Brainstorming Immersively: Of Streams, Position, & Coordination

August 30, 2009

Friday was the 8th installment of the ThinkBalm Innovation Community‘s Brainstorming series.  I’ve consistently found ThinkBalm immersive events incredibly beneficial, particularly in refining my understanding of enterprise use of immersive technologies.  This one was no exception.

It was a focused, vigorous 1 hour discussion lead by Erica Driver & Sam Driver (ThinkBalm) on the topic of “How to write an immersive technology business case.”  We used my newly released BrainBoard version 1 as our primary collaboration orchestrator.  At the close of the session, Erica gathered evaluation feedback from the participants by using the Attitudometer.

Brainstorming Area

Here are some observations & thoughts from my experience:

I saw some fascinating non-verbal problem solving and coordination

Erica & Sam structured the discussion agenda with 3 points.  Thus, contributions appearing on the board were placed under one of the 3 points.  The initial setup was to use the 4 quadrants on the main board to sort the user generated notes for each of the 3 points.  Any miscellaneous notes would be sorted into the 4th quad.  The supplemental board was placed on the side just in case we needed more room.  Well, we needed it.  Due to the sheer number of user notes, we quickly moved the 3rd and miscellaneous points to the supplemental board, leaving the main board for the 1st & 2nd point notes.  I bold & italics “WE” for emphasis…All this was conducted without verbal coordination.  It happened organically (or digitally, I guess).  Several individuals visually observed the need for more room, and coordinated a solution using visual observation and interaction.  And all this without breaking the momentum of the ongoing discussion.

Simultaneous voice & text = better discussion communication

My computer was not playing nice that day, thus I could hear participant voices, but no one could hear mine (a fact that my wife humorously pointed out might have been a good thing).

However, the curse was actually a blessing.  I was reminded yet again that although voice is a powerful & flexible communication tool, it is inferior to text for synchronous multi-person contributions.  I found myself following the stream of voice discussion, while simultaneously contributing relevant thoughts & ideas into notes on the BrainBoard.  I could see several others doing the same thing, their thoughts popping into existence onto the board.  This visual/textual discussion stream at times tracked the vocal, qualitatively and quantitatively expanding & enhancing it.  At other times, it branched away from the vocal, following the rabbit-like course of thought in a separate exploration of the core discussion topic.

This approach to brainstorming allows multiple contribution roles

Brainstorming Main BoardI also found the way in which I contributed to the discussion changed over the course of the hour.  It seemed that in the first half, I followed the voice discussion rather closely, contributing many textual notes to the board without too much concern for their position on the board (or position relative to other notes).  My role seemed to be primarily to add thought.  As we moved into the 2nd half, I found myself spending more time reviewing & sorting the notes.  I started grouping similar notes together, looking for patterns that would inform the ongoing discussion.  The act of positionally sorting the notes during the discussion seemed to help me connect the concepts together into a working, developing understanding of the overall context.

I would be fascinated to learn what impact the repositioning/sorting of the notes had on other participants’ understanding of and contributions to the discussion.

Immersive/virtual environments enable positional relevance in discussions

Utilizing voice and text simultaneously enabled multiple discussion streams to which participants could contribute.  Having these streams in an immersive environment, where the participant contributions exist disparately and spacially as notes on the BrainBoard, allowed for their position to become relevant.  For example, you contribute a thought in a note.  You move that note to a position on the board.  As more contributions are added, someone moves your thought next to another thought.  Seeing the two thoughts placed closely together causes an insight in yet another person, who notes their contribution on the board.

