Dance like no one’s watching: How to spark creativity in a virtual meeting

alice-dietrich-painted hands (1)In the months since the COVID-19 pandemic swept in, we have become accustomed to WFH (working from home). But can we break our deeply rooted face-to-face mindset, and BFH (brainstorm from home), as well? I’m here to tell you, yes!, if you do a little prep work.

At home, you are surrounded by multiple distractions, such as dashing to throw in a load of laundry or seizing the moment on a sunny afternoon to take the dog for a walk.

I get it. People’s time is precious. Some days, you can get away with logging into your Zoom meeting a second before it begins. But that lack of preparation doesn’t work if the goal of the gathering is to do some serious brainstorming and hash out fresh, creative solutions to a problem or new initiative.

When I’m leading a brainstorming session, my first goal is to shift everyone’s mindset from a very focused: ‘I’ve got six things I need to get done before Friday,’ to a more diffuse mode of thinking on the topic at hand.

Break out of the ordinary

When you convene an online meeting, recognize participants have been in another headspace. They might, for example, be still agitated by meeting they’ve just come from or the coffee they just spilled. My goal is to help them let go and create a space for ideas to come in.

I’m no magician, but I have a few tricks that help ‘get them in the mood’. For example, I’ll ask everyone to pick up something from their desk – a pencil, paperweight, or a day-old muffin. Then I ask them: ‘What are three things you can do with this item?’ I’m having fun with the new zoom filters too.  These are simple and fun way to get them to start thinking more creatively.

The goal is to give everyone time to leave their previous mindset and relax into the meeting. Once you’ve got everyone’s attention, you can get to work.

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Powerful online collaboration tools

Mural – Remote meetings big and small are not likely going away any time soon. Check out my last blog on hosting a large virtual meeting here.  In the past few months, I’ve been using Mural. It’s my new favourite go-to collaboration and co-creation tool.

To level the playing field, I let participants know what online tools I’ll be using (and often run and advance practice session), so they can get comfortable with it beforehand. I really like using Mural because it’s so intuitive and is a helpful visual way to tackle a problem. Even my semi-tech savvy Aunt would get it.

This user-friendly web application is like a digital whiteboard. Everything is stored in the Cloud, so it allows people to reference it whenever they need to. It’s great for following up and keeping everyone working towards next steps. Other tools that I’ve used include Google Jamboard and Miro.

In brainstorming, I use it to post questions and get the group into free-form association. They can respond with words, images and icons. This is one of the fun features of the online tools. You can post the questions or statements in advance of the meeting, too, and have them do some advance work, or simply have more time to think.

Lotus Blossom TechniqueIf your team is working through a problem, this structured, visual technique is invaluable for idea sessions. You will end up with 64 ideas! Here’s how it works: A central problem is posed on the middle box, surrounded by eight boxes where themes or pieces of the problem are written. From there, the individual themes are carried onto the other “blossoms” and so on. It helps everyone to amplify on a central idea or issue and really dig down on a problem.

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SCAMPER Method – In his book ThinkerToys, Michael Michalko says that when you look at the behaviours of creative geniuses such as Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein, you will find that creators look at ‘what is’ and ‘what can be’.  They don’t spend time on ‘what is not’.

The SCAMPER method encourages ‘what is’ and ‘what can be’ thinking and has been around since the ’70s, but it still stands up as a brilliant method for problem solving and innovating. Ray Kroc of McDonalds fame used this method to help create one of the world’s largest food retailers.

SCAMPER is an acronym for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to Another Use, Eliminate and Reverse. A central challenge is posed, and the team examines the problem using these different perspectives.  The group can focus on some or all of the SCAMPER elements. It can be used for everything from how to cut costs to improving customer service to creating a new product.

Michalko developed a SCAMPER card deck called ThinkPak and I’ll often Then we reconvene and see what everyone’s come up with. In an online meeting, you can post images (take a picture) of the cards on a virtual wall in Mural.

Creativity decks are readily available.  I found 75 Tools for Creative Thinking on Amazon. Sneakerfish is another deck that I’ve used and like.

The point is to offer cues to the group to spur creativity.

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GestaltRemember your Psychology 101 classes? Even if you don’t you’ve likely heard of this idea – an organized whole that is seen as more than the sum of its parts – that’s been kicking around since the early 20th century.

Gestalting is a process whereby ideas are visually posted to a wall and then clustered into patterns based on association. These emergent clusters often point to new patterns, generate new insight, or suggest new ‘wholes’ that can be the source of innovation. It overcomes the limitations of a typically linear approach to thinking.

