Over the past 18 years, I’ve facilitated more than 250 face-to-face Ideation sessions with multicultural audiences on four continents. Two years ago, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic forced me to learn How to run inspiring Ideation sessions online, and I subsequently facilitated roughly a dozen online Ideation sessions over the past 18 months. So, while I consider myself a top international expert in facilitating fast & furious, energetic yet effective Ideation sessions offline, I’d rate my corresponding online competence level much lower (somewhere between the practitioner and master level), yet probably still higher than many other practitioners in the field. So when I was recently invited for an expert interview on the differences between doing Ideation sessions online on digital platforms vis-a-vis running them offline face-to-face, I said yes. The differences between the two modes are plentiful and interesting, with each mode having some distinct advantages and disadvantages.
How preparing for an effective Ideation session differs online vs. offline
Preparing for a classic offline ideation session requires the facilitator to check if the room gives enough space to do all planned ideation activities and ensure that all supplies and work materials are ready. When we run Ideation sessions with Thinkergy, we typically arrange for 2-3 flip charts (with ample paper) per team, 12-15 packs of Post-its, white and colored paper, and lots of pens in different sizes and colors. We also ensure sufficient copies of the worksheets related to those X-IDEA Ideation Tools we bring into play during the session and the corresponding stimulus cards at hand.
In contrast, preparing an online Ideation session requires us to shift from tangible materials to intangible media and resolve technological challenges rather than physical-spatial ones:
- Firstly, we settle with our client on the platforms used to run the videoconferencing session (e.g., Zoom, Microsoft Teams) and communicate online (which can be a simple tool like Google Slides or a more sophisticated platform like Miro.com).
- We also check if all delegates participating in the session will be able to access the chosen media (given limitations to freely accessing Internet content and related platforms and apps in some countries).
- Last but not least, we invest significant time upfront creating ready-to-fill-in online Ideation templates for each Ideation exercise, which means translating all the worksheets, stimulus cards, and Post-its from a physical into a digital format.
Finally, an interesting difference between the two formats is that offline Ideation events are much more resource-intensive, messy, and trash-producing than an online session (similar to the difference between a traditional and a modern paperless office).
How running and facilitating an effective Ideation session differs online vs. offline
As an innovation facilitator of a face-to-face Ideation session, I can bring a much greater number and variety of Ideation Tools into play to stimulate intriguing ideas. For example, in a 3.5 hour-long Ideation, 2-3 teams (of 8-10 participants) will encounter 10-12 Ideation tools; thereby, 3-4 creativity techniques are energizers or have a distinct physical element (such as ideating using paper planes or balloons, or racing for ideas). We also use upbeat music recorded at a specific beats per minute to energize the delegates and keep them active over the entire duration of a long, intensive Ideation Circuit.
In online Ideation, we can apply only 6-8 Ideation Tools in 3.5 hours and achieve a significantly lower idea quota of 300-600 raw ideas only (depending on the tech-savviness and prior Ideation-expertise of the group). Why? I noticed that in online Ideation, the “switching costs” of moving between different platforms and tools are higher and lead to longer time requirements to explain and demonstrate the correct use of an Ideation technique. Moreover, the pool of available Ideation tools is lower as some I-Tools (such as those with a physical component) cannot be used online.
How the experience of Ideators participating in an effective Ideation session differs online vs. offline
Our fast and furious face-to-face Ideation sessions at Thinkergy (which we liken to playing for an idea on an Idea Playground and are based on the principles of circuit training) are memorable, fun-to-do Ideation experiences that cater to all senses. Compared to an online session, especially the kinesthetic sense (touch) is much more emphasized. We give out easy-to-read physical props such as stimulus cards and do Ideation exercises with a physical component (as mentioned above).
Interestingly, when working online, the size of the screen of the device used by the ideators limits their peripheral vision during the ideation activities. Hence, I noticed that online ideators have to confront a “scrolling issue” that costs them time and is mentally more taxing: They frequently have to alternate between scrolling up (to look at associative input created in connection with the early steps of using a given Ideation tool) and scrolling down (to write down ideas on the workspace with the “ready-to-write-in” digital Post-its).
Compare this to a face-to-face Ideation session, where participants stand around a flip chart with a pad of Post-its and a pen, which allows them to have in easy view both the written associate inputs on the flip chart papers and their ideas on their Post-it pads.
How the outputs created during an effective Ideation session differ online vs. offline
Probably the biggest advantage of running an online Ideation session is that all raw ideas (the outputs of the Ideation stage) are written down in a digital format. These digital ideas can be read by everyone and easily saved or exported in a digital format. In contrast, the ideas coming out of an offline Ideation session are all handwritten on Post-it notes, paper sheets, and Ideation Worksheets. At times, they cannot be deciphered easily by other ideators (or even the person who wrote them down).
But this benefit comes at the price of two notable disadvantages:
- For one, I have the impression that ideators produce more intriguing ideas during an Ideation session when they write them down by hand rather than typing them digitally. (It would make for an exciting research project to test this hypothesis).
- For two, ideators can easily add a small sketch to an idea that they write down. In contrast, none of the ideas typed in an online session has a supporting idea sketch as it cannot be easily added to a digital Post-it without switching the application. Yet, a small drawing next to an idea can convey essential extra meaning (in line with the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words”) and make it easy to discover the idea again in the subsequent Development-stage of X-IDEA.
Sometimes, a client wants us to document and digitally preserve all the idea output generated in an Ideation session as part of the deliverables we hand over to them. If so, we have to process the handwritten ideas further by scanning or photographing them or transcribing them into a digital format. (Note: This documentation is not strictly needed in the X-IDEA method. The raw ideas coming out of the Ideation stage are just throughputs en route to producing meaningful idea concepts in the subsequent second creative stage, Development.)
Conclusion: Ideation online vs. offline: Same same but VERY different
Ask me what I prefer, facilitating an Ideation session online or offline, and you get a straightforward answer: Offline, face-to-face sessions. Why? As an innovation facilitator, they allow me to apply more Ideation tools in the given amount of time, lead to 30-50% more ideas (and high idea quantity is the main objective of Ideation), and also tend to produce more intriguing ideas as the activities are more energetic and active, more physical and playful, more fun and multi-sensory.
Likewise, based on my observation, I believe that the ideators also prefer participating in an offline Ideation session over doing so online because they are more experiential, more social and communicative, more fun and energetic, more physical, lively and active, thus producing a higher sense of accomplishment and connection.
- Can you imagine us taking you through an energetic yet highly effective Ideation session as part of an X-IDEA Innovation Training or an X-IDEA Innovation Project? We can do it offline or online for you, depending on where you are located and what you prefer.
- Contact us o tell us more about your business, innovation, and training agenda as the economy rebounds at the end of the pandemic. Then, we will share some ideas on how we might support you in achieving your goals.
© Dr. Detlef Reis 2022. This article is earmarked to be co-published in the Bangkok Post in the coming weeks.