How to Run a Virtual Brainstorm that Actually Works

Fun fact about pandemic life: Zoom fatigue is real. And not just real, but “widely prevalent, intense, and completely new,” according to Psychiatric Times.

Although we might be avoiding Zoom these days when an email or even a phone call (is it 1986 again?) will suffice, there's one place where video conferencing still shines, and that's the good ol' brainstorm.

Old school brainstorming was creative and connective and interactive—all things difficult, but not impossible, to recreate virtually.

When I picture brainstorms of years past, I see images of big tables full of candy and fidget toys and pens and Post-Its galore. Old school brainstorming was creative and connective and interactive—all things difficult, but not impossible, to recreate virtually.

Today we’ll talk about some virtual brainstorming strategies I’ve seen work really well. And then hopefully, you’ll give one a try. 

Choose your occasion wisely

brainstorms shouldn’t be a catch-all for any group conversation.

Back when our biggest workplace woe was a vending machine out of Diet Coke, many of us took brainstorming sessions for granted. But in a virtual world, it's harder to organize, facilitate, and get people engaged.

That's why brainstorms shouldn’t be a catch-all for any group conversation. (Often what you’re looking for is just a meeting.) Brainstorms are a very specific brand of discussion in which a collective of creative voices, ideas, and opinions are necessary inputs to achieve a valuable output.

Because of challenges like Zoom fatigue and burnout, I urge you to be stingy with your brainstorming sessions. They're a fabulous enabler of ideas and solutions, so do use them. But do so strategically and with clear intention.

Because of challenges like Zoom fatigue and burnout, I urge you to be stingy with your brainstorming sessions.

What are some great occasions to host a brainstorming session? Use them when you need to:

  • Add or refine product features
  • Define a path in a sticky situation
  • Solve a complex problem

These and many other scenarios call for a variety of perspectives in which there are no right or wrong answers, but only ideas.

In contrast, many other occasions don’t call for a brainstorm. Like when you need…

  • Approval or alignment
  • Receipt of a message or direction
  • Feedback on a mostly baked idea

These are not brainstorm moments—they're meetings with a much more defined outcome. See the difference?

Figure out the specific problem you want to address

Okay, so you've figured out that your situation calls for a brainstorming session. Now, it's time to make sure everybody who comes to the brainstorm is on the same page before you begin by creating a statement that lays out the specific problem and how you need to tackle it.

Your problem statement might be something like:

We’re losing market share on X product, and we need to define new features to attract Millennial customers.

And here's another example:

This client wasn’t happy with our last deliverable and we need to redefine how we’re engaging with them.

One of your goals is to keep the session short (because fatigue) while maximizing what you take away from it. A clear problem statement allows you to invite your brainstorming participants to get the creative juices flowing ahead of the actual session.

Assign some prework to get things rolling

Now that you've stated the problem or opportunity, it's time to let participants know you’re looking forward to a collaborative discussion and invite them to jot down some early ideas and send them your way.

You can then do some analysis ahead of the session. Did you spot any common themes? Any particular ideas you’re interested in having the group build upon?

Share your findings at the beginning of the brainstorming session. This will give you a strong foundation from which to build.

Get creative with tech 

Love it or hate it, video conferencing technology is definitely your friend in a virtual brainstorm. It allows you to create a purposeful connection amongst participants. But you have to understand how to engage them.

When I used to run in-person meetings with leadership teams, I was always intentional about switching up the activities every 30 minutes or so. I’d facilitate a breakout, and then we’d do a quick poll, and then I’d have people plot Post-It notes around the room, and more.

Keeping things changing and moving is a great way to keep adults engaged. According to the Harvard Business Review: "If you don’t sustain a continual expectation of meaningful involvement, [people] will retreat into that alluring observer role."

So take the time to learn the features of whatever platform you’re using, and make the session engaging. Some tactics you might try?

  • Use polls to test out early ideas
  • Use small group breakout sessions to create mini-competitions between your participants
  • Use a whiteboard to replicate a poster board people can plot virtual Post-It notes on
  • Use voting to prioritize or stack rank

Of course, talking is part of any brainstorm. But using technology can keep participants from slipping into the shadows without contributing.

Establish norms that serve your purpose

A brainstorm isn’t successful because of how smart its participants are, but because of how much freedom and space their voices are given.

A client once told me this story about a packaging company that was struggling with productivity. Their products had to be wrapped in newspaper before being shipped. But often, as employees were packaging product, they’d accidentally start reading the newspaper, losing precious packing minutes. These minutes added up to lost productivity.

One day the leadership team was brainstorming solutions to this distraction problem and one executive said, “Well, what if we just poked their eyes out?”

Of course, he wasn't serious—the question was absurd and meant to add a little humor. But it triggered a new line of thinking. Eventually, the company established a partnership with a non-profit organization that finds jobs for blind people.

