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How to run inspiring Ideation sessions online

As the waves of COVID-19 come and go during the pandemic, we’ve shifted back and forth between working from home (WFH) and going back to working and doing things in essentially unconstrained ways. Likewise, teachers, professors, and corporate trainers had to alternate their teaching between running courses online or face-to-face.

Being an educator, facilitator, and consultant in business creativity, I have faced an additional challenge in the past 1.5 years: “How to deliver entertaining Ideation sessions online in a time-effective and still a results-producing way?” While experimenting with different platforms, tools, and practices during the past months, I have gained valuable insights into achieving good outcomes and successes during an online ideation session. Here are eight tips for creativity facilitators on how to create and run impactful online Ideation sessions.

Tip 1: Settle on a suitable technology for a group of ideators to write down their ideas

In a real-life Ideation session ran by Thinkergy, we first have would-be innovators write stimuli on flip-chart sheets and then turn these into ideas jotted on Post-it notes or unique worksheets. However, such paper-based idea-taking alternatives don’t work when having to facilitate an online Ideation session.

So, you need to make an early decide early on: What online collaboration platform do you want the remote innovation teams to use to write down ideas in a team-based, connected way? Do your research on the pros and cons of different online collaboration tools. Then, please make your choice, which can be as simple as Google Slides or favor a more sophisticated online collaboration platform like Mural.com or Miro.com. 

Tip 2: Be super output-focused and disciplined on time

In online events, it’s super-easy for Ideators to lose time and focus. So, as a creativity facilitator running an online ideation session, be directive and specific in what you want everyone to do at a given point in time. Otherwise, much time will be lost by organizational activities (such as entering and exiting virtual breakout rooms, or engaging in useless chatter on what to do and how to do it, and so on). Consequently, the teams won’t be able to produce adequate and sufficient outputs. 

So, tell the teams what you want them to do first, what second, what next, and so on. Also, be firm about what platform you want them to use to document their ideas and in what form. Specify how many ideas you expect everyone to contribute at a particular exercise. It is even more important in online Ideation that you remind everyone regularly that the purpose of the session is to produce lots of ideas. And this leads to our next point.

Tip 3: Adjust your expectations on target outputs

At Thinkergy, we set an ambitious but realistic target idea quota for each team at the Ideation start. For example, in a real-life, face-to-face innovation session, we would ask an innovation team of 10 members to produce 800-1,000 raw ideas during an extensive morning Ideation session. When we have to work on the same project online, however, we have to significantly lower the expected output to a level of 500-600 ideas. Why? 

For one, the Ideators need some time upfront to learn how to use the online collaboration platform used for the Ideation session. For two, moving the teams from one Ideation technique to the next takes more time when Ideating online, too. For three, delegates also lose time shifting their glance on the screen back and forth between viewing associative input to writing ideas on digital Post-it notes (while the same information would be in plain sight during a F2F session). All these activities lead to a reduction in time available to think and write down ideas so that we have to adjust the target idea quota to a realistic level for online work.

Tip 4: Get creative on how to animate techniques online

When we run an Ideation session live with Thinkergy, we send innovation teams through an Idea Circuit comprising 8-10 idea stations (each of which comes with an I Tool to inspire ideas using different triggers). In online Ideation, however, we reduce the number of stations to 5-7 stations only (for the same reasons mentioned in the previous point). With fewer creativity tools on offer, it’s critically important that the ones you select for each station really click and easily trigger ideas. But when it comes to online Ideation, that’s easier said than done. Why?

Some creativity techniques work online just as well as they do in a F2F session. But others won’t work at all or only after making adaptations.

For example, we cannot easily replicate those creativity techniques with a physical component that we usually do in real-world Ideation events (such as using paper planes as a modus operandi for Ideation in our I Tool Idea Planes or sending people into an Idea Race (in which phases of ideating and running alternate).

Tip 5: Convert your favorite creativity techniques into questions

Many experienced long-term creativity coaches like myself sooner or later uncover a secret trick of the trade: They figure how to condense creativity techniques into questions. So, to make your online Ideation sessions more vivid and time-effective, and expose your would-be innovators to varied stimuli, think about how you might express your favorite creativity techniques in the form of questions.

