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Brain-Netting: How to Brainstorm Online Better in a Distributed Team

Read Time: 10 mins
This post is part of a series called The Ultimate Guide to Better Brainstorming Techniques.
Starbursting: How to Use Brainstorming Questions to Evaluate Ideas
What Is Rolestorming? A Useful (+Playful) Group Brainstorming Method

You just received word that a new project has been okayed and funded. You’re eager to set up a brainstorming meeting with your team. But only two of your team members are local. The others are either on the other coast or another continent!

You could fly everyone in at great expense, or you could find some other way to brainstorm as a team. Enter “Brain-Netting,” or brainstorming on the Internet.

Brain-netting online brainstorming tools and techniquesBrain-netting online brainstorming tools and techniquesBrain-netting online brainstorming tools and techniques
Online brainstorming tools and techniques of brain-netting. (graphic source)

Online brainstorming isn’t a new idea, but with new software and tools it’s much more effective now than ever before. The Internet, however, is far from perfect. It takes careful planning and lots of human intuition and insight to make Brain-Netting an effective technique.

An Overview of Online Brainstorming Tools and Brain-Netting Techniques

It’s easy to talk about brainstorming “on the Internet,” but the reality is that that expression is as clear as mud. It’s like talking about brainstorming “in the real world.” The term begs the question “where and how do you work together on the Internet?” 

There are a slew of answers to that question, which vary from the free to the expensive, from the simple to the complex, and from the effective to the useless. Let's review these online brainstorming tools and deconstruct effective techniques.

1. Brain-Netting Tools From the Simple to the Sophisticated

The very simplest form of Brain-Netting—which can be used both for virtual teams and for teams that include shy or reticent members—asks team members to email their ideas to a central location for review. Once you go beyond that very simple approach, there are quite a few options:

  • Group Calls - Traditional verbal brainstorming using group connectivity. You gather your group together for a conversation using voice-only, video, or shared-screen chats.  There are multiple providers of such services, and most are cheap or free. ConferenceCalling.com (pay-per-use) and FreeConferenceCall.com (free) are two of the top providers.
  • Chat Apps - Slack, Yammer, Sribblar, and several other applications allow you to share emails based on topic of interest, level of privacy, and more. You can create little chat rooms for just a few collaborators, or share information and ideas much more broadly. You can also use forum software or project apps like Trello or Basecamp for group conversations.
  • Video Conferencing - The next step up would be video conferencing with the option of sharing not only video of one another but also computer screens. It’s great to be able to actually show people the site or software you’re working with, while describing or discussing it aloud. Top options for this type of service include Skype, Zoom, GoToMeeting, and UberConference. Google Hangout is also an option, though it’s not as well suited for business needs.

Learn how to get your team setup and working together with Slack: 

But what if you actually want to collaborate by working together on documents, whiteboards, or mind-mapping activities? You still have a wide range of options at various price points.

  • Collaborative Documents - At the bottom of the list are free collaborative document editing sites such as Google Docs. These tools allow team members to write, edit, add comments, and otherwise mark up documents and spreadsheets. Google Docs, however, is not an all-in-one solution: if you want to talk while you edit, you’ll have to get on Skype or some other conferencing system at the same time.
  • All-in-One Solutions - Next up are some of the all-in-one options that allow you to talk, share screens, draw on whiteboards, video conference, annotate, and more. Some of these start out free and then add on paid services. Options including join.me, WebEx, and Skype for Business – all of which allow quite a bit of collaboration while viewing while talking!

Discover how to start sharing and collaborating on documents in Google Docs: 

But these options are just a start. Because there’s a whole new industry building tools for groups interested in doing more elaborate, sophisticated brainstorming from a distance. With names like MindMeister, Conceptboard, Stormboard, and Miro, they offer whole suites of tools for building mindmaps, creating timelines, annotating reports, and more. They’re neither free nor cheap, but they may be your best option for capturing a wide range of ideas and insights in a manageable manner.

2. Limitations of Brainstorming Online With Brain-Netting

As you start thinking about working with a collaborative group across time and space, you begin to run into some basic issues. For example:

  • If one team member is in Korea while the other is in Detroit, you can run into some serious scheduling conflicts.
  • If some team members are full time employees while others are contractors or freelancers, you may run into problems with shared software. Do you really want to buy expensive software for a team member who will be leaving (with his software) in six months?
  • If some team members are technically savvy while others have a tough time turning the computer off and on again, you may find that certain people drop out of the process altogether rather than learn a whole new way to communicate.
  • If some team members are using Macs while others are using PC’s, you may run into compatibility issues.
  • Complex software can take time for everyone to learn—which means it’s only helpful when you’re planning to use it many times with the same group of people.

