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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

7 Tips for Running a Successful Team Brainstorm—Even When Everyone's Remote

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I’m a user researcher, so brainstorms are the bread and butter of my discipline. A brainstorm helps teams to gather wild and inventive ideas to imagine the future of our products. Or it can help participants step back from a thorny situation and chart a path forward.

Whether you’re brainstorming something as specific and targeted as what set of features a product you’re designing must include, something as strategic as how to build more inclusive working environments, or something as timely as how to adapt your team’s workflow to a remote-only setup, brainstorms can help.

But with many of us working from home for the foreseeable future, the classic brainstorm structure needs adjusting. We no longer have the luxury of jamming on ideas in a room together, whiteboarding side-by-side, or gathering thoughts on sticky notes and mapping them out in real time. And unfortunately, it can be very easy to tune out when brainstorms go virtual, whether because of distractions in your immediate environment (hello babies, dogs, spouses, and grandparents!), or simply because you’re (understandably) Zoom-fatigued.

Luckily, brainstorms are very adaptable to a remote environment. We can keep some of a live brainstorm’s basic building blocks in play, and add the necessary “twist” to keep things engaging and video-call friendly.

Here are seven tips for running an effective brainstorm over video conference:

Nail the Scope

Just as you would for an in-person brainstorm, you’ll need to define your scope clearly. When running a remote session, the stakes are even higher: Every minute really needs to count when you’re on a video call because we can easily become fatigued sitting in front of a screen or succumb to the various Slack messages, GChats, and email pings that come in at the same time.

To do this, make sure you can:

Articulate the Why

Why this brainstorm and why now? What is your goal and what is your intended outcome? A good gut check for this is to ensure this is a topic that merits multiple voices together in the same room. So ask yourself: Is the discussion a nuanced one? Will you need to get stakeholders aligned? Are you striving toward an actionable set of next steps? If the answer to any of these questions is no, you risk wasting others’ time for something that could have been done over email or asynchronously.

Remote brainstorms are particularly effective for thorny topics that could be difficult to articulate in an email thread (such as conversations about inclusion), for challenges that require alignment (such as getting several execs in one room to debate an issue, rather than getting input one by one), or for projects that are blocked and need action to move them forward (such as deciding on a set of features to build next).

If, on the other hand, you are looking for a simple thumbs up or thumbs down or straightforward feedback to move forward, a brainstorm may not be the best fit. Being clear on your intended output (a decision, a set of ideas to try, etc.) will also help you inform how you design the brainstorm later on.

Choose Participants Carefully

Stick to essential participants only—a bloated brainstorm can be a nightmare to manage, especially over video call, when the more people who chime in, the more people are inadvertently interrupted, the more repetition of points is involved, and the more time is lost. (“Sorry, what did you say?” “Oops, no you go first! OK, I’ll go first? Sorry, you go first!”) When you’re coming up with your short list, consider when you’ll need input from certain people like decision-makers, influencers, or subject matter experts.

Keep It Short 

Stick to an hour max—anything beyond that and people are likely to get bored or distracted or to drop off to address competing priorities. If you have a topic that is too large for an hour, this is your chance to ruthlessly prioritize and reconsider whether all of it must be discussed as a group, or whether some of it can be punted to asynchronous channels. If a topic is really, truly necessary to cover as a group and an hour won’t cut it, consider hosting several brainstorms over the course of a few days to get through it, but this should be a last resort.

Prep Your Participants

Whether you’re hosting a brainstorm in person or remotely, you always want to be sure your participants have enough information to be productive in the meeting. Tell them what’s expected of them in advance so they know how to prepare and show up to make the most of your time together. That could include things like the flow for the session, the goals of the brainstorm, and what role you’re hoping they’ll play.

Specifically for remote sessions, I also recommend giving participants a heads up on what tools or resources they’ll need. So if you plan to be in Google Slides, make sure everyone has an account up and running. If you’re introducing a new tool, ask them to set it up in advance. In fact, you might even consider assigning pre-work using the same tools you’ll employ during your session to ensure everyone has access and can independently navigate the documents and resources you’ll be using.

