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.

lotus technique

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.

Our deepest Self, is a verb

“The Self is a relation, which in relating to itself and willing itself to be itself, is grounded transparently in the power that posits it.”  – Soren Kierkegaard

I have been asked to preview some chapters in a book that a facilitator colleague of mine is writing. She is digging deep into the philosophies underlying the Technology of Participation (ToP) facilitation methodologies to preserve them for future practitioners and facilitators.

While I am delighted to be asked to take a look at her first draft, I confess to being a bit overwhelmed by their depth and more than a bit intimidated by the intellectual breadth of the philosophers, such as Kierkegaard from whose ideals, ToP methodologies have been developed.

The founding philosophies of ToP point to the intentionality of being self, and the attentionality of examining self. They say that we exist as a being; but our acts of examining ourselves; relating to ourselves and making intentional choices about ourselves are the essential components of being. To be, to examine our being, allows for growth, discovery and evolution.

What this really means is being ourselves is dynamic – our Self is a verb.

To quote the author, “When I reflect on myself, I am standing outside my self-in-the-world looking at myself as I am in the world. I can observe my activities, characteristics and experience and the ways I have been with others. I can see what is happening around me and I can sense my own reactions to the events in my life.” 

As complex as these ideas are, they allowed me to fully understand why we do things the way we do, when we use the ToP facilitation methods. One of our go to techniques is the brainstorm, where we ask people to generate ideas, and then we put those ideas, one by one, on a wall. Next we examine the ideas, individually and in relationship to other ideas.

Individual brainstorm ideas

This act of removing an idea from its origins and examining it relation to other ideas allows us to step away from our assumptions around that idea which creates space for something new to emerge. We have actively related our ideas to themselves.

In so doing, we end up with new relationships, new interpretations and an evolved understanding. Our initial idea became a verb and turned into something else.

New interpretation of existing ideas

On a more practical level, if, while I am in the middle of a heated discussion with a colleague, I am able to observe my behaviour and understand my feelings, and I can create a new understanding of my actions (my self, relating to itself) and recognize that I don’t want to antagonize my colleague, I can choose a different approach (and willing itself to be itself). In this manner, I can find a new interpretation of my colleague’s actions which will lead me to a different outcome.

A current term for self reflection is mindfulness, the movement, appropriated from ancient Buddhist roots. The practice of mindfulness involves being aware moment-to-moment, of one’s subjective conscious experience from a first-person perspective. In other words, relating self to itself. Mindfulness has gained popularity as a method to handle emotions, by observing and becoming aware of those emotions.

According to Wikipedia “…studies have shown that mindfulness meditation contributes to a more coherent and healthy sense of self and identity”.

Mindfulness also has a relationship to emotional intelligence which says our emotions are part of our social operating system and our first step in becoming more emotionally intelligent is to be aware of our emotions and our relationship with those emotions. Once we have some awareness we can start to work our emotional skills and become more emotionally intelligent.

I’m certainly not an expert on the subject of mindfulness or emotional intelligence, but the relationship between the philosophies which underpin ToP facilitation methods and what we call mindfulness and emotional intelligence appear strongly related to me.

All of this is a long way to say, without this deeper understanding of the underlying philosophy or why the ToP method requires a specific process, it is easy to write the methods off as overly process centric. It is also easy for anyone to think they can run with them after a brief exposure. The reality is that ToP methods require study, practice and reflection in order for a practitioner or facilitator to become highly effective.

Experienced ToP practitioners will tell you that ToP facilitation methods are their go to methods, that very little rivals their effectiveness. Now that I have a deeper understanding of the philosophies, I am ever more committed to my go to methods.

Full disclosure, I am trained by ICA Associates in Canada on ToP methods and find myself wholly absorbed by their depth.  ICA Associates is Canada’s only trainer of ToP methods