Fear of losing their innovative edge pushes many leaders to reject hybrid and virtual work arrangements. Yet extensive research shows that hybrid and remote teams can gain an innovation advantage and outcompete in-person teams by adopting best practices for innovation, such as virtual brainstorming. What explains this discrepancy between leadership beliefs and scientific evidence?
After interviewing 61 leaders on a strategic return back to the office, I discovered the root of the problem: The vast majority of leaders tried to pursue innovation during the lockdowns by adapting their office-based approach of synchronous brainstorming to videoconference meetings. They found that videoconferences aren’t well suited for traditional brainstorming and thus feel they need to go back to the office.
Unfortunately, these leaders are stuck with their existing methods for innovation and haven’t investigated and adapted modalities better suited to virtual innovation. This failure to adapt strategically to their new circumstances threatened their capacity for innovation and their ability to retain employees. Multiple surveys of remote workers during the COVID pandemic show that 25 percent to 35 percent wanted remote work only and 50 percent to 65 percent wanted to return to office with a hybrid schedule of a day or two on-site. Forty to 55 percent said they were ready to quit if they didn’t get their preferred schedules, and many have already resigned when employers tried to force them to return. To put it mildly, it’s hard to do innovation with such a large part of your workforce quitting, and the rest demoralized, as a result of such high rates of turnover.
Leaders often fail to adopt innovative best practices because of dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. For instance, the rejection of better practices in favor of preestablished ways is called functional fixedness, and it very much applies to innovation.
Another cognitive bias related to functional fixedness is called the not-invented-here syndrome. It refers to leaders feeling antipathy toward practices from outside their organization, such as novel innovation methods.
Defeating cognitive biases to return to the office successfully and thrive in the future of work requires the use of research-based best practices. These practices can be used in a hybrid model of one to two days in-office while permitting a substantial minority of employees to work remotely full-time.
In-person synchronous brainstorming represents the traditional approach to intentional innovation. It typically involves groups of four to eight people getting together in a room to come up with innovative ideas about a preselected topic.
Research in behavioral science reveals that the benefit in idea generation from such brainstorming comes from two areas identified by scientists. One involves idea synergy, or when ideas shared by one participant help trigger ideas in other participants. The other is social facilitation, or when participants feel motivated when they know they’re collaborating with their peers on the same goal.
These benefits come with counterproductive effects, however. An example is production blocking. That’s when someone has an innovative idea during a group discussion, but other people are talking about a different topic, and the innovative idea gets lost in the mix.
If you never had that happen personally, you’re likely extroverted and optimistic. Introverts have a lot of difficulty with production blocking. It’s harder for them to formulate ideas in a crowded and noisy environment of team brainstorming. They generally think better in a quiet environment, by themselves or with one other person at most. And they have difficulty interrupting a stream of conversation, making it more likely for their idea to remain unstated or ignored.
Those with a more pessimistic than optimistic approach in the workplace also struggle with brainstorming. Optimists tend to process verbally, spitballing half-baked ideas on the fly. That’s perfect for traditional brainstorming. By contrast, pessimists generally process internally. They feel the need to think through their ideas to make sure those ideas don’t have flaws. Although brainstorming explicitly permits flawed ideas, it’s hard for some people to overcome this reluctance.
Many people are also powerfully impacted by a second major problem for traditional brainstorming: evaluation apprehension. Many lower-status, junior group members feel worried about sharing their ideas openly because of previous discrimination or anxiety about what their peers will think. Moreover, despite instructions to share off-the-wall ideas, many people don’t want to be perceived as weird or out of line.
As a result of these problems, numerous studies show that traditional brainstorming is substantially worse for producing innovative ideas than alternative best practices. It can help build team alignment and collaboration and help group members feel good about their participation. But leaders shouldn’t fool themselves that using this technique will result in maximizing innovation. To leverage innovation to gain or keep a competitive edge, traditional brainstorming is not the way to go.
Trying to do traditional brainstorming via videoconference is a poor substitute for the energizing presence of colleagues in a conference room, thus weakening the benefits of social facilitation. It’s also subject to the same problems of evaluation apprehension as traditional brainstorming. Instead of the losing proposition of videoconference brainstorming, leaders need to adopt the best practice of asynchronous virtual brainstorming. Here’s how it’s done:
Step 1: Initial idea generation. Team members generate ideas and add them to a shared online collaboration tool. To tap social facilitation, the group can input ideas during a digital co-working meeting. Focus on quality over quantity and consider contradictions between ideas. Science has found that this focus on opposing goals facilitates innovation.
The submissions should be anonymized to avoid evaluation apprehension. But the team leader should be able to later track each person’s submissions for accountability.
Step 2: Idea cleanup. The facilitator categorizes ideas and sends them out to all team members.
Step 3: Idea evaluation. All team members anonymously comment on each idea.
Step 4: Revised idea generation. Team members can do another idea-sharing session, reevaluating old ideas or generating new ones.
Step 5: Cleanup of revised ideas. Clean up and categorize the revised ideas using step two.
Step 6: Evaluation of revised ideas. Comment on revised ideas.
Step 7: Meet to discuss ideas. Finalize which ideas should be moved toward implementation. This kind of practical planning meeting is easy to have virtually for full-time virtual workers. It also works well to have steps one through six done virtually by hybrid teams and to do step seven in-office. But it’s critical to avoid doing steps one to six in the office to avoid production blocking and evaluation apprehension.
Behavioral economics and psychology research has established the superiority of digital brainstorming over in-person brainstorming. For example, a study comparing virtual and in-person groups found in-person groups felt better about their collaboration. The feeling proved deceptive, however: virtual brainstorming resulted in more ideas generated.
In fact, research finds that the larger the in-person group, the fewer novel ideas each person has—but the opposite is the case for electronic brainstorming. That means with more people, you get a larger number of novel ideas per person. This effect is likely because of the removal of evaluation apprehension and production blocking, which tend to increase with the addition of more people.
Virtual brainstorming creates the maximum number of novel ideas, gaining an innovation advantage. It also provides the optimal experience for the largest number of group members, balancing the preferences of introverts and extroverts, optimists and pessimists, lower-status and higher-status members. Team leaders who wisely prioritize focusing on integrating introverts, pessimists and lower-status team members into the team—which is more difficult than with extroverts, pessimists and higher-status members—find virtual brainstorming especially beneficial.