Some examples of pre-work that can help include:

  • Sending over pre-reads to eliminate context-setting that might work in a live meeting but that can feel like a slog over video calls. Use a tool like Google Docs where you can check who has accessed your doc in advance and who might need extra support or prodding.
  • Ask participants to input a simple response into a shared document, such as a spreadsheet or set of slides, where you plan to gather responses during your session. Choose a question that can inform your session and is easy enough for participants to drop in there on their own time.
  • Ask participants to drop their questions into a shared doc. You can use this information to inform your session in addition to making sure your team is set up with the tools for remote brainstorming.

Keep Them Engaged

When the time comes for your session, stick to your agenda and do your best to keep things moving along. You’ll need to bring extra excitement to get over the distance created by screens! Ask participants to keep their webcams on and mics off except when speaking—this helps everyone feel like part of a shared experience, without creating unnecessary chaos. Many video conference tools, like Zoom and Google Meet, offer gallery and grid views where you can see all participants at once to help you track where energy might be flagging and keep the broader group engaged.

In addition, you’ll want to keep things interactive. Assign roles to members of the group so that everyone has a stake in the game. For instance, ask someone to help you with note-taking, someone else to run point on any tech troubleshooting, and someone else to play timekeeper. (Just make sure the same “housework” tasks don’t fall to the same people every time.) This helps you run the session more effectively and keeps others busy.

Lastly, I recommend “planting” an ally or two to help break the ice and get the conversation rolling. Remember, the energy in the “room” is quite different when we’re remote, so it can be helpful to encourage a few teammates to lead the way and model great participation from the start.

Make It Easy for Others to Collaborate

When it comes time to generate ideas, there are a few things you can do to make collaboration—even if it’s remote—feel easy. For instance, prepare a screen with brainstorm prompts for everyone to refer to as necessary. If you don’t want to leave this up for participants the whole time, because you’d like everyone to see each other’s faces, you can share the document with participants and use page numbers to point them to what you want them to concentrate on at any given moment.

Consider also using breakout groups to discuss prompts and generate ideas rather than staying in one large group the whole time. If you go this route, you’ll want to assign a facilitator for each “room” to manage the conversation and ideas generated.

Leverage Digital Tools to Capture Input

The tools you use for brainstorming sessions don’t need to be fancy. Yes, there’s Figma, a brainstorming tool, but there’s also Google Sheets. You can use digital tools to have participants add ideas, vote on ideas (emoji are great for this), group similar ideas, and more. The important part is to be able to share your screen or your file and for everyone to be able to edit at once to input their ideas.

Keep in mind that you’ll want everyone to have their own place to input—prep your document in advance by assigning each participant a specific space to jot down their thoughts, whether it’s a row in Excel, a set of digital post-its in Figma, or even their own slide in Google Slides. The goal is to avoid everyone’s cursors interrupting one another.

Don’t Try to Synthesize Live

Of course you eventually want to make sense of everyone’s input and start to group their ideas to make them actionable. This technique is effective in person, but over video it can just feel like a waste of time. Instead, acknowledge any patterns or trends you’re seeing but save the in-depth analysis for later, when you’re on your own. Plan to share out results in a wrap-up doc, deck, or even Slack message depending on your company culture. This will be much more efficient for you and your team.

Wrap Up

As your time together draws to a close, you can take a few simple steps to wrap things up. For instance, before you part, ask participants to send over any assets or ideas not captured in your shared doc so you can ensure they are part of your synthesis process. Finalize next steps and assign owners for accountability as a group.

After the session, send a brief recap of what you learned and don’t forget to thank your team for participating. It takes a lot to generate ideas these days, especially remotely, so everyone deserves a round of applause. And, especially if this was your first remote brainstorm, you may also want to solicit feedback on how it went—there’s always room for improvement!