Remote Is Better Than In-person. Change My Mind

Running an ideation session is hard. Running it remotely is even harder. But it can be done and in many cases lead you to even better ideas than you can get in person. Sometimes, in-person interaction is precisely what you don’t want if you are genuinely looking for the most disruptive ideas. Sometimes, face to face hinders Ideation.

Case in point: a few years ago, we had a situation with one of my clients who required running two ideation sessions on a similar topic with the same set of inventors. Due to scheduling constraints at the time, one of the sessions was in-person, and one was remote.

Our typical in-person sessions were half-day marathons. Attendees consisted of two teams: the Ideation Team – several creative individuals we’ve pulled together from across the organization – could be SMEs, could be prolific serial inventors, or other folks we feel add value, and the Review Team, who does not participate in the Ideation but is there to review and take notes.

The composition of the Review Team varies. If we are looking for an outcome of generating targeted IP, then it’s outside council or the client’s legal team. If we are looking to develop products or of proofs-of-concept, it is product development leadership.

The teams start with breakfast in a beautiful large conference room with inspiring views of San Francisco Bay. We begin the session with an overview of the topic, unpacking that as much as possible.

We then take a coffee break.

After the coffee break, we do silent individual Ideation for 5-10 minutes, where each inventor writes down their ideas rapidly, each on a single post-it. At the end of the silent individual Ideation, we traverse the room and ask folks to post their ideas or those giant post-its, clustering them as they come up (if they are similar to an idea already up there). If not, they create a new cluster. All along, the team listens open-minded to what ideas are shared and has the opportunity to develop new ideas. Those are also shared.

We break for lunch and allow the Review Team to flag the ideas they’d like to expand upon.

As soon as we get back from lunch, the review team outlines the selected ideas and the Ideation Team deep dives into expanding the ideas into something which can eventually become a spec or an invention disclosure form.

This takes around 4 hours – not including travel time. While some may think this is the ideal way to ideate – it has some issues.

I’ve found that when you move people from various backgrounds into the same physical space, workplace politics, corporate culture, and the inventor’s traits (introversion and extroversion) come into play – and typically in a negative way. Inventors may be afraid to create genuinely disruptive ideas if their managers are in the room. Strong personalities can sometimes drive weaker, but possibly more creative characters to not speak up. Sure, they get silent Ideation, but when it comes time to share the idea, they may decide not to in fear of it getting shot down.

Plus, once people are in the office, they are mentally in the office. It is much more challenging to get them to look up from the problems of the day to focus on the opportunities of the future.

That same week, we ran a remote session. Of course, using the same methodology for remote sessions would be nuts (who wants to stare at a Zoom call for 4 hours straight), so we broke it up into three one-hour meetings.

For each meeting, we used Zoom, and a simple agenda in Google Docs, which was shared before the call and was screen shared through all calls. We used this document to capture the ideas, collaborate, and comment.

The first meeting focused on Ideation. The Review Team did not attend this one. Since the session was remote, we were able to have a much more diverse set of inventors. We started much like before, early in the AM. Since everyone was remotely connected, then they may have connected from anywhere. Some might be in the office, others may be in coffee shops, and still, others were at home. (Later on, we realized that the most exciting and disruptive ideas came from those working from home). We started with the topic discussion and individual silent Ideation. The inventors could put them right in the Google Doc (preferred), into the Zoom Chat, write them down, or send via email. At the end of that meeting, we had a Google Doc which captured the thoughts on the topic and the ideas.

Between this meeting at the next, we assigned Homework to the Ideation Team. They were to look at the ideas over the next week and add/edit/revise them right in the Google Doc.

The second meeting focused on Clustering. Again, the Review Team did not attend this one. Here, the Ideation Team would go through the ideas and cluster them into groups. Some ideas were collapsed, others expanded. After this meeting, the document was shared with the Review Team.

Between this meeting and the next, it was the Review Teams turn for Homework. The Review Team would go over the idea clusters and select those that they felt could be expanded into possible products or possible patents. These were then flagged in the Google Doc.

Finally, the teams met one last time to assist in the expansion of the ideas into a product or patent specifications.

Which worked out better?

While the in-person session generated more ideas, they were not as disruptive. Corporate politicking, the presence of managers, and overbearing personalities ensured that the ideas didn’t stray too far from accepted norms. While we generated ideas, many were merely incremental innovations.

In contrast, the remote session generated fewer ideas, but much more disruptive and forward-thinking ones. In looking back at the stats for this specific session, which focused on targeted IP, I’d say that the remote session was much more effective in generating possibly patentable ideas.