You’ve seen this technique on every Investigative TV show (Carrie Matheson on Homeland is an absolute pro!) where the lead investigator has a wall of pictures, documents, lines and connections through which the investigation is solved as new insight becomes evident. Once again, a tool like Mural is an enabler for the online meeting.

Pro tip:  When doing a gestalt, allow ideas to associate and avoid the reductionist approach of ‘sorting’ and ‘buckets’. Sorting minimizes the opportunity for innovation.

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Game playing – Have you ever noticed that some of your best ideas or problem-solving comes at moments when you’re most relaxed, say in the shower or when you’re daydreaming. In these moments, our overworked brains begin processing subconsciously and we can arrive at an ‘a-ha moment’.

Playing a game or taking a break in the middle of your Zoom meeting takes us out of linear mode. It gives our brains a chance to work out a problem. It’s a great technique. Fellow facilitator Tamara Eberle at Traction Strategy has built her entire practice around game playing and fully gameifies her events.

A guided visualization is another great way to help people transition to a more creativity space. Tell everyone to close their eyes and relax and walk them through the idea of, say, eating a piece of chocolate cake. Get them to be in the moment – smell the aroma, feel the texture and the intense flavours and to think about how they are feeling.

And if you thought that idea was out there, try this one some time – a Zoom dance party. Have your song list at the ready (Happy by Pharrell or Super Freak by Rick James come to mind). Tell everyone ‘Screens off’ and go for it. By song’s end, and screens on, everyone will have that post-dance floor glow.

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Practice creativity. Here’s an interesting idea, creativity is a practice.  It’s not an automatic skill. It is possible to build creative muscle through practice. Have routine brainstorm sessions. Try different techniques. Try different times of day. Apply techniques often and without any kind of judgement.  Actively practice.

Common creativity killers

There are so many things that can quash creativity in a meeting:

  • When people come into a meeting and say, ‘I’m not creative.’ (And people often feel that way). Being creative isn’t wild, it’s just bouncing around ideas to see what else comes up.
  • Very early judgment of an idea. You have to suspend that judgment so people feel comfortable putting forward ideas. Remember, you’re not doing a reality check at the moment, you’re just in a generative mode.
  • Inflexible hierarchies easily inhibit the creative process. That person from another department in the organization with the potentially brilliant comment or idea may feel too intimidated to speak up.
  • When a group isn’t sure they can talk freely. Before brainstorming really takes off, the group needs to know they are free to talk. Room safety needs to be addressed.  For example, I had a client who brought a diverse group together who did not have a relationship with each other. They were not ready to get creative together. Not having this information made my job a lot tougher.
  • The need to come up with a creative idea doesn’t happen in 30 minutes. This will take longer. Make sure you leave plenty of time for the brainstorming process to take hold. As Albert Einstein famously said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”
  • And finally, one thing we should all know by now – everyone’s camera MUST be on. A lack of a visual in the virtual world of meetings is a non-starter.

So, go on, get virtually creative. Have that dance party with your remote office mates and dance like nobody’s watching. The screen is off, after all. You’ll be amazed – not at silly you might feel – but at how the creative juices will start flowing.

20 secrets to mastering a large virtual meeting

large virtual meetings - mainVirtual meetings have become a fact of our work lives in the Covid-19 era. As a facilitator, I’m learning so many things about this fairly new-to-me medium and feel I’m really starting to get a handle on it.

Until now, the largest virtual meeting I’ve facilitated has been for around 18 people. Next week, I’m making a big leap, and will be hosting two meeting for about 68 people using Zoom. They are a group of stakeholders in a fledgling industry who are preparing to launch an industry network to share research, learnings and technology. Many of them are strangers to each other.

The purpose of the consultation-style meeting is to get input from the attendees on a draft proposed vision of the network. The organizers have already done a lot of aspirational thinking and had conversations about its goals and purpose. We want to present their ‘first draft thinking’ to the participants and give them opportunity to weigh in during the planned three-hour meetings .

I’m feeling confident that the meeting will go well , because during the past few months I’ve learned what makes a successful virtual meeting, especially one of this size:

  • Getting everyone engaged quickly
  • Inspiring great conversations
  • Optimizing the flow of the meeting
  • Keeping the meeting within the planned time frame
  • Ensuring everyone’s tech is working.

It sounds like a tall order for a virtual meeting room, but I’ve discovered a lot of tips and tricks that I’d like to share with you for when you’re feeling brave enough to host a big group meeting.

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What’s in my toolbox?

