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 Use the 5 Apology Languages

We continue to live in unprecedented times—there's no playbook. We’re living and working differently than ever before, and we’re breaking some eggs as we go.

Whether it’s making a Zoom faux pas, accidentally bringing a political view into the workplace, or missing a deadline because you were distracted by homeschooling your kids during your workday, there's a whole lot of “I’m sorry” happening around us.

But the thing about apologies is that if they’re not done right, they can backfire. An “I’m sorry” that feels disingenuous or patronizing may leave the other person feeling resentful, mistrustful, or uninterested in working with you again.

So next time the moment arises—because it will—how can you deliver an apology that feels genuine?

What are the five apology languages?

For their book, When Sorry Isn't Enough, Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas researched the many ways in which we apologize. They discovered the five apology languages that are effective when it's time to step up and own a mistake.

So let’s talk about each and how you can make them work for you.

Apology Language #1: Express regret

When you realize you’ve done a thing that you just feel bad about, and "I feel bad about this" is the gist of what you want to say, this is the apology language you need.

Something as simple as “I’m sorry X happened” can achieve your goal.

When might you need this one? Imagine you’re hosting a Zoom call. One of your colleagues asks a question, and you dismiss it flippantly and move on.

Not unforgivable. But upon reflection, you feel bad that their question got passed over. Give them a call and put Language Number One to work. Offer a simple apology:

I realize you asked an important question during our call, and I’m sorry it didn’t receive the attention it deserved.

Be specific about what you’re sorry for, and then end your sentence. No "I'm sorry, but …". When you qualify your apology with a "but," you effectively cancel out the apology.

Apology Language #2: Accept responsibility

This second language may be seen as an extension of the first.

Let’s hang with the same situation. A Zoom meeting, a question posed, you moved on.

And now, upon further reflection, you realize that you not only regret what happened, but that you had a particular responsibility in it. You were running that meeting, and you had the power to pause and address your colleague’s question. You chose to plow ahead.

So, maybe take some responsibility. What might that one sound like?

I realize you asked an important question during our call, and it didn’t receive the attention it deserved. I should have paused the conversation to acknowledge your question. I'm sorry I didn't do that.

When the offense feels small—and that’s a subjective judgment—often, taking responsibility will be enough as long as that ownership is genuine.

Avoid shifting the weight of the offense back onto the other person by saying some version of, "I'm sorry you felt that way." That's deflection. And it's just not cool.

Apology Language #3: Make restitution

The third apology language is the one that pushes you from feeling regretful and responsible to knowing you need to make things right.

Let’s imagine a different scenario. A friend reaches out to let you know she’s applied for a job in your company. She has an interview scheduled and she’s asked if you’d be willing to put in a good word for her with the hiring leader. You know her work, and you say, “I’d be delighted to do that!”

She calls you again next week to say she’s just had her interview and it went … OK. When she asks if you managed to put in that good word, you realize you totally dropped the ball.

You know you owe her an apology. But that may not feel like enough. The stakes are high and you want to make things right.

This is your moment to show off your Apology Language #3 skills. You might say:

I am so sorry. I promised I would do that and I dropped the ball. I know how important this opportunity is for you. I’m going to speak to the hiring leader this afternoon—you have my word.

Putting in your recommendation for your friend after the interview has already happened may not be exactly the thing you promised. But if it leaves both you and your friend satisfied that all is right with the world, then you’ve made your apology work.

Apology Language #4: Genuine repentance

This brand of apology is about not only being sorry but taking accountability for preventing the same mistake from happening in the future. It’s about taking ownership and committing to behavior change.

In this case, let’s imagine you lead a customer service team for your company. A customer had a not-so-hot experience with one of your representatives and sent a complaint email to a customer service inbox. An inbox you’re supposed to check daily, but boy have you been busy!

A couple of days later, that same customer, having heard nothing from you, tweets something ugly about their experience with your company. And your boss is fuming.

You dropped the ball. You need to own it. But more importantly, you need to leave your boss feeling confident that this will never happen again.

