How To Use AI-Assisted Brainstorming To Boost Innovation in Remote Work

Have you seen the new study in Nature that “conclusively proves” remote work harms innovation and creativity?

That study echoes anecdotes by leaders such as Sallie Krawcheck, CEO of Ellevest, who claimed remote work made her employees more productive but less innovative, and Sam Altman, two-time CEO of Open AI, who said that remote work undermined creativity for startups.

The narrative that traditional, in-person work environments are the sole breeding grounds for innovation and collaborative breakthroughs has dominated the discourse. In reality, this narrative is not only outdated but fundamentally flawed in the context of our modern, technologically-driven world.

Unveiling the Facts: A Study on Innovation in Remote Work

The study published in Nature examined over 20 million scientific studies and 4 million patents over 50 years, highlighting the traditional view that physical proximity enhances innovation. However, this perspective began to shift dramatically after 2010, thanks to technological advancements that facilitated remote collaboration.

Carl Frey, one of the original authors of the Nature paper, and Giorgio Presidente from Oxford conducted a follow-up study. It revealed that post-2010, tools like Trello, Zoom, and Slack bridged the gap in remote collaboration, leading to a significant reduction in the innovation deficit previously observed in remote teams.

In the 1980s, remote teams were 5 percent less innovative than their in-person counterparts, but the gap narrowed to 1 percent by 2010. Surprisingly, after 2015, the trend reversed, with remote teams not only catching up but also leading in innovation.

Studies underscore the crucial role played by robust internet connectivity in enabling and enhancing remote collaboration. Specifically, teams whose members had better broadband connectivity experienced improved outcomes on innovation. That evidence further supports the idea that refinements in remote work tech tools — enabled by fast broadband — offer the key to improved innovation.

New Techniques Improve Innovation in Remote Work

Here’s a critical aspect to consider: Scientists in the study used old-school, traditional techniques for innovation. We now have access to far more advanced techniques for innovation in remote and hybrid settings, such as a technique I developed to help clients better adapt to hybrid and remote work called virtual asynchronous brainstorming.

This process starts with selecting digital collaboration tools. Google Forms, ideal for anonymous text-based idea submission, and MURAL, a virtual whiteboard suitable for visual brainstorming, stand out as prime examples.

Encouraging team members to generate ideas independently before the session can lead to a more diverse array of thoughts and perspectives. In real-time sessions, allotting 10-15 minutes for individual idea contribution proves beneficial. For asynchronous brainstorming, setting a clear deadline for idea submission is crucial.

After generating ideas, the team evaluates and shares feedback on the ideas. Anonymous methods for commenting, rating, or voting foster an unbiased assessment based on criteria like novelty, practicality, and usefulness.

The process culminates in a discussion and finalization phase. Implementing the selected ideas and assigning follow-up tasks ensures that the brainstorming session translates into actionable projects.

Virtual brainstorming’s key strengths include its inclusivity, its capacity to elicit a wide range of ideas, and its flexibility. It accommodates different personality types, fosters diverse ideas by removing social pressures, and offers participants the freedom to contribute at their own pace, particularly in asynchronous formats.

Use AI-Assisted Brainstorming to Enhance Innovation

The 2010s saw collaboration technologies that improved innovation in remote work, but the 2020s will feature a whole new arena of technology-boosting innovation. I teach clients how to integrate generative AI into the creative process. For example, GPT-4 beat 91 percent of humans on a variation of the Alternative Uses Test and scored over 99 percent in the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking.

My clients find that an AI-driven strategy not only matches but often exceeds traditional levels of innovation, catalyzing fresh, groundbreaking ideas and fostering an environment where creativity thrives, unbound by the constraints of physical collaboration.

Generative AI revolutionizes the brainstorming process, suggesting ideas, offering data-driven insights, and playing devil’s advocate. This integration leads to more diverse and comprehensive ideation, pushing beyond conventional boundaries. Specifically, the technique I developed for my clients leverages generative AI for individual idea generation, enhancing remote creativity and reducing reliance on traditional in-person collaboration.

Here’s how AI-assisted brainstorming works:

  • Initial idea generation: Individuals input a basic concept or problem statement into a generative AI tool, which then generates a range of ideas, perspectives, and solutions. This helps explore various angles that might be overlooked in conventional brainstorming.
  • Refining and evaluating ideas: AI evaluates the generated ideas for potential impact, feasibility, and market readiness, helping to shortlist the most promising ideas for team discussion.
  • Enhancing creativity with AI-assisted tools: AI-assisted design tools, predictive analytics, and simulation software further develop and visualize ideas, adding depth and clarity.
  • Collaborative integration: Individuals bring these AI-enhanced ideas to their team, ensuring that the discussions are focused on well-thought-out, data-backed, and innovative concepts. These meetings work well remotely or in-person, but I encourage hybrid teams to meet in person if possible for this stage.
  • Continuous feedback loop: Feedback and insights from team discussions are fed back into the AI system, creating a cycle of continuous improvement and innovation.

The profound impact of AI integration led to strategic changes in business operations. A notable example is one client company — a late-stage tech startup — which found its workers were more productive after going remote during the pandemic but struggled with innovation. By adopting this technique, the company boosted its innovation to pre-pandemic levels and made the tough decision to release its US$1.2 million annual office lease, reallocating the funds to research and development, marketing, and further AI integration.

Rethinking Remote Work: A Paradigm Shift

The implications of these findings are profound for businesses, especially in fast-paced industries like technology, where staying ahead of the curve is crucial. The traditional biased belief that innovation is geographically bound to office spaces is being challenged by empirical evidence.

Remote work, when supported by the right technology and infrastructure, is not just a viable alternative to in-person collaboration; it’s a superior one.

Contributed to EO by Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, who helps leaders use hybrid work to improve retention and productivity while cutting costs. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy, Disaster Avoidance Experts. He is the best-selling author of seven books, including his newest book, Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox.

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Categories: Best Practices INNOVATION OPERATIONS Technology


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