Immersive Brainstorming: The Tool We Need

September 29, 2008

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.

Why I Use Twitter

September 21, 2008
Who I Follow

Who I Follow

Like any cool web tool, Twitter can be a great help or an equally great waste of time.  It all depends on how you use it…and why.  At my most recent conference, Twitter was the hot topic among paraticipants.  I ended up explaining to multiple individuals why I use Twitter and how it has impacted my personal & professional life.


Why do I use Twitter?

Quick Answer:

First, because I see very beneficial business results.  Second, because it’s fun.

Detailed Answer:

1.  It augments my listening ability

By following those clients that use Twitter, I easily stay updated on their professional projects and personal lives.

By carefully following the right experts, I’m daily learning of new products & new techniques that will help me provide better solutions to my clients.

We have recently acquired technology that will soon be deployed for us to use in better serving our clients.  I currently have a RSSed twitter search on the technology fed to my Google Reader.  To put it simply, anytime anyone on Twitter mentions this technology (using it, installing it, troubles with it, successful applications of it), that twitter message is automatically sent to my Google Reader.  I can then read what others are saying about the technology.  This also allows me to identify potential user experts to contact in the future.

Speaking of RSSed Twitter searches, I also have them established for my clients divisions and keywords relating to their core business.  This really helps me know who is talking about our clients and what they are saying.

2.  It enhances my relationships with clients

Knowing a little personal information about clients, and vice versa, somehow seems to “humanize” us humans.  It makes us more approachable and more comfortable with one another.  It begins to establish in some small way a level of trust.  A paraphrase of a statement made by one of my clients, “Sure, it’s not mission critial for me to know that you frequently like to make your own sushi on Sundays, but it helps me to feel more comfortable with you.”  And likewise, me knowing that the client hopes their 8-year-old never grows out of their McDonald’s phase won’t solve the challenges presented by budget reductions, but it does help to foster the kind of safe environment needed to discuss and solve those difficult challenges.

3.  It’s an easy way to share knowledge

It’s extremely easy to share links to sites, videos, articles, blogs, you name it via Twitter.  I’ve used it to direct clients to information I’ve discovered pertinent to an ongoing project or effort.

4.  It increases serendipity

Often I find incredibly useful information, resources, and contacts via Twitter by chance.  For example, one of my clients follows numerous PR professionals in the OKC area.  I decided to follow a few to see what they had to say.  A few weeks later, a different client needed a panelist on short notice that knew the ins and outs of corporate volunteering programs.  Surprising enough I remembered that one of those PR professionals I followed (Sam Sims) had both a head and a heart for volunteering.  Problem solved, panelist secured…thanks Twitter (and Sam).

5.  It helps to promote my work

I like to Tweet when I complete work or start work on a major component of a client project.  It’s not only a simple way to keep client’s updated, it’s also a good way to promote the type of services you are capable of providing.  Of course, on sensitive projects the Tweets are kept generic enough to maintain confidential information (or not Tweeted at all).

For personal promotion, I send out a Tweet every time I post a new blog entry (like I just did for this one).  My page viewership typically jumps above 200% the day I Tweet.

2 Weeks in the ThinkBalm Innovation Community

September 6, 2008

For the last 2 weeks, I have actively participated in ThinkBalm’s Innovation Community.  For those of you who haven’t heard of this new community, here are my impressions:

What is it:

In a nutshell, it’s an online approach to inovation management.  Built on the Spigit’s serious game platform (see my earlier post explaining Spigit), ThinkBalm’s community focuses on generating and critiquing ideas relating to the immersive internet.  The ideas are refined through community member interaction and feedback.

How it works:

Take a brainstorming session, mix in equal parts of Wall Street, facebook, your favorite blogs, market economics, election politics, LinkedIn, and academic peer reviewed journals, hit purée, and you start to get a feel for what it is and how it operates.  Members have a range of methods to engage in the process, but it all starts with someone posting their idea.

The idea founder’s goal is to progress their idea through a standard process of peer review hurtles, structured much like a business startup, with a hopefully successful IPO and strong market capitalization on the game’s “spock” market.  Based on peer feedback, founders can refine their ideas and, if necessary, even recruit partners with “spock” ownership incentives.  Members provide feedback through discussion forums, by writing reviews, and by voting to “spig” or “scrap” the idea.  Your can choose to change your vote if compelling evidence is presented in discussion or if the idea’s team improves the idea.  You can also spig and scrap discussion comments, which not only voices you opinion of the comment but also impacts the reputation of the member that posted the comment.

The Performance Feedback:

The variety of performance feedback provided quickly draws you into the community’s “game” of innovation.  The leaderboard gives the low-down on member and idea performance, ranking both on reputation, popularity, and wealth.  It’s a thrill seeing your ideas and your name rise and fall through the rankings.

So, why you should pay attention:

It’s practical…

Sure, there is some pie-in-the-sky prognosticating (like one of my my ideas: Arrival of Ubiquitous Augmented Reality), but the collective wisdom of the vigorous community discussion always keeps the proverbial one foot on the ground.  I have discovered it is a great way to improve the ideas you’ve developed, as long as you are willing to listen and adapt.

Stay on the cutting edge of innovative virtual environment thinking…

If you are interested or involved in virtual environments, whether it be for education or the enterprise, the community is an excellent source of innovative cutting-edge thinking.

Games are the future of work…

I’m very impressed with the way this “game” approaches the process of innovation.  It’s not a top-down, let’s-meet-to-discuss-ways-our-organization-can-step-out-of-the-box, typical enterprise approach to promoting innovative thought and action.  It’s a fun, grass-roots, games approach to gathering innovations from the workforce, which is often the source of the most significant innovations.

It’s fun…

Even after a long day of work, I still enjoy logging on and contributing my thoughts.  It’s just plain fun.  And any tool an organization can deploy that taps into the heart of their stakeholders has enoromous potential.