Over the past 25 years, I have run hundreds of brainstorming workshops for high-performing teams. My sessions are often part of larger strategy and innovation initiatives. But all sessions are focused on the same thing: generate, prioritize, and develop great ideas to create a big impact. Though I'm no longer jetting off each week to lead face-to-face sessions, I'm now sitting behind my screen leading programs with teams dispersed across home offices from around the world.

Ideas aren't innovations in themselves. Innovation happens when ideas are implemented and add real value for customers. The problem is that most brainstorming sessions stop with a big list of ideas. The most effective teams prioritize the best ideas and create action plans that move the most powerful opportunities forward. While this critical fact has always been true, it's even more important in a virtual world, where accountability and focus can easily cease the moment people click "end meeting" and webcams turn off.

There are many collaborative tools out there for generating ideas. I'm not going to write them here. Why? Because successful brainstorms aren't about technology at all. Sure, you need to have tools to list, theme, and prioritize ideas. Finding an online tool is the easy part. The "hard" stuff is actually the "soft" stuff -- setting the right environment and tone that gives everyone the mindset, motivation, and focus to work together in new and creative ways online.

That said, here are the success factors.

1. Get focused.

In a single sentence, describe the challenge, problem, or topic of your brainstorm. Consider statements that start out like: "How can we ...," "What if we ...," and "How do we ..."

2. Define idea categories.

Identify categories for your ideas before you start. Place ideas into these categories as you go. Consider categories like: products, services, processes, business models, and customer experiences.

3. Create prioritization criteria.

Once you have a bunch of ideas, get clear on the criteria you'll use to prioritize. Share criteria and then vote on the best ideas using it. Consider criteria like:

  • feasibility (easy to hard)
  • impact (low to high)
  • customer Value (low to high)
  • return on Investment (low to high)

4. Confirm ground rules.

Be sure everyone understands the norms for the brainstorm. Consider ground rules such as deferring judgment until it's time to prioritize ideas, or aiming for quantity or creativity of ideas. Or you could ask that participants build on one another's ideas when they're shared.

5. Create implementation teams.

After you generate and select your top ideas, choose a pair-team to "own" the implementation of them. Pairing people up creates a sense of shared accountability and commitment. Set a timeline and due date for results. Provide support along the way through regular check-ins.

Ideas themselves are a dime a dozen. Ideas that get implemented are worth their weight in gold. That fact doesn't change in a virtual world.