Is this story true? I’m honestly not sure. But it’s a great illustration of the importance of free-flowing ideas.

A brainstorm isn’t successful because of how smart its participants are, but because of how much freedom and space their voices are given.

As the facilitator, what norms can you put in place to ensure that all ideas get voiced without judgment and everyone has a chance to speak?

Here are a few you might consider:

  • Use the improv rule of “yes, and.” It means that ideas are never knocked down, only built upon. (Don’t worry, they can get voted down later, just not during the brainstorm)
     
  • Use the two- (or one- or five)-minute rule. Ask people to limit themselves to two minutes at a time, even if they need to stop mid-thought (they can finish on their next turn). This challenges people to be concise and ensures that everyone gets a chance to speak.
     
  • Use a round-robin technique. Circle around the Zoom participants, calling on each person as you go. If someone isn’t ready, they can pass. But this is a great way to prevent introverts from getting overlooked.

What other norms will keep you on track?

Close out thoughtfully

Save a few minutes at the end of your scheduled session to check in on the process. How did it feel for everyone? What worked well and what might you skip next time? Do they have other tactics to recommend?

The best answer to “How do I host a great virtual brainstorm?” is the answer that your own participants give you.

When scheduled for the right occasion and with the right people, brainstorms are a fabulous tool. Don’t be intimidated by them. Just be open to learning as you go.

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How to Be Confident but Not Arrogant

In 2007 I had my first baby. I was extraordinarily fortunate to spend a year at home with her. That year was a gift, full stop. But as I learned in 2008 when I returned to the workforce—new job, new company—taking a year off also drained my confidence tank.
 
Pre-baby, I knew what made me shine at work. Post-baby, I felt like I’d lost my mojo.
 
According to Psychology Today:
 
Confidence is a belief in oneself, the conviction that one has the ability to meet life's challenges and to succeed—and the willingness to act accordingly.
 
I knew how essential not only feeling but being able to display confidence was in my professional life. But after taking that year away, I wasn’t sure how to rediscover mine.
 
Previously I’d been a relationship-builder, a talent strategy advisor, and an analyzer of human capital data. Upon re-entry in 2008, I feared I’d lost my edge. And I was determined to show that fear who's boss. So I set my mind to making my mark, showing the world how smart and capable I was.

It was a total miscalculation on my part. And I got some serious feedback to prove it.

I did this by having something—actually, a lot of somethings—to say in every meeting. I was quick to offer solutions to problems. And when something needed to be done, I had it covered. No help needed. And that strategy went really well for me.
 
Kidding! It was a total miscalculation on my part. And I got some serious feedback to prove it. I’d been so focused on seeming confident that I’d shown up as arrogant. I will be forever grateful to the boss who gave me that feedback early and counseled me to course-correct.
 
I learned the hard way, but I learned a lot about what distinguishes confidence from arrogance. And today I share the biggest lessons. Here's the feedback my boss gave me, which I ran with. Thirteen years later, I'm delighted to pay it forward.

1. Know what you’re here to do

Arrogance happens when you over-index on you—how you’re showing up and being perceived. Confidence is focusing on the work—the outcomes you’re there to deliver.

The conviction that you have the ability to meet a challenge begins with being super clear about what challenge you’re there to meet.

Exuding confidence begins with experiencing confidence internally. The conviction that you have the ability to meet a challenge begins with being super clear about what challenge you’re there to meet.
 
Before an important interaction, ask yourself: What’s my role in this, and what am I expected to influence or deliver? Asking and answering those questions will center you. It will allow you to home in on where your voice has power, and where your silence or observation may add more value.
 
In 2008, I was so focused on seeming confident—which I somehow translated into a need for verbal diarrhea—that I lost sight of what I was there to do. I wasn’t hired to seem smart; I was hired to develop talent plans to fuel the business’s success.
 
Early feedback from that wonderful boss reminded me I didn’t need to offer a point of view at every turn. “Have the confidence not to speak up sometimes,” I remember her telling me. And having the poise to listen and observe when that's what's called for makes you seem all the more confident when you do offer an idea or point of view.

2. Listen like you mean it

Arrogance is pausing to give others a turn to speak. Confidence is truly hearing and absorbing what they have to say.

Ask probing questions to extract more meaning.

I was deeply guilty of pausing but not listening. Only when my boss called me out did I realize she was right. I was so focused on what I had to say next that I wasn’t taking in and reflecting on the value that others were bringing to the conversation. The pressure to seem smart led me to overuse my words and underuse my ears. And this backfired, positioning me as more arrogant than wise.
 
RELATED: Listen Up! Not Listening Is Holding Your Career Back
 
Again, that clarity of purpose should light the way. I was there to build a talent plan to help the business achieve its goals. So when the leader was talking about his goals and talent needs, that was my cue to listen. These were the moments that would provide meaningful insight and data to support my work.
 