  • Ask for help! I’ve decided to up the production quality of the event and so I’ve determined that I will need two co-facilitators, one who is purely technical operating the broadcast components and assist with technical issues, and hybrid helper who will operate the zoom platform,. This is essential!
  • We’ll set up a contingency communication channel that is external to the meeting as well. This is necessary in case a participant is bounced out of a meeting room or is struggling with meeting access. It’s also helpful when participants need something in a breakout rooms because the chat is not persistent between main rooms and breakout rooms. This will be published to participants in advance and again during the meeting.  For help, text xxx xxx xxxx
  • Zoom will be our platform, which has the superpower of breakout chat rooms. It can manage up to 50 chat rooms, more than enough for our 68-person meeting. Everyone will be assigned to a break out room, allowing for smaller group conversations which we will ladder up from 2 to 4 to 8 over the course of the three-hour meeting.
  • We’ll also be using another Zoom superpower, which is the ability to pre-set a countdown timer for how long each of the breakout chats can last. (Find this under the option menu when setting up breakout rooms. Then people will be automatically re-assigned to another breakout room for further discussion with new faces. This was an important experiential objective of our meeting, that stakeholders would have an opportunity to meet peers and make connections.
  • Google slides are your friend. This is an easy-to-use data collection tool because everyone knows how to type on a document. And because I can’t eavesdrop on rooms (dropping into a breakout room is quite disruptive), using Google slides allows me to see the progress of all the groups in real time. We’ll use a Google form for participants to fill out if they’re willing to continue to stay involved with this network.
  • We will also make our client sponsors co-hosts. This will allow them to move between breakout rooms so they can participate in small room conversations according to their preferences.
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Art of virtual engagement

Because we are not face to face, here are some essentials for the meeting to be a success:

  • Cameras must be ON – you need to see faces.
  • Be clear about the purpose of the meeting and realistic about the tangible outcomes.
  • Get people engaging quickly – this is where breakout rooms are so powerful. I encourage people to use chat box, either one to one or one to many. These alternate channels really help, even if I can’t see them all. For example, I’ll be using the online platform, Mentimeter, which has a Iive polling tool. You simply go to the link in a browser, get a six-digit code and can ask participants a question, such as an icebreaker: “What do you like to be called?” which generates a word cloud and is quite fun. (Thanks to Martin Gilbraith for that tip!) This is a simple way to get instant engagement.
  • I will also create in meeting polls to ‘take the temperature’ of the group on the ideas presented.
  • Get a little personal. Because people are working in their homes or apartments, ask them to bring something personal to share with everyone – the kid, the cat or the dog. I’ve done this before, and it really personalizes and livens up the experience. Or, ask them to grab something close by that relates to what we’re talking about.
  • You will not know the technological capabilities of the attendees and though there will be a range, it’s wise to assume lower capability. You’ll no doubt get a few, “I clicked on this link, but it didn’t work!!” (Pro Tip:  Make sure you have a public link for your google docs!)
  • Strip out complexity. I’ve learned that in virtual meetings you need to take it down to the basics. I will replace a lot of ‘large room’ conversations with small-group conversations. This helps with maximum sharing capability.
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Other dos and don’ts

DO – Send meeting reminders with meeting links 1 – 2 hours before a meeting starts.

DO – Open the meeting early so you can test audio and video. We will be opening an hour early to catch any potential problems. It’s also a good idea for the facilitators to do a dry run.

DO – Be fastidious about timing, ensuring the meeting starts and ends on time. Have a timed agenda and be sure to build in transition time between activities and chats. And, be sure to send the meeting link out ahead of time.

DO – Be crisp and clear. Use verbal instructions and screen-sharing written instructions when you are asking people to do something, such as a task or assignment. Copy the instructions into the chat box so they persist into the breakout rooms.

DO – Ensure that you pattern the meeting to build safety and capacity for people to talk with each other. For example, I will say, I’m going to give you something to think about and then pair off people to talk about the topic.

DO – Be thoughtful about the conversations you’ll have in the larger room.

DO –  Be clear with your co-facilitators about exactly who is doing what. Who will share the file link? Who will admit participants? Who will monitor the chat box? Who will share screens? Etc.  It makes for a MUCH smoother meeting experience.

DON’T – Bite off more than you can chew, putting too much process into the stages of the meeting and trying to cram in too much information and expectations.

DON’T – Use new technology you haven’t tried out ahead of time. Nobody needs to experience that.

DON’T – Be in intransigent mode, lecturing for hours. People will just shut down.

DON’T – Forget to give people breaks.

And finally – be sure that you have thought about how you will follow up with participants and that your participants are clear about how they might follow up with you. We plan to send them the documents they generate in the workshop immediately following the workshop. The contact information that we will collect in the Google form is immediately delivered to the client.  We will also collect a bit of meeting feedback too!

Bottom line, conduct your meeting like the professional that you are and you’ll be rewarded with the satisfaction of nailing this new world of workplace meetings.