Generating Big Ideas in a Virtual World

by Gordon Olsen

It’s safe to say that the pandemic has affected everything over the past year and the healthcare marketing arena is no exception. It certainly has had a major impact on how we interact with both colleagues and clients. We have become all too familiar with Zoom, MS Teams, or WebEx … or all three. We have had to learn a whole new etiquette. When should my camera be on or off … or is it even a camera on kind of day? How do I change my background? Can I eat while on camera? More importantly though, we have been faced with the challenge of learning how to effectively communicate with each other through these new channels. 

But overcoming obstacles is at the heart of what we, as marketers, do. We develop big and bold new ideas to create and innovate to stay relevant in the rapidly changing competitive environment. Historically, the organizations and brands that are most adaptable to change are the ones that survive. And that hasn’t changed with the pandemic … or has it? If anything, innovation has accelerated out of necessity. Adapt to survive. Restaurants had to figure out how to serve customers outside in colder weather. Professional sports leagues had to figure out how to play safely … and without fans. Companies in almost every industry have had to figure out how to pivot to virtual conventions.  

But recent circumstances have required a new approach. We needed to transform our tried-and-true innovation ideation workshop.

How best to ideate in a virtual world? Before COVID-19, we would conduct in-person, highly interactive and engaging brainstorming sessions. And usually, we’d invest a full day, if not longer. But recent circumstances have required a new approach. We needed to transform our tried-and-true innovation ideation workshop. And after running a number of these meetings, we incorporated some “new rules of the road” to ensure success in our virtual workshops. When done well, innovative and exciting ideas can result. So, what did we learn?

Some of the key ingredients of effective in-person innovation workshops didn’t change. Success starts with meticulous workshop pre-planning, which is perhaps even more important for virtual workshops. Other key factors are alignment on clearly stated session goals and objectives, a concise and compelling challenge statement that sparks the imagination for the issue to be addressed, the presentation of inspiring new stimuli to create new connections for innovative ideas and the use of engaging and fun idea generation techniques for breakout sessions. But innovations aside, some inherent limitations of virtual workshops need to be addressed, starting with participant engagement. 

To keep the participants engaged throughout the session, we needed to shorten the workshop. Our team has found 3-4 hours to be ideal for a virtual session and holding them in the morning for higher energy has proven particularly effective. We shifted some workshop exercises to pre-work homework, for efficiency, as less time is needed to review ideas than to generate them during the workshop. If more time is ultimately required, it’s better to run two 3–4-hour sessions than increase the time for one session. 

Next, it’s vital to consider the technology platform itself (i.e., Zoom, MS Teams). Each platform has different features, and it’s important to select the right platform if a choice is possible. It’s key to establish a plan for breakout rooms and assign participants in advance; consider the use of digital whiteboards to simulate the in-person workshop environment on other platforms like Miro. A word of caution though, sometimes participants can lose focus by spending too much time figuring out the whiteboard technology, so having the moderator write and place the virtual sticky notes can help. Have plans in place for a technology fail because yes, it happens. We all have experienced unstable internet connections. Having multiple team members set up as co-hosts with the workshop deck and breakout exercises ready to go can help keep the workshop running smoothly. Assigning moderators and scribes in advance for each breakout group helps ensure participants understand the ideation exercise, which allows them to be able to focus on idea generation.

A myriad of subtle but important nuances will ultimately mean success or failure for a remote session. So, until we can meet in person again, it’s vital to make the most of the virtual world and keep generating those big ideas.