in the physical realm. Perhaps that is providing a unique construct where differing perspectives reveal different meanings, or a “place” for distributed participants to meet to deposit and review contributions.