Virtual Decision Making

Virtual Decision Making

I wrote previously about how to manage highly productive virtual teams. An article in Harvard Business Review stated that brainstorming is another area that can benefit from virtual teams.

“ …..brainstorming, is a technique that is still widely used in organizations despite the lack of evidence that it works and compelling evidence that it actually leads to a productivity loss. The good news is that technology can make brainstorming more effective, by replacing physical and oral sessions with virtual and written ones, a technique also known as brainwriting or electronic brainstorming. Indeed, studies comparing the performance of matched groups on physical and virtual sessions indicate that virtual groups generate more high-quality ideas and have a higher average number of creative ideas per person, as well as resulting in higher levels of satisfaction with the ideas.”

I’ve long been a fan of “brainwriting”. Studies have shown that when people write down their own ideas in isolation first, it produces more ideas and better ideas than having a group conduct brainstorming in real-time.

Traditional brainstorming, where everyone shouts out their ideas and builds off one another can tend to be dominated by the HiPPOs (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). This leads to “Groupthink” (where everyone is coerced into thinking the same), leading to fewer options being considered and ultimately lower quality decision-making.

As General George Patton once said, “If everyone is thinking alike, then someone isn’t thinking”.

My friend Doug Hall in his excellent marketing book, Jump Start Your Business Brain recommends the following research-based approach (greatly summarized):

  • Leverage diversity by surrounding yourself with people who think differently (different job roles, cultures, ages, backgrounds, thinking styles)
  • Get people to write down their own ideas in isolation first
  • Then ask people to present their written ideas to the group
  • Don’t worry about the practicality of ideas in the initial stages, generate as many as possible
  • Suspend judgment. Drive out fear. Encourage dissension and debate
  • Make a decision and experiment on a small scale initially. Fail fast. Fail cheap

Note and Vote.

I read an article that documented how Google Ventures also uses a variant of this approach to identify solutions to problems. They call it “Note and Vote”. Here’s an overview of the article with some of my additional commentary added:

1. Note

Set a timer for 5 to 10 minutes. Ask everyone to write down as many ideas as they can. Individually. Quietly. This list won’t be shared with the group, so nobody has to worry about writing down dumb ideas.

Working in parallel like this is better than serial. Normal meetings are serial, where one person speaks at a time, and each person follows the thread of the conversation. Parallel work increases your bandwidth. More solutions can be generated and evaluated.

2. Self-edit

Set the timer for two minutes. Ask each person to review their list and pick 1 or 2 favorites. Individually. Quietly.

3. Share and capture

One at a time, each person shares their top 2 ideas with the group. No sales pitch or justification. Just get everyone to share their 2 ideas and then it’s the next person’s turn. One person writes everybody’s ideas on a (virtual) whiteboard.

4. Vote

Set the timer for five minutes. Each person chooses a favorite from the ideas on the whiteboard. Individually. Quietly. Everyone writes their vote down. Writing down your vote privately ensures that you won’t be swayed by other people’s opinions.

5. Share and display the votes

One at a time, each person shares what they voted for. A short sales pitch may be permissible, but no one is allowed to change their vote. Each person must say what they wrote. Capture the votes on the whiteboard using dots or stars next to the ideas. Everyone has had the opportunity to share their opinion and feel heard, which helps to build employee engagement.

6. Make a decision

One person is named accountable for making the final decision. Usually, that person is the team leader. In the event of a tie between options, the leader can cast a deciding vote. They may even choose to ignore the voting altogether. Consensus is nice, but business leadership is not a democracy.

The leader’s decision is final, and no dissension or undermining of the leader’s decision is tolerated after the fact. Everyone must leave the meeting as full supporters of the decision, and be willing to play their part to carry it out. We call this approach “Disagree, then commit”.

Making the brainwriting process “virtual” and online adds the following benefits:

  • Allows for larger numbers of people to participate
  • Saves costs by allowing people to join the discussion remotely from dispersed locations
  • Increases the number and diversity of ideas
  • Reduces the tendency for louder, extroverted personalities to dominate
  • Reduces peer pressure to conform
  • Ideas are judged more objectively vs. being driven by HIPPOs (highest paid person’s opinion)

Virtual Quarterly Strategic Review.

As part of my strategic plan facilitations, I conduct many virtual Quarterly Strategic Reviews with globally dispersed teams. My process requires everyone in a nominated group to complete an “After Action Review” exercise at least 7 days prior to the quarterly strategy session to answer questions:

On each of their Metrics and Strategic Projects for the previous quarter:

  • What was the goal?
  • What actually happened?
  • What went well?
  • What could be improved?

On the current company Strategy:

  • What do we need to: Start doing? Keep doing? Stop doing?
  • What lessons did we learn last quarter?
  • What progress have we made toward our BHAG?
  • 3 to 5 Year Strategic Moves – what progress have we made, and are they still the right moves?
  • SWOT Analysis – what has changed our current reality in the last 90 days since we last updated our SWOT?
  • What do you recommend should be the top 3 Strategic Projects for the coming quarter?

I send nominated staff an online survey that contains these and other questions. Each participant completes the survey exercises individually and asynchronously in their own time zone. I then collate the responses into a report where all the responses can be viewed, but the author is not identified, and send these reports to the group. This way people get exposed to everyone’s perspectives prior to the planning date, and can arrive ready to debate the issues and make decisions when we meet for the strategic planning session.

Here are some of the benefits:

  • The pre-work engages a broad group of people and gets them thinking strategically
  • Key issues are documented and contemplated prior to the planning session
  • Leaders get a broad understanding of the issues from other people’s points of view
  • Leaders are better equipped to debate, prioritize and agree on the strategic projects for the coming quarter
  • Staff are more likely to buy into decisions made by the planning team because they had the opportunity to contribute their ideas to the process 

How could you incorporate some of these lessons into your brainstorming/brainwriting sessions, or better yet, into your quarterly strategic planning cycle?


Until next time…