Your apology might sound something like this.

I am so sorry this happened. I got overwhelmed and didn’t make time to check that inbox. But that’s no excuse—I could have asked for help. I take responsibility for this customer’s experience. And starting today I’ve put a twice-daily reminder on my calendar to check that inbox. And if I’m too busy to do it, I’ll ask someone on my team to check. This way, every customer concern or complaint will be seen in hours, not days.

I don’t know about you, but I’d feel pretty good hearing that apology. You’ve owned it and you’ve convinced me that you broke just one egg and it won’t become a dozen.

Apology Language #5: Request forgiveness

You’ve said what you came to say. The wounded party has given you the gift of their attention.

But now there’s something more you need from them—forgiveness. This part requires a level of vulnerability that can be hard to access because your request for forgiveness doesn’t require the other person's gift of it.

They may say no. They may need to think about it. They may say “We’ll see how things go over time.”

For some people, an apology won’t feel genuine until you’ve asked their forgiveness. So you may need to go out on a limb and ask, even knowing you may not receive it.  

Don't apologize when there's nothing to apologize for

Before I close the conversation on the five apology languages, I’d like to add my own note of caution. Apologies are important when they’re warranted—when you’ve done something wrong or let someone down.

But for many people—and more commonly for women than men—apologizing is something we do too often in moments that don’t warrant an “I’m sorry.”

Here are a few examples:

  • I'm sorry, but I have a question.
  • I'm sorry; I have a full plate and I can't take on that extra project.
  • I'm so sorry, but I have to pick up my kid so that 6 p.m. meeting is too late for me.

Please don't apologize for situations like these. Instead, say:

  • I have a question.
  • I have a full plate and can't take on that extra project.
  • That 6 p.m. meeting is too late for me.

You have the right to ask questions and set boundaries. I will never stop reminding you of that. Sorry, not sorry.

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How to Cope with Change at Work Without Stressing Out

While each person’s experience in 2020 has been unique, I bet many of you lived through some version of the following:

One day you were in an office, shaking hands, having in-person meetings, and serving a known set of customer needs. And the next day, your home was your office, Zoom was your conference room, handshakes were lethal, and customer needs were being completely reinvented.

Feel familiar?

Change has become our everything. Get ready to be stretched.

Prior to 2020, you could still get by as a great performer at work even if you were a little resistant to change. But now? Not so much. Change has become our everything. And if it’s not something you naturally lean into, then the time has come to fix it. Stat. 

So if you’re someone whose default has been 'I don’t want to learn this new system, process, or way of engaging with customers…', then get ready to be stretched. If you want your career to continue to soar, you’re going to need to be able to roll with change.

Resisting change is natural

If you find it hard to get comfortable with change, you're not alone.

When my kids were babies, getting them to try new foods was an experience. After they spit spoon after spoon of strained peas or carrots back into my face, I talked to my pediatrician. I learned it would take seven to eight experiences with a new food before my baby would begin to like it, or at least stop spitting it at me.

In our work lives, we’re not always offered a grace period of seven to eight exposures to a new idea.

This is due to the mere-exposure effect. While we may like or appreciate some things out of the gate (hello, chocolate fudge sundaes), our natural inclination is often to resist anything that feels different. But more exposure equals more comfort. We're wired to prefer the familiar and comfortable.

But in our work lives, we’re not always offered a grace period of seven to eight exposures to a new idea before we have to adopt it.

So let’s talk about actions you can take to open your mind and expand your comfort zone with change.

1. Scope the change

Sometimes “a change is coming” can sound like “the sky is falling.” But usually, the blue abyss above stays put. So let’s start by putting change into perspective.

Before you panic, check the sky. Is it still there? Phew! You’re OK.

Your boss just told you that you’ll be reporting to a new team. Or you’re switching to a new people-management system, or you’ll be managing a new product or account. Before you panic, check the sky. Is it still there? Phew! You’re OK.