It’s also important to remember that, no matter how sophisticated the software or the connectivity, brainstorming requires the intelligent cooperation of a group of human beings. In other words, successful Brain-Netting—just like any type of brainstorming online or off—requires skilled facilitation by someone who understands the process, the people, and the goals.

3. Adjusting to the Asynchronicity of Brainstorming Online

Many groups that are brainstorming at a distance are in very different time zones. One group is sleeping while the other is awake; one is eating breakfast while the other is heading to happy hour. How does such a group work together? The answer is asynchronicity.

Asynchronous collaboration is a simple idea: some people work while others are sleeping, and then the two groups switch roles. This is a fine idea, and it works well when your plan is to collect ideas, annotate documents, and otherwise share insights about a project or product.

The difficulties with asynchronicity arise in situations such as these:

  • Employee A is asleep and thus unable to defend his ideas; as a result, employee B completely revises employee A’s work. Employee A wakes up and is instantly put on the defensive.
  • A facilitator has been hired to help manage a distributed brainstorming project. The facilitator, who lives in time zone 1, goes home just as collaborators in time zone 2 show up for work. The second group of collaborators make up their own rules—making it impossible to continue the facilitated process the next day.
  • A team member starts working on a distributed brainstorm process and realizes she has a question. She posts her question—but must then wait six hours to hear a response, as the respondent has been either driving to work or in meetings all day.

Managing an asynchronous brainstorming process requires quite a bit of trust, but it also has some advantages. Yes, conversations evolving while you are asleep or (takeover) issues do happen, especially on hot-button topics. But you also have the opportunity to take time to reflect before you compose your responses, really thinking things through rather than dashing off a response from the top of your head. And because time passes between interactions, team members have the opportunity to comment on ideas over time. 

It can lead to more thoughtful group brainstorming—with some of the similar benefits a team would get from the process of brainwriting: 

4. When Does Brain-Netting Make Sense?

When should you go beyond a simple “send me an email” approach to working with a virtual team? Here are a few rules of thumb:

  • Consider your goals, your team, your timeline, and your budget. If you’re brainstorming a complex project with a sophisticated group of designers who have plenty of time, money, and collaborative spirit—a big software purchase may make sense. But, if you’re in a rush to collect ideas from a diverse group, why go there?
  • Some teams do better than others with Brain-Netting. If your business is accustomed to virtual or remote teamwork, everyone knows the basic ground rules. Once you’ve established expectations for general use, it becomes easier to work together from a distance whenever the opportunity arises.
  • The simplest approach is usually best. If you can get everyone together on GoToMeeting or WebEx and facilitate a brainstorm online session to get the ideas you need, why get more complicated?
  • Free, well-understood tools are generally a good option. If you can use Google docs to manage a collaborative brainstorming process, why invest in expensive software and training?
  • Use tools that are intuitive for your group. If you’re working with a group of designers, visual tools are often a good option. If you’re working with financial analysts, you might be happier sharing and marking up spreadsheets, charts, and graphs.
  • Choose tools that will help you to collect, review, and compile outcomes. Sticky notes and mind maps may look great, but if the software you choose can’t help you to produce a report or generate a to-do list, they may turn out to be a time sink.

5. Using Online Brainstorming Tools Effectively

No matter which Brain-Netting tools you use, the basic rules of brainstorming apply. That’s because no technology can take the place of a skilled facilitator, encourage participation, or know when it’s time to take a break, sum up, or try a new tactic to enhance creativity.

So… here are the basic rules for running an effective Brain-Netting session:

  • Understand your software, its options, and its limitations
  • Train your team to use the software effectively
  • Describe your goals and the process you’ll use to achieve them
  • Explain the schedule. Include information about timing of responses and how long the brainstorming will take place, whether that's over a few hours, a number of days, or longer.
  • Facilitate the process. If it’s all happening at once, you can facilitate as you would in person—but if it’s asynchronous, you may need to pop in at regular intervals to intervene in arguments, call on reticent team members, sum up points, or shake things up.
  • Know how you will end the session, present findings, and organize the group for action.
  • Explain how the software will be used in the future for additional discussion, task group meetings, etc.
  • Stay on top of it!

Start Brainstorming Better Online

Brain-Netting is a wonderful option for the right team at the right time. 

If you have a widely distributed team with the technical and personal skills to use online brainstorming, choose the tool that meets your particular needs. 

If, on the other hand, your team is not tech savvy or comfortable with virtual, asynchronous teamwork—consider the possibility of getting together in the same room at the same time as a simpler and more appropriate alternative.

Discover additional brainstorming techniques: 

Or, jump into our ultimate, multi-part guide to better brainstorming techniques, for more in-depth tutorials on brainstorming and methods of generating many great ideas.

Editorial Note: This content was originally published in 2016. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.

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