4 Ways to Collaborate More Effectively Than a Traditional Meeting

By some estimates, workers spend an average of 80% of their time engaged in collaborative activities. And let’s be honest—collaboration can generate good ideas, then turn one or two of those good ideas into great ideas. But traditional brainstorming also has many disadvantages: a few loquacious souls usually dominate the discussion; there’s little chance for deliberate thought; and anchoring (when the first idea on the table becomes the axis around which the rest of the meeting spins) is a real threat to uncovering even better ideas.

What are the alternatives to the “sit around a conference table and wait for greatness to occur” default setting? We offer two possibilities: distributed collaboration, which uses technology to enable you and your colleagues to work together, regardless of where you are sitting, and brainwriting, a fantastic technique for generating lots of ideas quickly while giving everyone an equal voice in the process.

Document sharing

Collaborating on documents used to be a true horror show. Either the document was sent in a round-robin style of cumulative edits or all contributors worked on individual copies and one hapless soul was cursed tagged to consolidate the input. Those dark days are gone. Google Docs, Microsoft Office Online, SharePoint, and Zoho Docs all offer different flavors of real-time document collaboration, where multiple users can work in the same document at the same time. To make the most of these powerful tools, take a minute to read a few best practices.

More than chit chat

Instant messaging is a great way to gather a bunch of input quickly, either one-on-one or as a group. Whether it’s via Twitter, Skype, Slack, or any of the myriad other messaging apps, the immediacy of response is similar to stopping by a colleague’s cubby and asking for an opinion—except you can do it with lots of your colleagues at once. Messaging apps also encourage brevity since typing is time consuming and each character counts. You also have the chance to think when you put your ideas in writing instead of dealing with the “deer in the headlights” feeling when everyone at the table is looking at you with expectation in their eyes.

Instant messaging also works in a more casual environment—it’s sort of the water cooler of distributed collaboration. More formal collaborative communication tools include Yammer, Slack, and Chatter. These tools can organize messages based on projects, and they can be sorted, searched, and tracked.

Candid collaboration

Candor is a free online brainstorming app that can help groups avoid bias, save time, and generate a ton of ideas.

With Candor, the organizer sends out an invitation to participants that includes the question or problem to focus on. Each participant submits ideas privately. When the idea-generation period is up (it can be hours, days, or even weeks), the organizer publishes the ideas. Participants review the submissions, vote on the ones they think are the most interesting, actionable, and viable, and then meet to discuss the results.

If you decide to use Candor, here are a few ideas on how you can make the most of the experience:

  • Start with the end in mind. What goal do you want to achieve as a result of the ideas generated? Since the question or problem statement is the starting point for the creative juices to flow, take your time and make sure your words are thorough, straightforward, and understandable.

  • Practice. Before you send out your first request, schedule a practice run so participants can play around with the tool. It’s a really, really easy app—but it’s still a good idea to have a rehearsal before the curtain goes up.

  • Take your time. Give participants enough time to respond. While some folks can rattle off a dozen ideas in as many minutes (we love you, extroverts), others need the chance to ponder (introverts, you’re wonderful!). This is one of the biggest benefits of using Candor—nobody is staring at you, waiting for pearls of wisdom to drop from your mouth.

  • Share the screen. When it’s time to review the votes, we find that it works best when everyone is looking at the idea cards at the same time. If you’re meeting in person, project the results on a screen. If you’re meeting virtually, share your screen. This ensures there’s nothing lost in translation.

Put it in (brain)writing

Brainwriting, like brainstorming, is a technique for generating a lot of ideas in a little bit of time. Unlike brainstorming, brainwriting relies on the written, not the spoken, word. A brainwriting session goes something like this:

  1. During the first ten minutes of the session, each participant writes his/her ideas on index cards, one idea per card.
  2. There is no talking during the idea-writing step.
  3. To prevent bias, participants do not write their names on the cards.
  4. After all ideas have been written on index cards, the moderator collects and shuffles the cards, then tapes the cards to the wall.
  5. Participants read the ideas and use post-it notes to vote for the top 5 (or 7, or 10) ideas that are the most interesting, exciting, and viable. The ideas with the most number of votes are then taken to the next level of consideration.

There are several different ways to use brainwriting in a group setting, as detailed in this
list of variations compiled by the good folks at the University of Central Oklahoma. The common theme is a more egalitarian approach that encourages uniform participation within a group. And author and lecturer Chauncey Wilson offers thorough, accessible insights about what brainwriting is, when to try it (and when to avoid it), and how to conduct a brainwriting session in Using Brainwriting For Rapid Idea Generation.

Have you heard the expression “A camel is a horse by committee”? Poorly orchestrated collaboration can have the same result. By taking the time to consider new approaches and putting few into practice, you can harvest the best ideas, figure out how to implement them effectively, and ultimately end up with the horse you’ve always wanted.