Feedback from my boss helped me become an active listener. I wasn’t silent, but rather I was using my voice to restate what I had heard, or to ask probing questions to extract more meaning.

3. Let them see the sausage-making

Arrogance is believing the path from start to finish should be paved only with your ideas. Confidence is knowing you don’t know everything and having the humility to recognize that other people's good ideas won’t dull your shine.

Confidence is knowing you don’t know everything.

So as you’re working toward a deliverable, don’t wait for it to be fully baked or polished before you do the big reveal. (That works on HGTV, but not so much in real life.) As you move work along, build check-in points into your process. Let people watch as you make the sausage, and give your peers, your leader, your stakeholders a chance to influence the flavor before it’s fully cooked.
 
It does take confidence to pull back the curtain on an unfinished product. But it will better the outcome every time.

4. Say the bold thing

Arrogance encourages you to say what someone wants to hear. It will make you a hero just for today. Confidence allows you to say what they need to hear, and it will make you the hero in the long-term, where it really counts.

Arrogance encourages you to say what someone wants to hear; confidence allows you to say what they need to hear.

Fueled by feedback from my leader, I started finding moments of courage to push back on what my business client, George, believed was best. 
 
George was a salesman. His own climb up the corporate ladder was driven by his excellence in sales, and so he believed finding and growing great sales talent was the key to his business’s success. In our early days, as long as I showed George a plan designed to do just that, he’d praise my genius. 
 
But in time I came to realize this was a short-sighted play. We had great sales talent. The problem wasn’t finding more, but rather, finding ways to enhance collaboration between sales and client management. A stronger partnership between the teams would enhance the customer experience, in turn delivering bigger business results.
 
The first time I suggested this to George, there was no smile. But I'd done my research. I’d compared us with other companies doing the same, and ultimately, I won his support.
 
My recommendation delivered success in the long-run. But it took me time to find the confidence to say the thing he wasn’t ready to hear.
 
2008 was a painful year for me. And yet it delivered some of the most important lessons I’ve learned along the way about confidence. And as I pass these along to you, I realize there might be a fifth bonus insight: it takes a lot to share your own journey of failure (mine) in service of someone else’s success (yours). I choose to hope that’s a reflection of the confidence I’ve gained along the way.

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Tips And Services To Help Your Bookkeeping Go Paperless

The COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t a catalyst to shift businesses toward digital transformation, it merely sped up the process. Businesses needed to scramble to move much of their operations online so workers could efficiently collaborate with each other and maintain business continuity during a difficult time.

Fortunately, departments not traditionally associated with the digital universe, like Bookkeeping, had an easier time adapting thanks to online services like Bookstime.com, a provider of digital bookkeeping tools with unique experience in difficult areas like sales tax automation, health benefits administration, and more.

Advantages of digital bookkeeping

Keeping track of every business transaction is among the most important and perhaps underappreciated tasks. Failure to keep track of transactions in a professional manner can result in a business owner making wrong decisions because they have inaccurate information.

Even worse, they might think they end the year with a profit but in reality, a bunch of small bookkeeping mistakes over several months means the business owner really lost money.

A shift to a digital platform eliminates these concerns. Online digital platforms make use of the most up-to-date accounting automation software that erases nearly every careless mistake. This is especially useful for a business owner who does the tedious but necessary job of bookkeeping themselves to save money. The more time a business owner spends on ancillary tasks, the less time they have to generate revenue and keep clients happy.

Some of the other advantages associated with going online include:

  • Eliminating clutter: keeping a clean home office is challenging enough but a digital platform means more space for higher priority files.
  • Save time: A digital bookkeeping platform is always available online with a few short clicks of the mouse. It can be accessed as needed and when needed in a few short seconds.
  • Environmental benefits: It isn’t unusual for a company to use at least 10,000 sheets of paper each year. Shifting resources online may seem like a small benefit but everyone has a responsibility to do a little bit more to protect our environment.

Case in point: Fill in a W-4

Every business owner is happy to hire new workers because it means they are expected to provide value to the company above and beyond their salary. But that doesn’t mean that the formal process is enjoyable.

One of the more undesirable parts of the hiring process is the pesky W-4 form that every employer has to ensure is properly filled in before a worker’s first day. Simply put, the W-4 form confirms how much income tax a worker wants to have withheld from their recurring paychecks. Under-withholding taxes means a worker will likely experience a shock come tax season as they owe money to the government. Over-withholding taxes means a worker is paying the government too much money and has to wait for a refund.

Digital bookkeeping can help simplify this process so you're less prone to errors. When other people’s finances are at stake, small careless mistakes could impact a worker’s desire to give the business owner 100% of their focus.

Businesses that shifted their bookkeeping process online to better navigate through the pandemic quickly realized this was a move that should have been done years ago. The advantages of having access to a clean and organized online tool far outweigh the costs.

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