For example, in online Ideation, I use a sequence of questions to run the I Tool Other Worlds in a time-effective way:

  • First, I might ask you to think of a city you know well but don’t live in now (for example, Paris).
  • Then, in your mind, relive some of the special moments, sights, attractions, activities that you connect to this city (say, climbing the Eiffel Tower; visiting the Louvre museum to take a look at Mona Lisa’s smile; or dipping a croissant into a café au lait).
  • Finally, think about how you might relate your chosen city’s attractions to your challenge and turn some of your memories into an idea. Suppose you worked on the challenge “How to create innovative ice cream concepts for 6-12-year-old kids?” In this case, your Paris-inspired ideas may read as “Shape an ice cream like the Eiffel tower (or other famous buildings of the world),” “Make a smiley-ice cream for kids,” or “Make an ice cream croissant that kids can dip into a hot chocolate.”

Repeat the process to visit other worlds (such as other industries, other professions, other cultures, and others). 

Tip 6: Use the Internet for online stimulation

For consumer-oriented projects, we may ask would-be innovators to go on a Safari Hunt (one of our X Tools used in the initial Xploration phase of X-IDEA) and shoot photos and videos of interesting, funny, or surprising aspects related to a challenge. In the subsequent Ideation stage, we then display the pictures on a Trophy Wall and use these to inspire ideas. In times of a pandemic, going on a Safari Hunt may not be permitted or feasible. So, we replace it with a rough and dirty online safari hunt on the Internet. How can you do this?

  • First, have everyone write down a list of 5-10 keywords related to your challenge.
  • Then, let the ideators add five additional words unrelated to the challenge.
  • Next, ask everyone to go into the Internet and hunt for images using different combinations of keywords. Thereafter, have everyone add the most intriguing pictures to an online trophy wall that you pre-created for each team in the online collaboration platform.
  • Finally, for 15 minutes, have everyone review the trophies and use them to inspire ideas for your challenge that get listed down on online post-its (set a quota here of 15 ideas per head).

Most participants of online ideation sessions enjoy such an online safari hunt, and the displayed trophies also tend to yield a good number of diverse ideas, some of which are closely related to the challenge (due to the keywords) while others are farther removed from it (stimulated by visuals related to the other words).

Tip 7: KISS to transform idea quantity into quality

Unlike most other innovation methods, X-IDEA has two distinct creative stages called Ideation and Development. The former focuses on generating many raw ideas (including wild ones). The latter aims to design the vital few intriguing ideas coming out of Ideation into meaningful, realistic idea concepts. 

X-IDEA contains a complete range of D Tools that we usually bring into play in real-life events to transform idea quantity into quality concepts. However, when doing Development online, we keep it short and simple by making only one D Tool available for each of the three strategies of idea concept design (elaboration, combination, and transmutation). Why? It’s crucial to counter the complexity of online innovation efforts with simplicity in line with the US jazz musician Charles Mingus’ advice: “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

Tip 8: Invest time for preparation to make your online ideators succeed

Suppose you intend to run an online ideation session of a certain amount of time, say half a day. Then, plan for an additional time investment of at least the same duration needed to prepare the online activities. Clearly, as a creativity facilitator, you always need some prep time to select an inspiring range of creativity techniques that suit your creative challenge and the related innovation type. But in online sessions, you also need time to “translate” the usage instructions of your chosen tools into online compatible formats (e.g., using questions, visual stimuli, etc.). Moreover, you need time to set up worksheets and templates in the online communication tool you want the teams to use to create stimuli and ideas.

Every minute that you as a facilitator invest upfront in preparing an online ideation session will save 2-3 minutes for each of your ideators, meaning that they have more time available to suggest ideas during the session. But time is money. So when you pitch an online Ideation session or innovation project as a facilitator, make sure that you get paid for this additional preparation time by explaining to your client how your upfront efforts will yield more and better ideas from the innovation team members during the event. 

  • Would you be interested to have us guide your teams through an energetic online Ideation & Development session, or perhaps an entire online innovation project, based on our award-winning X-IDEA method? 
  • Would you like to learn more about our range of X-IDEA thinking training courses that we can also offer as an online format for you?
  • Contact us to tell us more about how we may help you to unleash the creative potential of the would-be innovators at your company.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2021