3 Virtual Brainstorming Best Practices

March 1, 2009

I recently moderated a brainstorming session with two large clients in Second Life.  It seems like everytime I attend or conduct a virtual event, I always learn something new.  To share some lessons, here are 3 best practices to consider before conducting your next in-world brainstorming session:

1. Conduct A Participant Orientation

If you are planning a virtual event, particularly one involving high levels of interaction, you must insure all participants know the basics of the virtual environment.  By basics, I mean how to move their avatar, how to participate in open chat conversations, how to send a private IM, how to adjust their camera angle, and effective voice management techniques (like don’t leave your Talk button engaged & move your speakers away from your mic to reduce echoes).  Never underestimate the knowlege and skill needed by those new to virtual environments and the time it will take to convey it to them.  The most successful approach I’ve found is to have a separate participant orientation session, well before the day of the event, to insure all can successfully operate their virtual environment interface.

2. Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse

Broadway performances require numerous rehearsals to insure consistent, expected outcomes…same applies to virtual events.  Sure, this takes more time for the clients and all parties involved, but it is essential in clarifying expectations and identifying potential problems before they happen.  At minimum, you should walk through the entire agenda as if you were actually conducting the event.  Use the tools, display the information, and travel to the locations planned for the event…and look for potential problems so you can proactively address.

For example, we conducted 3 separate rehearsals for the recent client brainstorming event.  Since I was the moderator capturing and inputting discussion points into the BrainBoard while a facilitator guided the voice conversation, it was vital for us to coordinate effectively.  The facilitator had to know the capabilities/limitations of the virtual tools being used & how the information discussed would be displayed.  And I needed a clear sense of the agenda flow, what elements of the discussion were vital to display at what times, and when to engage certain features.  A rehearsal allowed us to fine-tune our approach to the event and even develop outlines used to pre-populate the boards.

3. Increase Engagement With Distributed Collaborative Input

Whenever possible, use tools and techniques that allow participant contribution and interactivity.  The death of many virtual meetings (and physical meetings for that matter) begin with a talking head presentation and a powerpoint show.  Sure, there may be small segments (like a quick Industry Overview) that a power point-like slide show would be appropriate, but keep those to a minimum!  For brainstorming, it’s all about the interaction.  Our clients chose for voice to be the nearly sole vehicle for discussion, and for a single moderator to input the discussion information into the BrainBoard.  While this allowed participants to focus solely on the voice discussion, I believe it limited their engagement in the discussion and thus resulted in less than optimal results.  True, they saw their ideas eventually appear on the board, but it was based on what I heard via their voice discussion and what I typed.  Allowing participants during brainstorming events to input their own ideas/suggestions, edit theirs/others, & rearrange/reorganize contributions helps to engage more of their senses, to utilize more of their reasoning centers, and to feel that their contribution is valid and appreciated.

Mind Mapping during Virtual Brainstorms

November 9, 2008

The ThinkBalm Innovation Community is doing incredible work advancing the use of the immersive internet.  As a member, I’ve thus far participated in three sessions of the virtual brainstorming series.  We utilize a 3D mindmapping tool I developed, a 3D instant polling tool, voice & text chat during the events.  After the last event, I successfully exported the 3D map of our discussion into a text outline and imported that outline into a MindMeister map…here’s the result.


Virtual Brainstorming Event “What’s the Big Idea” on October 17th

October 12, 2008

Join the ThinkBalm Innovation Community on Friday, October 17th as we tackle another topic relating to the immersive internet.

What’s the Big Idea Session #2

Discussion Topic: How should I convince colleagues that the immersive internet has business value?  What can I do to address their initial misgivings?

Date: Friday, Oct. 17th, 2008

Time: 2-3PM EST / 11AM-Noon PST

Place: ThinkBalm’s Innovation Community brainstorming space in Second Life (Vio II region).  Second Life URL (SLURL)

Why Attend:

  • To practice using collaborative virtual brainstorming tools.
  • To gain experience brainstorming within a virtual environment.
  • To make connections with others interested in utilizing virtual technologies and tools.

Who can Attend: ThinkBalm Innovation Community members (email if you are interested in joining)

How to Attend: RSVP to (include your avatar name).  To access the space, you will need to be a member of the ThinkBalm SL group.

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.