Start by asking yourself what's really changing and what’s staying the same. You may have a new boss or new relationships to manage, but your day-to-day responsibilities aren’t shifting.

You may have a new system to learn, but the data it’s tracking, the reporting it offers—how different will they really be? Your skills will carry over.

So start by putting some boundaries around the change. This should help you take a deep breath. Now, let’s charge ahead!

2. Find your bright spots

When my kids—the spitters of pureed peas and carrots—began remote schooling this year, the change was all kinds of unwelcome. They missed friends. Their new homeroom teacher (yours truly) was highly unqualified. Everything felt messed up.

But I asked them to spend a few minutes finding and focusing on the bright spots. Because every change has bits of sparkle.

Focusing on bright spots helps open your mind, readying it for the change ahead.

They came up with extra sleep (don’t we all need it?!), jammies all day, and breakfast and lunch in bed. (Yes, we've let go of the reins a bit here at my house.)

Maybe for you, it’s the opportunity to add fluency in a new system to your resume, or to build your reputation with a new leader, team, or customer base. What’s something you can get excited about?

Big or small, focusing on bright spots helps open your mind, readying it for the change ahead.

3. Acknowledge the pains and challenges of change

Do focus on the upside. But not at the expense of acknowledging and preparing for the challenges. Don’t put your head in the sand.

If this triggers mild concern or anxiety, don’t push that down. Give it space. Address it.

We resist change for a reason. There will be growing pains. Transitioning to a new system does provide you with new opportunities. But there will also be a learning curve. It will take time, focus, and effort. You’ll be pushed out of your comfort zone. If this triggers mild concern or anxiety, don’t push that down. Give it space. Address it.

Part of gaining comfort with change is giving yourself a chance to master it. The only way to master change is to resolve and repair pain points. We can’t resolve what we can’t see, so give yourself the space to list out every single thing, big or small, that scares or challenges you.

RELATED: Why Negative Emotions Aren't All Bad

What might live on your list?

  • Finding time to learn a new system
  • Having to build new relationships virtually
  • Feeling like a novice after years of feeling like an expert

4. Identify actions within your locus of control

Part of what makes change feel scary is the sense of losing control.

According to the Harvard Business Review:

Many employees have had to abruptly accept fundamental changes to their work routines. And these changes have been stressful… because [they have] stripped people of their autonomy… [which] is detrimental for employee performance and well-being.

In other words, it’s normal to crave a sense of autonomy, of control. So here is where you focus on what you can control, and you make it happen.

Look at your sources of anxiety or discomfort. Identify tangible actions you can take to close the gap or minimize the pain of change.

When I left the world of full-time employment to start my own business, I was terrified of managing that change, even though I’d been the one to initiate it. But as a taker of my own medicine, I followed this very process. And when I arrived at this step, I identified a series of actions in my control.

Here’s a sampling of what I came up with

  • Invite every small business owner I know to coffee and pick their brain
  • Read one book per month on a relevant topic—consulting, marketing, pricing, etc.
  • Hire a coach to help me learn to build
  • Hire a lawyer to ensure I don’t step off a cliff

You get the idea. I was stepping into the unknown. But by identifying a series of actions designed to get me incrementally closer to known, I was re-establishing a sense of autonomy and control.

Maybe you have to learn a new system and you’re afraid it will be complicated. What steps can you take to close the gap? What can you control?

5. Commit positive change experiences to memory

I reflect on the days of smushed peas and carrots. Mostly, it was gross. But once in a blue moon, a baby would accidentally swallow a mouthful. And I was nothing but jazz hands. 

Turns out, my jazz-hands-enthusiasm was accidental genius because now, baby associated mush with entertaining Mommy gymnastics. For her it became fun. And over time she downed more mush.

And really, that’s kind of your goal. 

When you have your first positive experience with that new system, even if it was an accident, make a note of it. When your first client lights up at the description of that new product feature, capture that.

These winning moments add up over time. And suddenly one day you realize: Hey, these smashed peas and carrots are kinda delish! Who knew?

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