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How to Innovate with Virtual Teams

In the digital age, conventional meetings are obsolete, and when compared to advances in other areas of organizational management, the current art of human collaboration seems archaic. It needn’t be.

For most executives, managers, and supervisors, the meeting is the only work management tool they’ve ever used for collaboration.

Granted, we now have distance conferencing capabilities, but digital conferencing platforms are basically delivery vehicles— their ultimate effectiveness as a collaborative tool is dependent upon users having the ability to leverage the intellectual and creative potential of the individuals participating in the dialogue. You still need a competent human running the meeting agenda to innovate with virtual teams.

If managers are doing a poor job of collaborating in person- to- person gatherings—and be assured that they are—digital collaborative performance will be even less effective. Right now, this reality is overshadowed by excitement over the diversity of impressive delivery vehicles and platforms for distance conferencing. That excitement will prove hollow unless we also upgrade the human element of the collaborative equation.

Martin Murphy is the author of No More Pointless Meetings and the founder and president of QuantamMeetings, a consultancy that specializes in the delivery of unique collaboration sessions.

He developed a workflow management tool called “Innovation Sessions” to transform the ability of managers to leverage intellectual and creative capital. These are a particularly powerful type of meeting for virtual teams who can’t physically brainstorm together.

What is an Innovation Session?

The Innovation Session is the work management session to use when you want to tap into the creative potential of a group.

When to use an Innovation Session

The Innovation Session has many applications, and use of it is indicated when any of the following needs are identified:

  • Development of new products or services
  • Upgrade of systems and procedures
  • Streamlining of intradepartmental communications
  • Identification of alternative marketing strategies
  • Development of a name for a new product, service, or initiative
  • Identification of a unique promotional idea or initiative
  • Jumpstart of a stalled Problem-Solving Session

How to Conduct an Innovation Session

An Innovation Session comprises four phases: Ideation, Building, Evaluation, and Action Plan.

Ideation: The goal of the first phase of the Innovation Session is to enable and encourage the participants to generate as many ideas as possible. A key for success in this phase is to suspend any self-editing on the part of the participants.

Building: In the second phase of the Innovation Session, participants take their ideas and partial ideas and turn them into more defined and detailed concepts.

Evaluation: The third phase of the session is for evaluating the concepts and determining the most likely to succeed. Next Steps are then established for moving the new product idea from concept to the next stage in product development.

Action Plan: All ideas, concepts, and Next Steps are captured for the Ongoing Planning Database.

10 Tips for Fostering Innovation During Virtual Team Meetings

  1. Clarify the difference between content and process. Content refers to what’s being discussed, the subject or purpose for having a meeting in the first place. Process refers to virtually everything else including:
  • How loudly are people speaking?
  • Who’s talking the most?
  • Who’s apparently not listening?
  • Who’s not participating?
  • And more
  • State the purpose of the session. To avoid spending too much time on this, write what you understand the goal to be as the title of your meeting invitation.
  • Request a volunteer to write down unanswered questions in a group chat. Thank the person who volunteered each time he or she gets up to record an unanswered question to make sure everyone embraces the value of the unknown.
  • Get the group’s permission to take a break. Have everyone turn off their cameras and audio for a specified amount of time. After a break, ask each participant to move to a different area of their home, if possible, because it requires participants to change comfort zones, increases their attention levels, and adds to the overall energy level of the session.
  • Start the meeting with a time-constrained idea dump. Instruct your team to write as many ideas “without discussion” as they can in just a few minutes. The combination of short completion cycles (three minutes) and the instruction “without discussion” increases the energy level inside of the video conference. It short-circuits cognitive comfort zones and encourages energized participation.
  • Display everyone’s ideas, but limit discussion to two ideas at one time. The reason for taking only two ideas from each person is that many people have similar ideas and by the time you get to them they complain that all of their ideas have already been documented.  
  • Convert raw ideas to concepts. The difference between a new product idea and a new product concept is in the degree of completeness. Often, a new product concept reveals itself when several ideas are combined or when a value-added feature is integrated with an existing product or service.
  • Assist the group in identifying viable concepts. Pattern recognition is a useful tool to employ for this. Suggest to participants that they look at the big picture before getting into details. Ask them to review all of the ideas and identify patterns or interconnectivities that spark their interest.
  • Distribute a list of all ideas after the session. Assure your team that a list of all the partial ideas, complete ideas, and concepts will be written up and distributed via email to participants within twenty-four hours after the conclusion of the session.
  • Develop an action plan. Document the Innovation Session output in an actionable format with Tasks, Responsibilities, and Due Dates.
  • With a standard session group of fifteen participants, you typically get approximately seventy- five ideas from this step. You’ll want to try and limit the team to their top 10 concepts in terms of their viability. Concepts with the strongest viability feedback would subsequently be scheduled for quantitative testing.

    There is a paradoxical element to the Innovation Session in that we’re using structure to access creativity; the Innovation Session structure is primarily the act of separating two collaboration dynamics: freewheeling creative Ideation and thoughtful Evaluation. Both can be achieved in-person, as well as virtual, team meetings.

    Martin Murphy

    Martin Murphy is the Founder and President of QuantumMeetings. His management experience began on Madison Avenue with The J. Walter Thompson Company, then the world's largest advertising agency. In the course of the next several years he held management positions with prominent advertising agencies in New York City. QuantumMeetings is a refinement of the Meeting Practices consultancy, with core focus on the delivery of unique collaboration sessions that transform the ability of managers to leverage intellectual and creative capital.

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